Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Gravities of Today

Life must have been odd for those of drinking age in the period 1910 to 1920. The sudden drop in beer strength must have been a shock. I would have expected drinkers to be a bit miffed by the lack of umph in their beer. 

But it seems that many younger drinkers actually preferred weaker beer. I'd have been in the old fart camp. Much as I am today, I suppose.

Thirty or forty years ago the average gravity of beer was somewhere about 1,060 deg. Just prior to the war that average was about 1,053 deg. To day it certainly does not exceed 1,040 deg. to 1,045 deg.

Tempora mutantur, the times change and we indeed change with them. Yet the love of English folk for good English beer is a hereditary thing: and custom is a powerful force in English life. We heartily dislike changes of any kind. Nevertheless, paradoxically enough, once we get used to a change there is a fair chance that we may not think so badly of it. There is justification for the old Yorkshire saying that "there's nowt so queer as folk."

It has been an open question in many quarters whether a probationary period of five years would so accustom people to light beers that they would feel no great desire as a nation to go back to pre war gravities. During these years we have listened to a lot of preaching, ranging from the tenets of the decoction enthusiast, who has put forward his own prescription (and a very good one, too) to enable us to drink lustily, yet wisely, and not too well, to those of Mr. "Pussyfoot" Johnson who would allow us no malt beverages at all. To day, so far as the writer ran obtain reliable information, the country is bored to extremity with all of it. And one of the things most worth living for, to a good many of us, is to get back to something like the beer of pre-war days.

The general acceptance of the position is that the workingman (and we are all workers these days) demands heavier beer at a cheaper price. So long as the duty remains at its present high figure we cannot hope for the latter alleviation. But, with the gradual reduction in cost of materials and working charges, the brewer is, and will in due course be in a better position to do something towards granting the former, It is for the public to understand clearly that, for the present, it cannot have it both ways, considerably heavier and cheaper - the penny and the toffee, too. It must be satisfied meantime with the possibility of the Trade being able to add a few degrees of gravity to the commoner qualities of milds and bitters, and with the recent re-introduction of strong ale, old ale, or, as the writer prefers to term it, liqueur beer. The idea of obtaining the best goods at the cheapest figure is a very common platitude indeed. The only person who can make the idea, so far as beer is concerned, into a workable scheme, approximating in some degree to pre-war ideas, is the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The use of malt beverages is an interesting psychological problem. We are perfectly safe in declaring that the tendency of the present generation is to prefer lighter beer than did their fathers and grandfathers, although it is equally certain that the ordinary beers at present brewed are considerably on the other extreme of excessive lightness. Since most of us cannot tackle the heavy gravities of our forefathers we are to assume that changed conditions of daily life are mostly responsible for the defection. But are these changes of the nature of a tougher struggle to live that absolutely prohibits men from habitually consuming a heavy beverage calculated to bring comfort and repose rather than the energy of increased working and driving power ? Or are we to come to the diametrically different conclusion that the stress of life does not nowadays bear so heavily upon us, inasmuch that we are better educated and civilised ? So that, being able to meet that stress in a more understandable spirit, we do not so greatly feel the strain and drooping spirits that used to send us for balm to the greater alleviative of heavier beers. If this be so, then the spread of education has indeed inculcated a truly remarkable tightening and self control of moral being. Carried to its logical end, in the matter of a thousand years we shall all be practically teetotallers! We shall possess a spirit that suffices for itself and for all the upsand downs of mortal life. And thus the heirs of Mr. Johnson of the pussyfoot will win in the end. Reductio ad absurdum ! And thus do we dispose of the mythical permanence of the exceedingly light, beers of the last few years. And thus do we buttress the public demand for something heavier.

The psychology of the thing seems to some extent to centre around Need and Desire. And between this Need and Desire frail mortality too often fails nicely to discriminate. It takes the strongest of us all at times to perceive the connection and the difference. Strong men and women normally realise no real need to indulge in intemperance : and so they conquer the desire. Their very vigour and abandonment in energy of work lead them to perceive that their case is not of Need, and therefore Desire is at best an utterly useless as well as a false thing. These find a glass of ale in midforenoon and a pint with luncheon helpful to the digestion, and generally brightening and supporting.

The question of digestion has perhaps much to do with the desire of the present generation for rather lower gravities than were acceptable by their fathers. Deficiency of digestive power enables some men to digest the smaller quantity and foodlcss quality of a nip of whisky more easily than a pint of strong beer, whilst their fathers, and still more their grandfathers, had power enough to digest a couple of pints of 1,060 deg. beer. It is a sign of the times. The speed pressure of modern life robs digestion of its best friend, a placid soul that views spaces of time but as milestones on the road to eternity. High pressure suggests the call for the tot of spirit stimulant by way of the medicine bottle, rather than the food plus the stimulant of beer. In time  we find, as is usually the case with a too free faith in everlasting medicine, that we cannot do without it.

And so we come at last to the real explanation of our desire to revert to the gravities of normal times. The natural digestion is recovering from the sickness induced by a period of war strain and abnormal conditions of life, and, with the renewed capacity for heavier beers, comes the cry for the sustenance and nourishment these afford. We want to get back to normal health of body and mind after such a period of mind-strain and low diet. It is a justifiable, logical and to-be-expected appeal from human nature and not to be denied."
Brewers Journal 1921, pages 529 - 530.

"Strong men and women normally realise no real need to indulge in intemperance". I guess that makes me weak.

Ah, the pace of this modern 1920's life. Robbing drinkers of the time to digest a proper strength beer. I blame automobiles, cinema and telephones.


Ed said...

Who was 'pussyfoot' johnson?

Ron Pattinson said...

Ed, an American temperance lunatic.

Barm said...

Judging by some of the letters that appear in What's Brewing nowadays, there is similar discontent among older drinkers who see their beloved old-school bitters being displaced by the trendy pale-n-hoppy beers in pubs.