The Batham’s, at Last

great_western_wolverhampton

On more than one occasion, we’ve been asked, “Have you tried the Batham’s?” On answering “No,” we’ve had the distinct impression that our credibility as commentators on beer has been reduced to zero.*

Of course we wanted to try it anyway, having heard from various sources, on numerous occasions, that the small West Midlands family brewery produces beers which are delicious, with a hard-to-define ‘mojo’. And we’re not immune to the ticking instinct, either.

Having travelled for 6+ hours from Penzance to Birmingham, we weren’t, however, quite in the mood for a further hour of buses and trains to get to the brewery tap at Stourbridge and turned, instead, to someone with local knowledge.

Tania’s suggestion was the Great Western next to Wolverhampton central station — 20 minutes on the train, plus five minutes walking. Perfect!

A cute, flower-covered pub surrounded by railway architecture and industrial wasteland, it was decorated throughout with memorabilia from the GWR, which once passed through the city. (Its western terminus is, as it happens, Penzance.) On a sunny Friday evening, it had a pleasant buzz, and a mixed clientèle perhaps just tending towards late middle age.

And there it was: Batham’s Best Bitter (4.3%). We ordered two pints along with a pork pie (‘real’, not ‘craft’), a hot pork roll and some ‘Bostin’ Cracklin‘’ — if you don’t like pig meat, food options are rather limited in the evening — and set about getting acquainted.

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There are some mental contortions to go through when tasting a legendary beer for the first time. On the one hand, it’s easy to end up tasting the hype, and praising the Emperor’s new clothes. On the other hand, it can also be easy to end up feeling let down. We tried to forget all of that and just drink it.

It was certainly very pretty, scoring 11 out of 10 for clarity. As for the taste… Well, we were momentarily surprised by a pronounced honey note, but couldn’t help but be impressed. The balancing bitterness developed as it went down, and there was almost a suggestion of nutty grains between the teeth.

Ultimately, though, it had that quality which makes writing about beer difficult at times — something impossible to put into words, but which is perhaps a result of freshness, or a subtle combination of barely-perceptible aromas and flavours. A certain magic.

But…

Much as we enjoyed it, we did find ourselves wondering how much of its reputation was down to the beer’s relative scarcity, and the glamour of time and place. It didn’t strike us, fundamentally, as that much different, or better, than the products of many other family breweries.

For example (and we’ll probably get told off for this) in Manchester, we attempted to approach Robinson’s Unicorn (4.3%, golden) with similar detachment, and actually rather enjoyed it. If Robinson’s restricted its supply, and if it was only served in pubs like the Great Western which kept it in tip-top condition, perhaps it too would have a cult reputation.

We can’t wait for the chance to drink a few more pints of Batham’s just to make sure, though.

Further reading: Barm’s recent post about pub-crawling in Dudley is a cracking read, and this 2012 piece by Pete Brown was probably where we first really registered the existence of Batham’s.

* “What credibility?” &c.

19 thoughts on “The Batham’s, at Last”

    1. It’s been a few years since we’ve had a really spot-on pint of Landlord, sadly, so don’t quite feel able to make the comparison with confidence. Landlord is probably drier and lighter in body, though.

    2. I wouldn’t have said so – Landlord is heavier, for one thing (when my local did both I used to have Taylor’s BB as my session pint & finish off with a Landlord). Batham’s is light and sweet – when you first taste it you think it’s going to be too sweet. And it’s aromatic, and it’s got a very dry, bitter finish – it’s unusually moreish for a 4.4% beer.

      I take the point about scarcity and hype (not touching the Robinsons’ suggestion!), but I’d argue it a bit differently. If you’d never had a dry, tannic, malty bitter you’d think Harvey’s HSB was a superb beer, and that it was amazing and unique. It is a superb beer, but it’s basically a good example of the local style of bitter. Batham’s Bitter for me tastes like a good example of a style of bitter I’ve never had anywhere else. It’s very tempting to go hyperbolic, because there’s so little to compare it with. (See also Spingo. Flora Daze, Ben’s Stout and even Special can be compared against reasonably similar beers, but what would you compare Middle to? Hence the temptation to go overboard on how amazingly incredibly unique it is.)

    3. Funnily enough, “how does it compare to Landlord?” was going to be my question. Clearly Landlord is the default reference point for a decent traditional bitter.

      1. But in this case “how does it compare to Landlord?” is only slightly more useful than “how does it compare to Guinness?”. Vis-a-vis Landlord, it’s lighter, sweeter, paler, drier, more aroma-hoppy and less malty… but apart from that it’s quite similar!

  1. I used to live a short walk from the Bull & Bladder, which is the brewery tap (it’s actually called The Vine). I only went there once. I never found Bathams to be anything special, to be honest, but perhaps that’s because I could get it whenever I wanted it.

  2. Batham’s reputation has nothing to do with its scarcity and everything to do with it being a superb beer. Sometimes it’s best to just enjoy things without over-thinking them.

    1. “Sometimes it’s best to just enjoy things without over-thinking them.”

      Well, I’ll need lots of expensive therapy, then.

  3. I remember buying a bottle of Bathams Best on a Black Country brewery visit in the 1990s and it had that legendary cachet among CAMRA legionnaires then; I have a vague memory of spindly sweetness. However, I went to the Vine for a Telegraph review couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the bitter, sprightly was what I wrote at the time and with a cracker-like dryness. Was an amazing pub, though I did wonder that if it was my local I would yearn for something stronger at the end of a session, like a barley wine or something with a lot of hops in it.

  4. Bathams (and Holdens too) are pale, a bit sweetish and honeyed, moving into bitterness. Full bodied with great drinkability and mouthfeel. Typical Black Country beers really and best enjoyed for what they are and where they are. They are classic beers in classic pubs.

    And nothing like Landlord whatever which is, in my opinion, no longer much of a benchmark for anything.

  5. How nice to see such an engaging discussion of classic English pale ale.

    Gary

  6. I’ve always had a very soft for Bathams and have happy memories of the Swan in Chaddesley Corbett. One of my relatives used to drive me and my brother out there in the 1970’s. I drank quite a bit of it early in my boozing career so I’ve never thought of it as exotic or difficult to get hold of.

    It’s still a cracking pint. Though I usually drink their Mild, which is at least as good a beer:

    http://barclayperkins.blogspot.nl/2011/09/black-country-part-two.html

  7. I am a leading member and forum moderator of SABRE – the Society of British Road Enthusiasts (sad bastard alert). Every year we hold our AGM in late April at the Great Western, and the Batham’s Best Bitter is invariably wonderful, and far ahead of any other beer available in the pub.

  8. I’m so glad my suggestion worked out and you got to try some! Don’t know if you got the chance to try a Holdens Bitter or Golden Glow while you were there (the pub is actually owned by Holdens I believe) – they are another Black Country family-owned brewery, and would have been a good comparison point. Both make excellent beers and I do feel there is a particular ‘Black Country Bitter’ style, which has all of that initial sweetness going on, but a dry finish that make them very pintable beers (as in, you want to settle in for a good pint or two, not just sip a half then move to something else). I don’t think it can just be scarcity that has made them so legendary – I know rampant hop-crazed tickers that still make Bathams a regular beer even when they have other “more exciting” options on offer, and I have had cravings for Bathams/Holdens quite a bit since I left the area – nothing else seems to hit that same flavour spot! Sadly I didn’t get any on this Midlands visit – I need to plan another trip with that as my main goal :-)

    1. We tried Holden’s Bitter and Best Bitter, too. They didn’t seem to be in quite as good condition – not bad, just not ‘singing’, as it were — so we’re reserving judgement.

  9. Sorry for a late comment, but your mention of the Great Western made me think about just when did Holdens buy the pub? My old records say I first went there in 1990, but I think it was Holdens from at least 1989 since I stopped in Wolverhampton that September and was intending to visit the GW (only sane reason to traverse the subway from HL station at the time) but didn’t have a lot of time and was diverted by finding a beer festival in full swing on the Low Level platforms, which were still in place then. Consulting my pub historian friend (cited in The Book), he thinks that the pub was previously a free house that was already selling Bathams – the relevant point (at last?) being that this is why you can still get Bathams as a regular beer in a Holdens pub.

    My most recent visit was when I stayed in Wolverhampton last November for a couple of nights and spent some time in the GW on both evenings. My rather unscientific observation was that Bathams Bitter outsold Holdens Bitter by 2:1, and I agree that the former had the edge (my own consumption was definitely more than 2:1 in favour of Bathams). There was hardly any interest in the guest beers.

    The LL station redevelopment includes a new Premier Inn (no connection, I last used the Mercure) and you could do worse than staying there for a Black Country weekend especially as the GW is 2 minutes away and also the bus station is very near the remaining station and has very good services, at least in the day. With your interest in historical beer reconstructions, the Sara Hughes pub in Sedgley has to be high on the list of places to try.

    Ian

  10. Well well… I just nipped out to the local Premier convenience store and it turns out they stock bottles of Bathams! So naturally I had to buy one. We’re 30 miles from the brewery.

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