All About Beer Magazine - Volume 38, Issue 1
February 21, 2017 By Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey
Cynthia's Bar
(Courtesy of Cynthia’s Bar and Restaurant, London Bridge)

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a special section on the future of beer, which appears in the March 2017 issue of All About Beer Magazine and is now on newsstands.

In 1987, Porter Lancastrian, a United Kingdom-based manufacturer of bar equipment founded in 1936, published an advertisement that depicted the pub of the future. The airbrushed art showed three Tron-style glowing wire-frame virtual people surrounded by chrome, neon and blinking control panels. Instead of a barkeep, there was a computer screen.

porter-lancastrian adFor decades, people were convinced the robot bartender was just around the corner. It’s a staple of science fiction stories from Isaac Asimov to Doctor Who, but this space-age fantasy has occasionally been realized, even if only as a gimmick or statement piece. There was a robot bartender reported to be mixing cocktails in San Francisco in 1984, for example, and in London in 2001, a distinctly retro robot called Cynthia served drinks at a gay bar. The conceptual art project Bar Automaten operated in Berlin from 2001 to 2004. And, in 2008, Mr Asahi was unveiled by the Japanese brewery of the same name. He had the approachable features of a character from a Pixar film and used deft pincers to pop bottle caps and pour beer at just the right angle.

Away from the humanoid Robby the Robots, there were various attempts at pub-based vending machines—relatively simpler boxes with buttons. British brewery Watney’s tried out just such a device in the late 1960s: “The machine is just on trial to test public reaction,” said a brewery spokesman at the time. “We will assess the situation after six months.” It didn’t take off. Nor did another 1960s pub-of-the-future concept in which tables were fitted with telephones that used numerical codes to transmit orders to a computer behind the scenes in the service area. The problem was, mechanical technology was unreliable, and humans could always do it better, cheaper and with more stimulating conversation. Finally, there’s the problem of the uncanny valley: Many of us simply recoil at the idea. “When I first contemplated the concept, I gagged,” one commentator wrote of automated bar staff in 1981.

Another persistent idea is the magical instant beer—a Willie Wonka concept for grown-ups. In 1952, Belgian scientist Robert Mouton patented a method for turning beer into a pill using vacuum drying. Except, as Life magazine reported it, it wasn’t that simple: “You add water, alcohol and carbon dioxide to the pill and get a drink which has ‘the delicate flavor and body of the original beer.’” Doesn’t that sound reminiscent of the fable of the stone soup?

The idea of the self-contained personal mini-brewery was another tantalizing prospect. In 1936, Popular Science reported that the University of Birmingham in the U.K. had built an 8-foot-high, 5-square-foot “midget brewery” capable of brewing a gallon per batch. It arguably prefigured the invention of the commercial microbrewery in the 1970s and certainly found an echo in the neat all-in-one pilot plants employed in many larger breweries over the last few decades. For consumers, though, the dream of the all-in-one, touch-button home brewery was elusive, despite the promises made in exploitative magazine ads: “All you need is a large pot, a long stirring spoon and our special anaerobic tank.”

(Via Asahi Malaysia YouTube)

But, in the 21st century, with the availability of practically disposable touch screens, Chinese manufacturing and cheap computing power, the future has finally arrived, even if not quite in the style of The Jetsons. There is now an entire chain of self-service bars in France, “Au Fût et à Mesure,” where customers use swipe cards to pay for beer dispensed from table-mounted taps, with displays to tell them how much they’ve poured. In 2015, powdered alcohol was licensed for sale in the U.S., but, as yet, nobody has seized the opportunity of bringing it to market. Perhaps when someone does, it will be combined with the new breed of “liquid beer enhancers,” which purport to turn basic beers into premium products using hop and malt extracts. Or perhaps not—in an age when powdered eggs and mashed potatoes are viewed as relics of the bad old days, the very idea of reconstituted booze feels like an anachronism, even if we now have the technology. The (almost) instant personal home brewery is (almost) a reality, too, thanks to the dawn of crowd-funding, which saw a flood of amateur inventors emerge with visions of “The Keurig of beer.” The Pico, for example, is now available on the open market. It costs $800, makes 5 liters of beer from each $24 PicoPak and would fit right into the McFly family kitchen in “Back to the Future Part II” alongside the pizza rehydrator.

That 1987 Porter Lancastrian vision of the pub of the future certainly got one thing right: The post-human cyber-drinkers it depicts are all holding pint mugs of ale, and on the bar there are two old-fashioned hand pumps, both of which are going strong in the 21st Century. And bars do like neon, don’t they?

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a special section on the future of beer, which appears in the March 2017 issue of All About Beer Magazine and is now on newsstands.

Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey
Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey have been blogging at since 2007. They were named 2014 beer writers of the year by the British Guild of Beer Writers for Brew Britannia: the Strange Rebirth of British Beer. They live in Cornwall in the far west of the UK.