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My regular haunt as a boy was a pub called The Owl (see Figure 0.1). I was not yet 17, and the legal drinking age in England was (and still is) 18. Friday evenings. One or two pints of Walker’s Best Bitter.1 A bag of crisps (a.k.a. chips) with a tiny blue bag of salt in every pack.2 And Woodbine cigarettes, of which perhaps three or four would tremble on my lips. I would observe the comings and goings, mostly of the male gender (women then, as now, pleased my eyes more, but in those days they were heavily outnumbered in the pub). Many of the men were tough-as-teak workers, some clad in clogs, leaning against the bar, throwing darts, or rattling dominoes as they took their accustomed places in the dusty oaken furniture solidly set on rustic flooring. No television, no piped music. The food was restricted to pickled eggs, crisps, scratchings,3 and perhaps the offerings from the basket of the fish man who did his rounds of the pubs, with his cockles, whelks, and mussels.4 He jockeyed for position with the bonneted Sally Army woman and her War Cry.5
Arthur Koestler6 wrote, “When all is said, its atmosphere (England’s) still contains fewer germs of aggression and brutality per cubic foot in a crowded bus, pub or queue than in any other country in which I have lived.” Not once in the pubs of 1960s Lancashire did I witness anything to contradict this truth.
Who were these men, in their flat caps and overalls, or their simple and well-worn woolen suits? What unfolded in their lives? Were they drinking away their babies’ or teenagers’ futures, or were they rather savoring precious moments of content amidst the harsh cruelty of their labors? Were they stoking the fire of violence that would afterwards roar through the family home or were they merely rejoicing in bonds of brotherhood with others who knew only too well the rocky roads and unforgiving fields that each of them traversed as laborers and farmers, bricklayers, and quarrymen? This was no less their sanctuary than St Thomas’s church7 or Central Park, the home of nearby Wigan’s prestigious Rugby League team.8 This was oasis.
And in their glasses would be English ales, nary a lager in sight. Pints (seldom halves) of bitter or mild.9 The occasional bottle of Jubilee or Mackeson.10 Perhaps a Bass No. 1 or a Gold Label.11 Beers with depth and warmth and, yes, nutritional value to complement their impact on conviviality and thirst.
Wigan, immortalized by George Orwell in his Road to Wigan Pier,12 was a few pennies away on a Ribble13 bus. The pier was a landing stage by the Leeds-Liverpool canal, a place for goods to be offloaded, notably cotton for the mills of the grimy but glorious town. The folks lived in row upon row of small houses, all joined together in grey, damp blocks. Two rooms down and two up and a toilet a freezing trek away down the narrow back yard, with newspaper to clean oneself up and often no light to ensure a satisfactory result. Baths were taken in front of the coal fire in the living room, in a pecking order of father first, mother next, then the children. For those with coal-miner dads it was no treat to be the youngest offspring.
Was it then a wonder that the pub held appeal? Warm, cozy, buzzing with camaraderie and escape.
In England today, pubs are shuttering their doors at a rate of 52 every week. I blame Thatcher, whose ill-judged Beer Laws of the late 1980s led to revered brewers like Bass and Whitbread and Watney selling their breweries to focus on serving the brews of others in spruced-up pubs that are now more restaurant and sports bar than back street boozer. Cleaner, smarter, livelier? Sure. But do they have heart or soul? Yes, they are smoke-free zones,14 but there are as many folks on the sidewalk outside, spilling into the roadway and littering the pavement with butts and spittle.
Perhaps it is small wonder that many choose no longer to head to the pub and prefer to stay in front of their 70-inch surround-sound televisions, chugging on canned lager bought at fiercely competitive rates from a supermarket chain that commands one in every seven pounds of disposable income in the British Isles and which squeezes the remaining UK brewers to the measliest of margins as they entice the shopper to become solitary suppers of beers with names very different from those of yore.
Beers from breweries like the multinational behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev, which commands nearly 25 percent of the world’s beer market, more than twice as much as the nearest competitor, South African Breweries-Miller. Stella Artois, Budweiser, Becks: all brands owned by the biggest of breweries. Excellent beers, of course, but at what risk to other smaller traditional labels?
The world of beer is hugely different from that I first glimpsed as a too young drinker close to the dark satanic mills15 of my native Northern England. Has beer, I wonder, lost its soul?
Or is it, rather, me that is the dinosaur? Is the enormous consolidation that has been the hallmark of the world’s brewing industry for decades nothing more than business evolution writ large as survival of the fittest? Do the beers that folks enjoy today—and the latter day “near beer” which is the malternative (think Smirnoff Ice)—speak to a new age of Kindle, Facebook, and fast food?
In truth, there remains much for this hoary old traditionalist to delight in: the burgeoning craft beer sector in his new motherland, the United States. A growing global realization that beer, rather than wine, is the ideal accompaniment to foods of all types and (whisper it) is actually good for you, in moderation.
All is not lost in the world of beer. Let’s go there.
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