Did you know that British Columbians used to put salt in their draught beer? This may seem inconceivable to us today, in the current era of craft beer and local breweries, but from the 1920s to 1970s it was very common to see a shaker of salt on each table inside Vancouver beer parlours (and in fact all over Canada). Why salt? More about that later, but first let’s set the scene for the traditional beer parlour…
“No one who ever walked through one of their doors will ever forget them. Stinking, crowded, smoky places. Sour-faced waiters in dirty, wet aprons thunking thick-bottom glasses of beer in pairs in front of each [patron] who sat at each round table. If the waiter wasn’t too busy — he nearly always was run off his feet — he might give the table a swipe with an utterly foul rag, splashing a slurry of spilled beer and cigarette ashes into the laps of the unwary. The walls were bare as a prison, the chairs hard, the tables tiny, capable of holding no more than two beers for each of the four chairs allotted each table, plus an ashtray and a shaker of salt.” – The Province, Saturday, March 31, 1973
The above description paints a rather vivid picture — you can almost smell it — of the beer parlour experience. According to wine columnist, Anthony Gismondi, in those days beer was nothing more than “alcoholic water with a bit of foam on top”. Until the mid-1970s, when the neighbourhood pub was introduced, if you wanted to drink a few beers out with friends then you’d end up downtown at one of the city’s hotel beer parlours.
Beer parlours had their start with the end of Prohibition (1917-1921); former hotel saloons were transformed into closely regulated beer parlours, where beer was served in glasses and only to seated, predominately working-class, patrons. “Beer-by-the-glass” was promoted as a solution to the intoxicating consumption of hard liquor; a moderate compromise between the province’s “dry” and “wet” factions.
In the province’s 1935/36 fiscal year, $6 million, equaling 60 million glasses of beer, was spent in BC’s 340 beer parlours. At that time beer was sold to licensees and then re-sold by the glass in beer parlours for double the amount (10 cents). Despite their rigid rules —patrons must remain seated; separate entrances and seating for ladies and their escorts; no food served; music and singing was forbidden — beer parlours were well-attended drinking monopolies.
My own beer parlour experience is very limited, but I do recall soggy, terry cloth covers (like shower caps) on the tables, watered-down beer by the glass (it would just arrive at the table), having a rather interesting (and humbling) conversation with someone who thought he was Jesus Christ, and, curiously, a small red and white plastic shaker of salt — no pepper, just salt.
So, why was there salt on the table? An early account found in the June 29, 1927 edition of the Montreal Gazette stated: “The practice of putting salt in beer [was] to reduce the acidity and to ‘put a head on it’”. It was thought that flat beer could be “woken up” by adding salt, as sprinkling a bit of salt into a nearly flat beer helps pull the remaining carbonation out to give it a head again. However, I found a contrary explanation in the book, Canada’s War Grooms and the Girls who Stole their Hearts, by Judy Kozar, which said that salt was used to “flatten the fizz of the weak, over-aerated beer”. Could both explanations be true?
During WW2, Canadian servicemen carried their salt-in-beer habit to the U.K. while they were stationed overseas. In 1941, Sunday Dispatch columnist, Alan Tomkins (“the man with the inquiring mind”) queried, “Why do Canadian soldiers put salt in their beer?” His public house investigations revealed the following replies from the Canadians:
“It is just a custom.”
“It makes us thirsty.”
“It keeps us sober.”
“There is more salt in Canadian beer.” [Hmmm, was there?]
When Tomkins asked, “Have you ever heard of chaps putting salt in their beer?” another Canadian soldier simply replied, “I do, because I like it that way.” He further explained, “When people get talking, the beer gets flat. So they drop in just a pinch of salt. This makes the beer sparkle, and puts a head on it.” Makes one wonder how bad could the beer have been, if it goes flat within a conversation?
It was also believed that adding salt to beer would aid in the hydration of those, like foundry men, who worked hard and hot, by replacing the salt lost through sweating. This may be true, but it still doesn’t explain why salting beer was a universally common practice. It is also contradictory to the “it makes us thirsty” reason.
Just how much salt would be added? It seems that most would add a pinch of salt to their glass. However, some would add up to a teaspoonful!
So, whether it was used to combat flat beer (or overly gassy beer), to alleviate (or aid) thirst, or simply to improve the taste, adding salt to draught beer was once a common Canadian custom used to compensate for poor quality beer. All I can say is, thankfully we’ve come a long way, baby!
For more information about BC’s beer parlour history, I strongly recommend Robert A. Campbell’s, Sit Down and Drink Your Beer: Regulating Vancouver’s Beer Parlours, 1925-1954.
Or check out Simon Fraser University’s new BC Beer History Archive. Launched last month, SFU Archives have begun acquiring the archival records of craft breweries, along with documentation relating to the history of brewing in BC.