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From the NS archive: Beer, inglorious beer

13 March 1970: Time to call last orders on the pub system.

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By 1970 Britain’s licensing laws seemed woefully out of date. Opening and closing times were nonsensical when consumers could buy alcohol at any time of the day in shops. As the writers of this piece put it: “People who want to get drunk badly enough will find a way. People who merely want a drink should be able to have it.” And the pub system itself was equally out of kilter, with five brewery concerns controlling “more than 42,000 of the 68,000” licensed premises in the country. This meant that they monopolised the sales of beer and spirits, offering only their own brands. Any ale fancier wanting a local pint would have a difficult search. It was, said the authors, time to call last orders on the system.

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Gibberellic acid, you may think, is the sort of nonsense talked by fuddled and angry habitués when their cosy local is “done over” into a discosteak or other portmanteau modern convenience. It could be a symbol of change for the could-be-better in the trade. Have you ever seen a more inefficient method of distribution than having all the satisfied customers lined up, pints in hand, backs to the dissatisfied, out of reach of the host’s eye let alone his heart? No wonder they call it a bar.

Seriously, though, it is possible to get a drink in a pub full of regulars; but a seat next to the fire (if any), a go at the darts or a second drink before time tend to be prizes available only to those possessing great dexterity and patience. No doubt the distinguished gentlemen who made up the group drawn from members of the Monopolies Commission that produced that report a year ago (it was called “Beer”) had also had their ups and downs in pubs. They were inclined, you remember, to extend drink licences to many more places, without bars, where mixed parties of all ages and tastes (not to mention thirsts) could enjoy themselves.

Mr Crosland, then president of the Board of Trade, promised to have a look at the whole situation. Now that he is no longer president we wonder if his successor feels bound to keep looking. As we are on the brink of Europe (or the Common Market, or whatever you like to call it), and notching up the biggest tourist figures ever and seeking even more, perhaps we should reconsider our outdated licensing laws (another Commission suggestion yet to be followed up). Would it actually lead to an outburst of alcoholism if people were able to buy a vermouth or a lager in the afternoon at one of our few open-air restaurants? Or would it simply mean that they need not wait, in the dreary tradition, for “opening time”?

The acid, by the way, is one of the many technological dodges by which the big breweries have increased their output without a proportionate increase in costs. This chemical, a Japanese discovery, was adopted in the British brewing industry in 1959, and has spread to all the major companies. It cuts the germination period of malt by two or three days, raises the extraction rate and reduces natural losses in the process, as well as speeding up fermentation. Together with mechanical malting, pasteurisation of “keg” beers, carbonation, pressurisation and the use of metal casks, it has contributed to the situation where the gloomier old ale-drinkers predict the disappearance of draught or cask beer, and the imminence of indistinguishable “keg” beers in every taproom.

You can’t blame the brewers. They need a system that demands progressively less skill in keeping and dispensing their beer, and that makes more use of their expensive capital equipment at the brewery. But it promises to make nonsense of connoisseurship among beer drinkers. As well declare that the Guinness is better in one pub than another. At the same time, it also makes nonsense of any pretension that pub-goers have a choice, unless they are unusually lucky. True, the National Federation of Licensed Victuallers, in their evidence to the Prices and Incomes Board last year, contended that “The public house does not sell beer”, a comment that should draw derisive agreement from the dwindling band of cask beer lovers, but was intended to introduce the idea that nowadays a pub is not just a swill.

The trouble is, as the Commission’s Report showed, that the licensed premises of Britain are, in Kefauver’s phrase, in a few hands. There are about 68,000 places where alcoholic drinks may be sold that are controlled in some way by brewery companies or groups, and only 13,500 that are independent, most of which are hotels and restaurants. Free houses are now so rare that they are insignificant. Five brewery concerns control more than 42,000 of the 68,000, and it is thought to be impracticable to abolish this state of affairs by statute or order, because too many of the properties involved would be unsaleable. Most of the current literature on the trade contends that profitability per pub is too low, but the big brewers do not appear to go in for rationalisation.

Without being sentimental about the virtual impossibility of ever again tasting a local brew in a local alehouse (we once did this years ago in Sutton Courtenay, and even then were alarmed at the cloudiness and strong flavour of the beer), which is one line of criticism but not of attack, would it not be an advantage to everyone but the brewers, and they know how to take care of themselves, to spread the licence privileges more broadly? Do we have to go on, in this increasingly permissive time, putting up with restrictions imposed generations ago?

A few years ago it became possible to buy alcoholic drinks at shops with off-licences at any hour of the day, instead of during arbitrarily stated hours. This move does not appear to have led to orgies of drunkenness, any more than the absence of restrictions at sea or in the air does. People who want to get drunk badly enough will find a way. People who merely want a drink should be able to have it. Closing time may be regarded as a quaint British custom by some foreign visitors; many find it bewildering and tiresome, especially when hours differ fractionally between districts in the same city.

If the brewers have their way, not only will the number of brewing licences and therefore the number of varieties of beer diminish even further, but users of their pubs will also be tied to their spirits (“own” brands, admittedly – another species of baffling product differentation), their soft drinks and their selection of wines – some of them, shall we say lacking authenticity. It would not be enough merely to wag a reproving finger at the brewers and say “thou shalt not”, because they will anyway. The best bet would be to give them some competition.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)