And Half for Tha’ Self – Changing Tastes and Seeking Bitter in 1970’s Sheffield

Words - Frank Curtis Photos - Matthew Curtis

My first pint of beer cost 2/8d. That’s two shillings and eight pence – from the days when there were 20 shillings in a pound and 12 pence in a shilling. In today’s money that would be about 13p.  Decimalisation arrived in February 1971 so I guess I must be talking about 1970 and I would have been 16 years old. Oddly enough 1971 was not only decimalisation year – it was also the year in which CAMRA was founded – but more about that later. The pint in question, I remember well, was Watney’s Red Barrel. My learned older brother told me that it was much better than the alternative offerings of the day, Watney’s bitter and Ind Coope mild and well worth the extra two pence. It was served in a thick dimpled glass with a handle, at the Bottle and Glass public house, in the village of Scothern, Lincolnshire – a small village four miles from the city of Lincoln, which was later to become our family home. 

Decimalisation followed shortly afterwards and the beers offered by local hostelries mysteriously crept up to 15 new pence a pint (three shillings in old money). Watney’s Red Barrel, Youngers Tartan and Double Diamond were the most common beers in rural Lincolnshire at the time. All of them (with hindsight) were sparkling clear but excessively gassy, and not particularly enjoyable. There were a few tied houses offering locally brewed “Batemans Honest Ales,” such as its standard XB Bitter, XXXB Strong Ale, and Batemans Mild. Much as I preferred the flavour of Batemans XXXB, the Batemans pubs tended to be dingy, smoke filled taverns occupied by old men in raincoats playing dominoes (or so it seemed). The trendier pubs that offered pool tables, dartboards and were more welcoming to my generation were, I recall, also the pubs that offered mostly keg beers. 

Imagine my delight on leaving home and moving up to university in Sheffield, when I discovered that the students’ union bar stocked Samuel Smiths 4X Bitter at just 11p a pint (it was 15p in the local pubs). Yes – in 1972, you could go out for a night in the union bar, get thoroughly drunk and have change from £1. Beer was so cheap, I even had enough cash left over to buy my 12” vinyl copy of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” from my first week’s spending money. At that time, October 1972, the album which was to become my favourite for decades, cost £2.09. I find it amazing that in those days, you could buy about 15 pints of beer for the price of a long playing record. Today, a download of the same music costs the price of just 2 or 3 pints. What fantastic value for money recorded music is these days!

The Students’ Union bar was more than a mile from the halls of residence in the Ranmoor area of the city and the walk back and forth necessitated passing by the doorways of at least half a dozen inviting pubs. It wasn’t long before my student friends and I were tempted to venture inside and try some of the local beers.

"The landlord had spent hours teaching me how to serve a full pint with a tight, creamy head, forced through a sparkler – the only way his customers would accept it." 

The prevalent beers in Sheffield during the early 1970s were Tetley’s from Leeds, John Smith’s from Tadcaster and the locally brewed Ward’s and Stones’ Ales (pronounced Stones-es in the city at that time). We also occasionally encountered Samuel Smith’s, Whitbread – Trophy and Tankard – and Mansfield Bitter. Unlike the pubs around my home near Lincoln (which always offered ‘mild’ as an alternative), the Sheffield pubs sold almost exclusively bitter. There was one pub, however, The Dog and Partridge on Trippet Lane that sold gallon after gallon of draught Guinness (being the favourite haunt of the local Irish community). You’d feel terribly uncomfortable ordering a pint of bitter in that place.

As our student palates gradually became more accustomed to the Northern brews, a very clear order of preference in our drinking patterns started to evolve, and it was no coincidence that the CAMRA stickers that began to appear in pub windows in the early 70s became associated with our preferred beverages.

The least desirable pubs were those selling Mansfield, Whitbread, and Stones Ales, these being most commonly served as bright beers, from kegs or sometimes bulk tanks, chilled and heavily carbonated. There was one massive exception to this rule – the Hanover, on Upper Hanover Street – which, as far as we could determine, was the last Stones pub in the area to serve cask conditioned Stones bitter in its original form. It was truly delicious, but for the student community, strictly a lunchtime pleasure. 

This last bastion of “real Stones-es bitter” was right in the middle of the infamous Sheffield red light area. It was safe enough in the daytime, but the student community was made to fell less than welcome after dark. The Hanover was also a short walk from Bramall Lane - the home of Sheffield United – and the perfect spot for a couple of pints before a Saturday afternoon watching the youthful Tony Currie (later of Leeds and England fame) delight the crowd with his prodigious ball skills.

The second tier included the pubs and bars serving Wards Sheffield Bitter or John Smith’s – either their bitter or the slightly stronger Magnet Ale. The Wards pubs were less numerous and tended to be clustered towards the industrial areas of the city, but the John Smith’s tied houses were more widely scattered, often in the lower cost residential areas favoured by students. Among the most popular John Smiths pubs was The Fox and Duck in the area known as Broomhill. It was particularly useful owing to its proximity to the “Macmarket” (a small local supermarket) a coin-operated launderette, and the appallingly greasy “Sun Kong” Chinese takeaway. This plethora of student conveniences added to the attraction of a pub serving second rate beer!

The most popular tied houses amongst most of my friends (myself included) were the Tetley pubs. We never saw Tetley’s mild in Sheffield – even though it was advertised on TV, but top quality, cask conditioned Tetley’s bitter was available at numerous pubs in the area. The most outstanding pint, I recall, was served at the Nottingham House (“The Notty” to us) on the corner of Parker Street and Whitham Road. In hindsight, the character of the landlord, a retired policeman, and the diversity of the regular clientele probably added to the attraction. But there were others of similar quality: The Hallamshire; The Red Deer; The West End; and the excellent pub where I would eventually become a regular member of the bar staff – The Beehive.

What began to emerge however, was what could probably be described as an acquired taste. The more we drank of Tetley’s bitter, the stronger our attraction to it became. Towards the end of my student career, nothing else was good enough. I would often hurry past four or five random pubs at the end of a night out, running the risk of missing the “last orders” call, just to be sure of finding that last magical pint of Tetley’s.

My appreciation of cask conditioned, hand pulled Tetley’s bitter increased exponentially in 1977/78 when I became a regular barman at The Beehive on West Street, Sheffield. There was a saloon bar, frequented mostly by students; and a lounge bar where the more mature working men and certain other sophisticated customers gathered. Phil Oakey, of Human League fame, was a regular customer in the lounge bar. 

Each bar had a line of four Angram beer engines, tapped into hogshead (54 gallon) barrels in the cellar below.  Apparently, The Beehive moved more hogsheads than any other pub in the city at that time. The cellar wasn’t temperature controlled, but it was deep enough to remain at reasonably constant temperatures year-round. I was taught how to tap a barrel with a single, brisk blow from a heavy mallet and how to replace the hard spile peg with a soft peg to allow the beer to breathe in the cask. The beer pumps were part of a system called an “autovac”, which allowed the server to let the beer overflow the glasses into a stainless steel tray, from which the surplus beer ran through copper pipes and back into the line between the cask and the beer engine to be recycled. 

A remarkably efficient system, with scarcely a drop wasted, the autovac was eventually outlawed following changes in food and beverage sanitation laws. In modern times, I’m pretty sure this recycling system wouldn’t be tolerated by discerning drinkers – after all, residues from other customers’ glasses and dirty bar staff’s hands would be transferred to your pint. Back then though, we never gave it a second thought, just like we didn’t care about using the same glass all night. I have heard it said that all the slops were collected in a pail and poured back into the mild barrel – but that was definitely not the case – the autovacs only recycled into the same line from which the beer was originally drawn.

"Keg beer has changed, massively, and for the better."

I still remember my very first shift in the lounge bar of The Beehive. The landlord had spent hours teaching me how to serve a full pint with a tight, creamy head, forced through a sparkler – the only way his customers would accept it he assured me. He then made me practice on the other students in the saloon bar for days before I was exposed to the elite customers next door. My first order in the lounge bar came from a group of seven ‘middle managers’ – all wearing collar and tie – from the Sheffield steel works. “Seven pints o’ Tetley’s please” was the order. My serving technique was scrutinised closely and rewarded with the comment “not bad for a student”. The group then proceeded to order a further six rounds of seven pints each, over the course of about an hour, then all left together.

Next evening, the same seven were there again, but this time the order was “Seven pints o’ Tetley’s please, and half for tha’ self”. The landlord touched me on the shoulder. “That means you’ve served a good pint lad, don’t let it go to your ‘ead”. I think that experience cemented a love affair with Tetley’s bitter that lasted until I left the area and was forced to seek out alternative beverages. 

All of these events took place around 40 or more years ago, but reflecting on times gone by in this way has made me realise just how much trends in beer taste and drinking preferences have changed over a lifetime. All those years ago, I would walk – no, scurry – past several pubs to find one particular beer. Today, I take great pleasure in visiting the numerous independent breweries in Fort Collins, Colorado, where I now live, to discover new, interesting and ever more complex beer flavors. 

In this new environment, I find once again, that taste is acquired. Back in the 70s and 80s, only cask beers in tip-top condition would satisfy my quest for flavour. I used to despise the chilled keg alternatives but almost 7 years after moving to the US, I find the mouthfeel of cellar-temperature beer less appealing. My senses have become accustomed to cold, carbonated beers – but not of the Watney’s Red Barrel type. Keg beer has changed, massively, and for the better. Forty years ago, keg beer was quite devoid of flavour compared to cask ale. Today, however, keg American Pale Ales and IPAs, with a bigger bouquet, a hoppier flavour profile and a higher ABV are the beers that I enjoy the most. I will also sample the occasional stout from time – and even take a sip of the odd sour if pressed – but keg Pale Ale and IPA have become my staple diet. 

Fort Collins is a very satisfying environment in which to seek out beers of this type and I spend many enjoyable hours visiting as many as possible of the local tap rooms. I have a few favourites of course, Odell Brewing, New Belgium and Horse and Dragon, to name my top three (in no particular order). My choice of brewery on any particular occasion is influenced more by the surroundings they offer and my current mood, rather than the beers themselves. But, unlike the old days, I never ask for “a pint of the usual”. No – today, my first question is always: “What have you got that I haven’t tried before?"