Here’s a piece wistful Lockdown reading (and nostalgia for some). Way back in the early years of CAMRA, Branches of the Campaign would carry out regular price surveys to keep a tab on those pubs that were offering beer at the best value for money. Of course, like now, going to the pub was not just about the price of a pint, it was about the whole rounded pub experience – friendship, company, fun and community. But in those days pubs did not have the fierce price competition from supermarkets that they endure today, many pubs still having their own off-licences. And taxation on beer was increasingly a major factor that contributed to the price of a pint. Beer prices were beginning to rise regularly with the big profit-orientated brewing companies seemingly working in tandem with the Chancellor to stunt the pocket of many a drinker. As well as the regular brewery price rises to cover “costs and inflation”, brewers would always add to whatever the Chancellor pronounced in his Budget to “maintain profit margins”. It has been an endless upward spiral since.
Forty years ago, in 1981, South Hertfordshire Branch carried out a survey the 25 pubs in Ware. At the time just 13 of them served cask-conditioned beer by handpump, most others still applying taste-destroying CO2 top pressure to their cask beers. Some of these 13 pubs are now gone – the Station Hotel, John Gilpin, Cannon Tavern. Others are familiar to this day. The Old Bull’s Head, Rifle Volunteer, Spread Eagle, Royal Oak, Windsor Castle (now the High Oak), Old Punch House, Old Rose and Crown and the New Rose and Crown (later renamed the Worppell and now the Maltings) all still offer a hand-pulled pint. There were almost no outlets for beers from outside of the tied house system, the town then dominated by McMullen’s, Ind Coope, (the company – part of Allied Breweries – also brewing beers badged as Benskin’s) and Greene King and hence their own-brewed beers. Ware was crying out for a Free House to widen the choice for town beer drinkers.
First prize overall went to the Cannon Tavern where a pint of Mac’s AK Mild would set you back a mere 48p. The cheapest McMullen Country Bitter was to be found nearby at the Rifle Volunteer, then a Mac’s tied house (now Greene King) – at 52p a pint. McMullen’s beers were generally cheaper in Ware than their larger competitors, a position mirrored across all of East Hertfordshire.
Ben’s Brasserie, occupying the former Star pub (now an Indian Restaurant), was best buy for Benskin’s Bitter at 52p a pint. The only outlet for Benskin’s Light Mild, a short-lived beer, was the Old Bull’s Head at 50p. The OBH was also the cheapest for Ind Coope Burton Ale at 60p. The Brewery Tap won the accolade for all Greene King beers with Abbot Ale at 58p per pint, IPA at 50p and KK Light Mild at 48p.
The survey’s summary said “Cheap beer doesn’t necessarily mean the best beer but in these hard times it is certainly a consideration when going out for a pint” – words that will chime with many a drinker today.
So, a couple of £1 notes and some copper would have set you up for 4 pints of bitter or mild and if you had a few more pence you could have lived like a lord with a pint of Burton Ale or Abbot Ale.
Now, there’s an old gag that goes “Eeee, when I was a lad you could go to Southend and back on the train, drink five pints of beer, eat a plate of whelks – all for a farthing – and still have change”. Going to Ware for an evening’s drink in 1981 got pretty close. At those prices I reckon it must be your round. Mine’s a pint!