The humble bar snack

Here at Cleaver & Keg HQ we regularly like to remind ourselves of why we are in existence – keeps us grounded if you like. We talk openly and passionately about what it is we want to achieve – envisaging every beer drinker across the land awakening their taste buds to the wild flavour combinations that progressive snacking can provide.

However the question remains, where did it all begin? Have pub snacks always been a thing?

Its seems they have. For as long as people have stood upright at bars there has been a demand for a savoury snack that requires no cutlery and can be devoured with a warm frothy ale. Looking back through the history books we can see the UKs earliest pubs being visited by local hawkers presenting their wares as beer worthy snacks. This bunch of enterprising young whipper snappers were recognising perhaps the opportunity for missed meal times whilst booze soaked customers whiled away the hours in the local watering hole. Pub-goers of the time were eating all manor or gastronomical delights – ‘not to fill themselves, but for a relish’ it has been reported. The likes of which would not be out of place in a Fergus Henderson kitchen today, including pickled whelks, boiled green peas, fried fish, pies and sheep trotters galore.

It was then the 1920s when the game changed forever. The pub snack godfather Frank Smith of Cricklewood in North London began to sell packeted crisps in his pubs and ‘Smiths’ was born. Not unlike any journey for a new concept it was not without its challenges that this snacking giant rose to such familiarity. One of the first hurdles that Mr Smith encounetred is theft from his customers – the salt cellars he provided for his crisps were being stolen by pub visitors on a regular basis and so you guessed it – Salt ‘n’ Shake was born – incredibly this simple innovation is still in existence today! The small blue sachet allowed a salt intake to taste making them the perfect, convenient, thirst-inducing pub snack. They had a long shelf-life, were easily stored, didn’t smell and were, in many other ways, far preferable to third-party sheep’s trotters from a publican’s point of view.

Although young Frank had been beavering away for a while by 1949 there was an article from the Economist summarised pub food as ‘a packet of crisps or a flaccid sardine on leathery toast’ and, in the same year, Smith’s Potato Crisps annual company statement proudly boasted of supplying nearly every public house in the country – what a legend. And so with the ‘pub snack’ firmly rooted into British culture with Mr Smith leading the charge on the revolution for change there were of course a huge variety of newcomers to the pub snack party. Brands that we will all be familiar with gracing pub shelves throughout the second half of the last century and brands that have remained there ever since. Who remember KP’s efforts to spice things up a little with a ‘trip of lifetime competition?’ Or who has ever eaten a scampi fry and not needed a beer quite literally immediately to wash that intense taste from your buds?

In more recent times we have seen huge developments British pub culture on the whole of course, with food becoming integral to many British pubs proposition and furthermore a move to a grazing approach to pub dining means that the pub snack has emerged victorious for the most part. In any decent boozer worth its salt these days it is a delight to be able to find anything from the much heralded ‘Manchester Egg’ to  homemade pork crackling and even Foie Grois toasties.

The packeted pub snack market however has not really moved on from its humble beginnings, with little or no innovation, or at least none on the scale of our friend Mr Frank Smith anyway. The question could be asked in that case that perhaps we have found beer snack harmony with nuts crisps and of course the laterly introduced pork crackling? These salty numbers do the job nicely in filling the gap for the quaffer and increasing the liquid demand for the landlord simultaneously. Perhaps the kitchen and its brigade of highly trained chefs gives us everything we need? Who doesn’t love devilled white bait as a pub snack after all.

Well, its all about occasion in our opinion. There is a time and place for a warm scotch egg with a divinely runny yolk and friends, there is a time and place for packeted snacks too. There is something just wonderful about returning back from the bar with a round for your friends and a couple of bags of something delicious between your teeth, standing out as a bonifide legend as you tear open the packs for all to share. And we figure that if this occasion is to remain an important part of British pub culture then whats in the bag has to be good – really good!

Its that time again, we need a pub snack shake up that Mr Smith would be proud of. And so, as we plan to become part of pub snacking history (already filling in our own wikipedia entry) and shake things up for everyone out there that wants to remain stood upright without cutlery and be serviced with a meaty morsel or two whilst supping a warm frothy ale or otherwise – join us for the ride.