Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Half and Half

Looking back on my recent visit to the Castle Inn at Chiddingstone the other week, when my friends and I met up with Bob Dockerty, from Larkins Brewery, I was reminded of a practice which was once common-place, but which I thought had virtually died out. In the pub, Bob was drinking a mix of his brewery’s Porter and Traditional Ale (Trad), which he referred to as “half and half”. We all gave this blend a go and had to admit it was rather good, combining the rich chocolaty notes of the Porter, with the refreshing hoppiness of the much weaker Trad. I also remember Larkins supplying this blend as a brewery mix to the Wheatsheaf pub at Marsh Green, near Edenbridge, a few years ago, where it was sold under the name “Wheatsheaf Wobble”. 
When I started drinking, some 40 years ago, it was quite common to see beers being drunk in “mixed form” in pubs. The most common blend was “light and bitter”, a drink that consisted of half a pint of ordinary bitter, with a bottle of light ale to top it up. Whilst this mix was fairly common in East Kent, where I grew up, it was always much more a London thing.

 The reasoning behind it's popularity was two-fold. First, back in the 50’s and 60’s, the quality of the draught (cask) beer in many pubs was rather variable, to say the least, so the addition of a bottle of light ale helped pep it up (it would certainly add condition to a draught beer that may perhaps have lost most of its own, and would to all intents and purposes be virtually flat). It may also have helped mask “off flavours” associated with poorly-kept cask beer. The second reason was a slightly crafty one on behalf of the drinker, in that before the advent of marked glasses, and metered pumps, many landlords would dispense slightly more than half a pint of draught beer meaning, that when the light ale was added, the drinker would receive a bit more than a pint of beer!

The other common, but slightly less popular mix, was “brown and mild” (sometimes referred to as a “boilermaker”); basically a half pint of draught mild, topped up with a bottle of brown ale. Again the reasons for the popularity of this mix were exactly the same as described above. Other, less common mixes were “old and bitter” (known universally as a “mother-in-law”), “black and tan” - Guinness (or other stout) and bitter. and “mild and bitter”, sometimes simply abbreviated to “AB” – these letters standing for “and bitter” and date back to when mild ale was the most common and popular draught beer sold in pubs. The abbreviation inferred the publican knew you wanted your half pint of mild topped up with draught bitter.

During my late teens, my friends and I went through a phase of asking for this mix, partly because it was quite a pleasant drink, but also out of a sense of mischievous curiosity, just to see what reaction we would get from the bar staff. Actually, most landlords and landladies knew what we were asking for, especially old school licensees. Back then most had either been in the trade for some time, or had come from pub-owning families, and there was certainly not the high turnover of publicans there is in the trade today.
The late Richard Boston, in his excellent book, “Beer and Skittles”, lists several more mixtures, and reminds readers that drinks such as shandy and lager and lime ( the latter not often seen these days, but very common back in the early 1970’s) are of course, mixtures. Incidentally, the strange practice of requesting a dash of lemonade to be added to one's pint, in the form of a “lager top”, has taken over from adding a shot of lime juice to lager  He also informs us that mild and bitter is known as “Narfer narf”. (Perhaps my friends and I should have tried our luck with this name back in the 70’s!)

The mixing of different types/styles of beer to achieve the taste desired by the drinker, of course dates back many hundreds of years. Many people know the story (true or otherwise), about the origin of porter, or Entire Butt to give the beer its correct name. Formerly, drinkers would have mixed three different beers - pale, brown and stale (old ale), to create a blend known as "Three Threads", but in 1722  Ralph Harwood of the Bell Inn, Shoreditch hit on the idea of combining the different attributes of this blend in one single beer hence, name Entire Butt. However, despite the popularity of porter, drinkers continued to mix beers, well into the 20th Century, in the way I have described.

I’m not quite sure what caused practice to die out; it may have been the increasing popularity of keg beers during the 1960’s and early 70’s, when drinkers were presented with a much more consistent, albeit bland, product. Alternatively, it may have been the influence of CAMRA and the growing interest in beers from different parts of the country, combined with the desire to sample and enjoy them in their pure, unadulterated form (ie. on their own and not mixed with another type of beer). Most likely it was a combination of both factors which caused the mixing of two different types of beer to virtually vanish; but not in Chiddingstone it seems!

As a way of rounding off this subject, I would be most interested to hear other people’s thoughts and experiences of drinks such as light and bitter, brown and mild etc, along with any other strange combinations they may have come across, (and even tried!).


Bailey said...

My Dad's a 'mixer' and I've picked up the habit. Can't resist mixing Mann's Brown with whatever I'm drinking, if it's on offer in a pub.

A famous, brand-specific example is Young's Ram'n'Spesh. Once tried to order one by saying: "Half of Special in a pint glass with a bottle of Ram Rod, please." 22-year-old barmaid rolled her eyes and said, affronted, "I do know what Ram'n'Spesh is."

Cooking Lager said...

If people are mixing beers to disguise the taste of something stale it stands to reason that increasing prosperity is going to knock that lark on the head.

Bob said...

I still drink a Light & Bitter when I find myself in a Greene King pub. That bottle of light almost makes the GK IPA paletable... ;-)

thebrewingman said...

The guv'nor of the Anchor at Yalding always referred to his London cliental as "Wodgers" and Gissers". When they came in the bar the popular refrain was "Wodger want" to which the reply was "Gisser Light and Bitter"

Paul Bailey said...

Bailey, Young's Ram'n'Spesh always puzzled me, as wasn't Ram Rod nothing more than bottled Special?
Cookie, I would put the decline in poor quality (stale) beer down to better cellar practice, rather than any real or imagined increase in prosperity.
Bob, I might try your recommendation next time I'm in a GK pub. Come to think of it I may even try it in a Shep's pub!
Brewingman, I can't remember the last time I visited the Anchor at Yalding. It must be at least 20 years ago. From what you say it still seems popular with Londoners, and presumably this is why it's listed in the local Gateway to Kent Guide as just stocking Courage beers.

AndrewM said...

When I used to drink mild and bitter in Kent, it was always referred to as 'a pint of two's'. I don't know why. Nowadays I don't mix beers in a glass - I reckon if that's how the brewer brewed them, that's how I should drink them.

Paul Bailey said...

99% of the time I would agree with you, AndrewM. Beers are best drunk, in their pure state, as the brewer intended them to be drunk.

Just very occasionally though, it does add something, especially if a beer is a bit on the bland side, to mix a couple of beers together. You may find that more breweries fo this than you think.

btw. Now you mention it, I do recall mild and bitter being referred to as a "pint of two's". Happy days.!

Duncan Borrowman said...

I sometimes mix. If we have an extra hoppy session bitter, maybe an American hopped, on at Orpington Lib Club. I will sometimes mix with a more malty beer. For instance I did it late last year with Canterbury Loco, an in your face very hoppy lowish ABV american style IPA and a couple of different Milds/Porters.

Unknown said...

In the early 90s I used to enjoy a light and lager - principally for the aforementioned reason of getting a bit of extra beer for my money. In early 2000s we used to go for a pint of 'golden' - half lager, half bitter - the name obviously coming from its visual appearance.