In comments over at Ron’s, John Clarke raises an interesting point:
The usual narrative is that US soldiers stationed in the UK during the war found our beer “warm” because they compared it to what they were used to back home. However given that many of them would be stationed in the country and visited rural pubs, it seems that the beer really would have been warm – especially those that stored the beer in the way described here and the moved it inside to be served on gravity, as I suspect many of them would have done at the time.
(“The way described here” refers to… no, I won’t spoil the shock for you. Read the whole thing.)
This got me thinking about the ‘warm beer’ trope. If you plug the phrase ‘warm beer’ (without quotes) into the Google Ngram Viewer, you can see several distinct periods. From a low point at the turn of the century, the frequency of the phrase creeps upwards through the 1910s, 20s and 30s, but it’s fairly low throughout. From Google Books we can see that, before 1941, the phrase ‘warm beer’ is used in several different contexts:
- Recipes for beer that’s warmed on the stove before drinking (what we’d now call ‘mulled beer’)
- Same as 1, but for medicinal or other household purposes (warm beer is good for cleaning oak furniture, apparently)
- First-person references to drinking bottled beer that hasn’t been kept cool, particularly in hot countries
- Occasional references to problems in serving draught beer, invariably from the point of view of the server
The last of these is interesting: serving beer that was warm when it hit the glass was recognised as something that might drive custom away as early as the 1930s, if not before. (In one article the tendency to end up with warm beer is cited as a reason for the limited takeup of kegging!)
What we don’t see is any reference to drinkers finding cask beer to be warm in the glass. This rapidly changes from 1941 onwards; there’s a steep climb on the Ngram Viewer’s chart, peaking in 1945. The frequency then drops back down, to settle at a higher level in the early 50s. It’s in 1941 that Google Books finds its first reference to ‘warm beer’ being the norm in Britain – and there’s only one in the whole year. In 1942 – with the arrival of GIs in Britain – the floodgates open. From 1942 to 1946 the references to warm beer are legion; it’s often mentioned together with tea, as typical features of the English landscape which American newcomers found baffling. Warm beer in this sense is referred to just as often as warm beer from bottles. Interestingly, a lot of these references are also from the point of view of soldiers on active service. Perhaps from a GI’s point of view there wasn’t much to choose between beer that had been kept in a hole in the ground in North Africa and beer from a quaint old English hand pump – they both met the same lowered expectations.
As I said above, the Ngram Viewer shows a lower frequency of references after the war; Google Books also goes a bit quiet. This surprised me – I was expecting George Orwell’s famous reference to warm beer to have had more of an impact. (More on that later.) The ‘warm English beer’ trope may have got going when the GIs came, but when they left it seems to have stopped again – or at least become dormant; after 1946 we’re back to the warm bottles and problems with inadequately chilled lines. It’s worth emphasising that this idea of warm beer as a problem, from the server’s point of view, is not at all the same thing as the idea of ‘warm beer’ being the norm. If anything it’s the opposite, as they show that English bar staff in the 1950s and 60s were worrying about their beer occasionally being too warm – just as they had done in the 1930s.
In about 1973 the Ngram chart line starts to climb again; it climbs and climbs until it plateaus at the start of the 90s. This may be partly in response to the rise of kegging, which by then was becoming ubiquitous; some sentimental souls may have seen warm beer as part of an England we had lost. My trawl in Google Books didn’t turn up any evidence to support this, however. What I did find was an association between ‘warm beer’ and another 1970s development: CAMRA, and the broader movement towards taking English beer styles seriously. Ironically, the ‘warm beer’ trope seems to have been given a boost by several people – not all of them called Protz – complaining about it, and pointing out painstakingly that cellar-temperature cask beer is not what anyone from south of the Arctic Circle would call ‘warm’.
Throughout the 1980s, if Google Books is to be trusted, references to warm bottled beer remained the main source of ‘warm beer’ quotations; the idea of the traditional warmness of English beer had taken hold to some extent, but it was still fighting it out with an equal number of grumpy (but well-informed) arguments to the contrary. In fact the idea of ‘warm beer’ as synonymous with Englishness doesn’t seem to take hold until much later. How much later? Well, certainly after 1993, when the then Prime Minister John Major told us that
Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist” and if we get our way – Shakespeare still read even in school. Britain will survive unamendable in all essentials.
Before we get back to the beer, it’s worth noting why it was that the PM felt the need to evoke an unchanging essence of Britishness. The answer is in the next (and concluding) paragraph of his speech:
Surely we trust our own integrity as a people quite enough to fear nothing in Europe. We are the British, a people freely living inside a Europe which is glad to see us and wants us. After 20 years we have come of age in Europe. One Conservative leader put us there. This Conservative leader means us to thrive there. So let’s get on with it.
For Major, in other words, a sentimental vision of an unchanging – even unchangeable – Britain was the counterweight to a commitment to remaining, and playing a bigger role, in the EU. One can think of worse causes for the British pint to be enlisted in. Be that as it may, it was surely this speech which launched the idea of warm beer as an inherent part of Britishness. And it’s worth noting that, unlike the GIs’ catalogues of British quaintness, Major wasn’t evoking Britishness as seen from outside: these were British tropes which we ourselves could be proud of, or mock ironically, or mock our own pride in, or be proud of mocking, or whatever. (Complicated business, being British.)
As for the Orwell quote, it comes from “The Lion and the Unicorn”, the (in)famous wartime essay in which he described Britain as “a family with the wrong members in charge”, and which is generally seen as a low-water mark in the radicalism of Orwell’s politics. So perhaps it’s not surprising to see him banging on about warm beer. Except that he didn’t – and, if you read the quotation, you’ll realise that Major didn’t even say that he did. All the guff about the eternal British verities of county cricket and pools forms was Major’s own invention (which was ironic, really, considering that Major’s own government was about to cut the legs from under the pools companies by bringing in the National Lottery). The same goes for the warm beer – and, in fact, the entire mistily harmonious message. Orwell’s own vision of England was a lot more hard-edged, and looks a lot more like a celebration of diversity and change:
When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?
But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.
Orwell gets a bit soggy and essentialist in the second paragraph – and the conclusion is a majestic piece of having your cake and eating it – but it’s striking that those old maids on their bikes are presented as an example of disharmony: they’re nothing like the Lancashire mill-workers or the kids playing pinball in Soho. And, more importantly (for this blog at least!), the beer isn’t characteristically warm – it’s bitter; in fact it’s bitterer than the beer in any foreign country! (He did like his statements sweeping, did Orwell; you start to notice it if you read his stuff long enough.)
As for the contemporary fortunes of the ‘warm beer’ trope, I’d like to be able to report that the phrase became a stock signifier of Englishness (or possibly Britishness) straight after Major’s speech. I’d like to, but both Google Books and the Ngram Viewer are telling me otherwise. The phrase climbs in frequency very gently between 1992 and 1996, then climbs much more steeply over the next eight years; it peaks in 2004 and then declines gently until 2008 (the Ngram Viewer’s cut-off point). Similarly, Google Books shows very little action for the rest of the 90s; there are at least as many references to beer recipes and to unpleasantly warm cans and bottles (generally in hot countries) as there are to the proverbial Britishness of warm beer. Something certainly happened to give the phrase more prominence some time in the late 1990s, but exactly what it was – and when it happened – is unclear. Interestingly, if we put other phrases from Major’s speech into the Ngram Viewer – phrases like ‘pools fillers’ and ‘old maids cycling’ (Orwell wrote ‘biking’) – we see a similar pattern: a rapid rise after 1994, a peak between 2000 and 2004, then decline. Perhaps it simply took time for Major’s imagery to work its way into print (a book called “Invincible Green Suburbs” was published in 1998). Perhaps it has something to do with ‘Cool Britannia’ (1997-8) – and in particular Tony Blair’s eagerness to jump that wave when he became Prime Minister in the middle of it; perhaps the TV programme “I Love 1993” (broadcast in September 2001) would be worth checking out.
John Major didn’t invent the image of warm cask beer. It had been knocking around the national consciousness ever since 1942; thirty years after that, the image had been given greater salience both by the rise of keg and, paradoxically, by the efforts of cask devotees to debunk it. (You can’t say “it’s not true that cask beer is served warm” without saying the words “cask beer is served warm”!) But the prominence that the image has enjoyed recently is just that, recent. Before Major (and before Cool Britannia), “warm cask beer” was a sneer and a debating point. It took a controversial speech by an unpopular Prime Minister to turn it into a popular image of a British tradition. Like many imagined traditions, this one is barely old enough to drink.
Update (8th March) This conclusion needs a bit of qualification. As commenters have pointed out, ‘warm beer’ jokes abound in Goscinny & Uderzo’s Astérix chez les Bretons – written in 1965 and translated as Asterix in Britain in 1970. Further Googling for the phrase “as British as warm beer” finds multiple occurrences in the late 1990s and after – as we’d expect – but also one from 1986 and one from 1965; unlike those in the Asterix book, these don’t appear to have been written by outsiders looking in. So perhaps the ‘warm beer’ trope had a bit more of a hold before 1993 than I gave it credit for. I’d still maintain that Major’s speech gave it, at the very least, a big push towards the prominence it now has.