I was gratified recently to find that my uncle, John Alldridge, occasionally took time off in the 1940s from reporting World War II and its aftermath to concentrate on more important matters, as can be seen in this article for the Manchester Evening News from October 4, 1946 – Jerry F
“The English,” reported an old French chronicler, “suffer much from Melancholie, which they do dispel by much drinking of strong ale.” He was writing not long after the Battle of Hastings, when King Harold’s army went into action, literally, fighting drunk on a fearsome brew called “meth,” which seems to have been a very potent sweet beer.
Our forefathers had great capacity and strong heads. Beer was cheap – in 1250 a four-gallon cask sold for a penny. And it could be uncommonly strong. When Dover was besieged by the French in the 14th century the garrison sent out an urgent call for 260 quarters of malt “sufficient to brew 520 gallons of beer a day for 40 days.” This works out as very strong beer indeed, with a specific gravity of about 1,100, or the equivalent of the strongest bottled beer brewed today. The French, incidentally, were repelled
The Old Days
You had to be a good drinking man to drink with Piers Plowman, whose “Gluttony” could drink a gallon and a gill before feeling the heat of the room. And in 1650 a population of five millions managed to drink between them 13 million barrels of beer in one year.
In 1852 the annual consumption of beer per head of the population of Great Britain averaged 21.9 gallons. For his dozen bottles of best Dublin porter my great-grandfather paid two shillings and ninepence. He was not drinking so much wine as his port-loving father. But the average was still a little more than a quart of wine per head. And a dozen of sherry cost only 18s.
By 1900 beer drinking had become properly organised. Including every man, woman and child in the country, and allowing for no abstainers, the average annual consumption that year was up to 32.2 gallons.
About this time brewers began to take a serious interest in something called specific gravity – that is the ratio between the density of beer and the density of water, where water is assumed to be 1,000. It is the specific gravity of beer which makes beer-drinking interesting. In 1914, when my father joined the Army and took his first drink – a half-pint of “fourpenny” which cost him twopence – the specific gravity of the standard barrel was 1052.8 (a figure arrived at by taking an average of all beers brewed.)
The 1914 Brew
My father grows nostalgic when he talks about that 1914 brew. “It had body,” he says. It certainly had. To the brewing of 36 million barrels of beer that year went 20 million hundredweights of malt, 35,000 hundredweights of unmalted corn, 559,000 hundredweights of hops. And – most important – three million hundredweights of sugar.
In 1944 brewers, producing 32 million barrels, did their best with only 10½ million hundredweights of malt, 243,000 hundredweight of hops, and a bare million and a half hundredweights of sugar.
There never has been another year for beer like 1914. From that year beer consumption began to decline steadily, and the gravity of the standard barrel dropped with it. In 1919 beer, with a gravity of 1020 and known as Government Ale, was selling at 2d a pint.
In 1920 the average consumption was 23½ gallons of beer, two quarts of spirit, and three pints of wine and the specific gravity of the standard barrel was down to 1039.4.
In the years between the wars the decline continued. Depression and increasing prices brought about by mounting taxation (Philip Snowden in 1931 taxed beer at 114s. a barrel – it was 7s 9d. in 1914) dropped the average consumption to its lowest recorded figure of 12.9 gallons in 1932. And the specific gravity of the standard barrel that year was 1041.
In 1939 – a year of tension – the English dispelled their “melancholie” by drinking 17.7 gallons of beer per head, nearly two quarts of wine, and just over a pint of spirits. The standard specific gravity that year was 1040.
Today, though drinking is moderated to some extent by a beer shortage, more people in Britain are drinking beer than at any time since the beginning of the century. But they drink in pints where their grandfathers drank in quarts.
Landlords and barmaids give three reasons for this – returning ex-servicemen who have acquired a taste for beer while serving; the increasing number of women (formerly not large beer drinkers) who now drink beer instead of expensive “short” drinks; confirmed spirit drinkers who are now drinking beer because spirits are in short supply or are too expensive (four-fifths of a pint of spirits drunk per head in 1945).
But there is less drunkenness today (23,000 convictions in 1944) than there were in the worst war years (40,000 in 1941). And the beer is getting still weaker. The standard barrel had a gravity of 1034.5 last year. And in August this year some beers became as weak as 1030 – which is weaker than the best pre-war continental lager (1044) and not so very far removed from the gravity – 1016 – when beer ceases to be alcoholic and is merely “near beer”.
Text and Image:
The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)
The British Library Board
© Reach PLC
Jerry F 2022