Forgotten Beers of the Modern Era: Booze in First Half of 20th Century UK

Watney’s Red Barrel, Coopes Long Life, Charrington Pale Ale, Whitbread Stout. These names might not mean much to you, young whippersnapper, but there was once an (unimaginable) time when you couldn’t just pop down to your local supermarket and sample cold beers from all over the globe. So come and marvel at our short of history of British beer drinking in the early 20th century!

1920s

During the 1920s, Mild Ale on draught was the beer of choice for British drinkers. Bitters were not as widely available and were more expensive. Bottled beers were expensive to produce, limiting supply. Canned beers were still not invented.

During this decade, the strength of beer steadily declined too. In 1900, an average stout would have been about 10% ABV. However, by the end the 1940s this had declined to less than 5%. This was mostly due to the societal and governmental pressures of the Temperance Movement which started in the Victorian Era. However, these restrictions were not applied as heavily in Ireland and Guinness continued to sell well in the UK with its stronger bitters.

1930s

Watney’s Red Barrel started its nearly 40-year reign as one of the most consumed beers in the country during this time. They were among the first to develop a carbonated keg system for delivery to pubs, allowing longer storage and easier access compared to cask beers. By 1939, improved bottling technology meant that bottled beers were surging up in the market – accounting for about 30% of sales in that year. Despite the efforts of European lager brewers however, Mild or Pale Ales still remained the tipple of choice for your typical Brit in this period.

1940s

Like most other aspects of British life in this time, World War II left a big mark on the beer industry. Paper shortages and rationing meant bottled beer was sold without labels and pubs were often closed early after using up their weekly allowances of beer. However, the powers that be deemed booze, and public houses, to be an important morale booster and thus were fairly generous with the rationing compared to many other luxury items.

After the war, canned beer began to arrive in the UK – first imported by Americans and then adopted by British companies. One of the first examples was Coopes Long Life, obviously marketed for its longevity over taste. However, bottled beer remained the most popular.

1950s

By the mid-1950s bottled beer accounted for nearly 40% of the market. Lager brewers from Europe, such as Heineken, were aggressively targeting the British customer. But strangely, lager had developed a bit of a stigma as a woman’s drink. Having grown accustomed to visiting the pub with their husbands during the war, Rosie the Riveter did not want to go directly back to the kitchen afterwards. But neither did many British women want to be seen swigging a pint of ale either, so the much-maligned lagers became associated with women – who would often sip it from a glass accompanied by a lime.

However, by the 1960s a post-war youth culture who had travelled more around Europe began to appreciate the nonconformist taste of difference that lager offered. And thus, a very British love affair was born!