The Ram Rampant

The Young's brewery ram mascot on a London pub window.

Great beers can sometimes burn brightly before passing into memory. Young’s Ordinary Bitter, unlikely as it might sound, was one such beer – beloved by ale drinkers, legendary in its brilliance, until the light went out.

When we interviewed Michael Hardman, one of the founders of the Campaign for Real Ale, his eyes blazed as he talked about Young’s Ordinary. ‘It used to have an intense bitterness that was almost too much for some people,’ he said. A good beer tasting note will trigger a surge of desire and Mr Hardman’s brief comment, delivered with such passion, and as straightforward as the beer it described, did just that.

We can’t say he didn’t warn us, though, that in 2012 Young’s Ordinary had become a shadow of its 1970s self. Having worked for the brewery as a PR executive for 30 years Hardman watched with sadness as, first, the brand lost its great champion, the company’s eccentric chairman John Young, who died in 2006 and then as, in 2007, the historic Wandsworth facility ceased brewing and moved production to Charles Wells at Bedford.

For London ale drinkers this was a ravens departing the Tower moment, leaving London with a mere handful of breweries and only Fuller’s as an independent of any size. There were reassurances that extensive testing had been carried out to assure continuity and even rumours that the last batches of Wandsworth-brewed Ordinary were being blended with the new version to ease the transition. But Wells could point at specification sheets and test results all they liked: the beer changed and people who drank it regularly knew it.

Bedford-brewed Ordinary wasn’t terrible – we drank plenty and enjoyed it – but veteran drinkers would push it away, shaking their heads at its sheer… ordinariness. Wells & Youngs, as they were then known, could brew something like Young’s Ordinary but could not breathe into the essential spark of life.

At the same time, Young’s London pubs, for so long a kind of defensive line against modernity, were also sold off and became a separate company. They generally continued to serve Young’s branded beers, however, so that, superficially at least, not much changed beyond a general ‘smartening up’. On trips to London we would invariably end up in one or another, either out of convenience or nostalgia, and check in on Ordinary. This was a sad, fruitless habit until the summer of 2014 when, suddenly, the beer seemed to jolt out of its coma – paler, drier, and more vigorous than we’d ever known it. But we doubted ourselves – perhaps it was a one-off? Or wishful thinking?

Young's Ordinary.

But, no: since then, the beer seems to have got better every time we’ve encountered it. It knocked our socks off at the Prince Alfred in Maida Vale earlier this year and now, after making a point of trying it in multiple pubs in four corners of London, and also in Exeter and Bristol, we want to underline this point: the sickness has gone and Young’s Ordinary is once again A Great Beer.

On our most recent trip to London at the Flask in Hampstead — a gorgeous Victorian pub whose discreet partitions and ornate details will frankly make any beer taste a little more interesting — we drank luminous, comically foaming pints of it that are among the best beers we’ve enjoyed this year, full stop.

It isn’t one of those 2017 beers perfumed with pine, citrus, mango or green onion. There’s barely a flavour note to latch on to, in fact, beyond a suggestion of minerals and lemon peel. But it has the austere structural elegance of a Victorian railway terminus, with a snatch of tame funkiness for seasoning.

We’ve been telling people the good news, and now we’re telling you. After all, with Charles Wells selling up to Marston’s, this resurgence might not last.

Pub Life: For the Slugs

A slug approaching a pint of beer.

A warm evening in late summer, the smell of weed on the air, and blackberry stains on the pathway to the pub door.

Ahead of us in the queue a middle-aged woman in sensible shoes and a sensible but bramble-bothered jumper, with black mud beneath her nails.

“Oh, hello — I wonder if you can help me… Do you, by any chance, have any beer dregs I might take away with me?”

She waves a large margarine tub hopefully.

“Dregs?”

“Waste beer. For the slugs. On my allotment.”

“For the slugs?”

“For the slug traps. Slugs love beer. Keeps ’em off my plants! They drown in it.”

The young woman behind the bar eyes the gardener with suspicion. How can she be sure this strange stranger won’t just guzzle down the slops straight from the plastic the minute she gets outside? Desperate people will do all sorts of weird things for a freebie. She decides on a delaying tactic, a test of commitment.

“I can’t give you any now because we’re in the middle of service but if you come back at closing time when we’re cleaning out the drip trays I might be able to help. Once I’ve asked my manager, obviously.”

“Closing time? Oh, no, I’m afraid I shall be in bed by then. You couldn’t…?”

She waves the tub seductively.

A shake of the head.

And so the slugs, or perhaps the gardener, went thirsty that night.

Taste-Off: Interesting Eastern European Corner Shop Beers

This beers we tasted for this taste-off post were paid for by Patreon subscribers and the topic was suggested via comments on a Patreon post by Aaron Stein and Andy M.

Cornershop beer seems to have evolved in the half decade since we last checked in, but has it got better?

There’s something appealing about the idea of discovering a hidden gem in the least pretentious of surroundings, standing on chipped floor tiles next to the permanently running dehumidifier near the tinned Bigos. Most people are too snobby, too xenophobic, too scared to tackle these mysterious labels, goes the inner dialogue, but me? I’m a brave adventurer. In fact, though, there’s hardly a beer geek in the country who hasn’t had the same thought and you’ll find any number of blogs reviewing this type of beer with a quick Google.

When we left London for Cornwall back in 2011 we had tried damn near every bottled Eastern European beer on sale in the cornershops of Walthamstow. Most were fine, some were foul, and Švyturys (Carlsberg) Ekstra Draught — an unpasteurised Dortmunder from Lithuania — was one of our go-to bottled lagers. Now, in Bristol, we once again have easy access to Eastern European cornershops with their dumplings, cured meats, quark, cherry-flavoured Jaffa Cakes and, yes, acres of exotic looking beer.

We dipped our toes back in the water with a return to Švyturys. Would it be as good as we remembered, or might our tastes have evolved? The good news is that, as a lager we can pick up on the way home from work for well under £2 a bottle, it’s still got it. Our memories were of a more bitter beer but it still has a remarkable clean, fresh quality that some ‘craft’ lagers swing at but miss.

Thus warmed up we returned to our closest shop and tried to work out some way to tackle the wall of beer. It stocks products from Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Poland and Romania. (And possibly some others we missed.) It’s an intimidatingly huge range though the vast majority are variations on pale lager or strong pale lager, and most of them are things we tried years ago. Since we last looked Radler seems to have taken off out that way and there are now any number of fruit-flavoured refreshers on offer but, frankly, that’s not our bag, so we discounted those, too. What we were drawn to was the oddities in two categories: first, a new strain of takes on world beer styles (Belgian Wit, Munich Helles); and, secondly, a bunch of unpasteurised/unfiltered products presented as upmarket, ‘natural’ variants on the standard lagers.

Continue reading “Taste-Off: Interesting Eastern European Corner Shop Beers”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 September 2017: Beavertown, Burials, Biggsy

Here’s everything beer- and pub-related that caught our eye in the last week, from viking funerals to mysterious pressure groups.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 September 2017: Beavertown, Burials, Biggsy”

The Seven Ages of Beer Geek?

Illustration: SEVEN.

Being into beer — being into anything — takes you through phases, and it’s hard to empathise with people who aren’t where you’re at.

We found ourselves reminiscing the other day about the early days of our time as beer bloggers and the hunger with which we pursued new beers and new breweries.

In 2007, arriving in a strange town, we would want to know where to find beer from all the local breweries even if that meant walking away with bottles to drink at home. Whether the beer was good was almost irrelevant and we probably wouldn’t bother with a pub, however charming or interesting, that didn’t have something new for us to try: we wanted input, experiences, information. It was great fun and there was always some new discovery around the corner.

These days, we’re much less interested in trying new beers for the sake of it and take fewer risks: if a beer sounds terrible, and is from a brewery we don’t trust, we’ll tend not to waste the units. (We get hungover so much more easily now than a decade ago for one thing.) We drank multiple pints of St Austell Proper Job on multiple days every week for six years down in Penzance and really got to know it, which was great. (Our thoughts on that should be in the next edition of Original Gravity, by the way.)

The point is, 2007 Boak & Bailey were having fun; 2017 Boak & Bailey (grey round the edges) are also having fun, just in a different way.

So we wondered if it might be possible to generalise about the path a beer geek takes. The key word being ‘generalise’ — this might not reflect your experience — here’s our effort:

  1. They learn to like beer.
  2. They become Beer Drinkers. It is part of their identity, their default choice in the pub.
  3. Beer becomes one hobby among others. They begin to take an interest in beer beyond social situations and pubs, attending festivals and exploring the bottled range at the supermarket.
  4. They start to think about beer. They start to ask questions, buy books, read articles, and perhaps begin keeping notes.
  5. Beer becomes an obsession, overtaking other interests. Books are acquired and ticking begins. There’s so much to try, so many places to go, so much to learn, that drinking the same beer twice seems like wasted time. Everything is thrilling and exciting. (This, we guess, is when people start blogging if it’s going to happen.)
  6. The wall of ennui. Oh — it turns out there weren’t that many great and exciting beers after all. Everything is a disappointment, over-hyped, and even previously impressive beers seem to have lost their lustre.
  7. Set in their ways. Done with chasing novelty and hype the beer geek forms habits, going to the same bars and drinking the same beers often enough to learn their moods and ways.

When you’re at No. 5, Nos. 6 and 7 seem insufferable — so boring, so miserable, so conservative! And, of course, people who reached No. 7 can’t remember what it was like to be at No. 5: ‘Everything is “awesome” with that lot. What’s wrong with a decent pint of bitter, I ask you?’

Some of the bickering on the ‘scene’ (sorry) comes from this divide, we think, and the idea that everything would be great if all beer/bars/pubs were more/less adventurous/consistent; from a belief that one position is somehow correct and perhaps even morally superior.

Here’s a fun moment captured by Twitter — beer writer Mark Dredge, once the ultimate Five, effectively announcing his transition to Seven:

Which brings us to an article by James Beeson appeared reporting comments from Mark Tranter, formerly of Dark Star, now the brewer behind Burning Sky, in which he bemoaned a market over-saturated with breweries, which state of affairs incentivises dabbling and the pursuit of novelty:

I’ve been brewing for 20 years but the UK beer market has changed beyond all recognition in the past two to five years. People are constantly demanding new products – if you’re a winemaker you get 30 attempts in your career to make wine, but people expect 30 different beers a week. So where does that leave us as brewers that are trying to focus on quality?

We understand what he’s getting at — we heard much the same from the brewers at the Wild Beer Co back in 2013, as reported in Brew Britannia — but think this is, at least in part, a Seven expressing exasperation with Fives.

And we reckon the market needs breweries and bars serving Fives every bit as much as Sevens and (our familiar refrain these days) the tension is healthy and what matters is having a balance. If your brewery is for Fives, have at it, and ignore the moaning of the Sevens. And, of course, vice versa.