Category Archives: buying beer

Ask for it By Name!

These days, it would seem odd to go into a pub and simply ask for ‘a pint of lager’ or a ‘half of bitter’ but that, we think, is a fairly recent development.

Fortunately, people have been observing, recording and advising on the etiquette of ordering beer in pubs for decades so we can trace the change fairly easily.

1938: Avoid Brand Names

Assuming that you intend to star on beer the safest drink for you to demand is ‘bitter’… Or you might try a Burton (alias ‘old’) if you have a taste for something a little less acrid… Having become proficient at ordering in its simpler forms, you may proceed to the more complicated mixtures… There is no necessity for any instruction to be given on the ordering of bottled beer… You have only to be careful in a tied house that you do not ask for the product of a rival brewery, and that error is easily avoided by ordering a light or dark ale without mentioning names.

T.E.B. Clarke, What’s Yours? — the student’s guide to Publand

1990: Brand Names for Bottles

There are five different kinds of draught beer: [Lager, Bitter, Mild , Guinness and Non-alcholic or low-alcohol beer]… Non-alcoholic beer is usually sold by name… Most pub beer is sold on draught. You can see the names of each one available on the pumps at the bar. You order them by the pint of half-pint… ‘A [pint/half-pint] of [bitter/lager/mild] please’. There are also many beers which are sold in bottles. You ask for them by name.

Jimmie Hill and Michael Lewis, Welcome to Britain: language and information for the foreign visitor

1996: Ordering by Brand is a Northern Irish Peculiarity

At a basic level, the bar staff just need to know whether you want bitter, lager or another sort of beer, and whether you want a pint, a half, or one of the wide variety of imported and domestic beers sold by the bottle… When ordering,  you just say ‘A half of lager, please’ or ‘A half of bitter, please’…  In Northern Ireland, pubgoers tend to order beer by brand name: they will say ‘A pint of Harp’, rather than ‘A pint of lager’ and ‘A pint of Smithwicks’ rather than ‘A pint of bitter’.

Kate Fox, Passport to the Pub: a guide to British pub etiquette

2001: ‘A Pint of Bitter’ No Longer Sufficient

It used to be fairly simple for the beer drinker: a pint of bitter… This was in the days when pubs were owned by breweries and a pint of bitter was the normal draught ale made by that particular brewery. Nowadays, there is likely to be a choice of bitters, but there are worse things than choice.

Nicholas Pashley, Notes on a Beermat: drinking and why it’s necessary

2009: Order by Brand to Pass for Native

The easiest way to sound native in a pub is to order your beer by the brand name, rather than using the generic terms ‘lager’, ‘bitter’ and so on. If you like trying new thing, you could ask for a pint of ‘Old Speckled Hen’ or ‘Theakston’s Old Peculiar’, but don’t blame us if you don’t like them.

Gavin Dudeny and Nicky Hockly, Learning English as  Foreign Language for Dummies

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Of course we’d like another 20 or 30 sources before we can be sure but, from that lot, we’d conclude that something happened in the 1990s that meant ordering just ‘a pint of bitter’ became passé. We reckon it was probably a combination of (a) the collapse of the brewery-tied-house pub model in the wake of the Beer Orders and (b) the sheer weight of brand-based advertising and designer culture. It might also be, however, that British consumers, after 20-odd-years of education from the Campaign for Real Ale and beer writers like Michael Jackson, had simply become more particular.

On a related note, what do you think you would get served if you went into your favourite pub and just asked for ‘A pint of bitter, please’? We put this question to someone behind the bar in a St Austell pub and they were stumped — ‘Tribute is our biggest seller, but it’s not exactly bitter, as such.’ (Although that was before the launch of Cornish Best.)

What Do We Mean by ‘Variety’?

When we’re asked what we want from British beer culture we tend to say ‘Variety,’ but what exactly does that mean?

The story of Brew Britannia is arguably that of the journey — dare we say of progress? — from homogeneity to variety. A Which? magazine article from April 1972 sums up where thing were at back then:

Our tasters thought none smelt very strongly in the glass — none were either unpleasant or very pleasant… As far as taste went, the overwhelming impression of our tasters was that none of the keg beers had an very characteristic taste… We can see little reason for preferring one keg bitter to another…

But 43 years on, it’s not unusual to hear even hardened beer geeks emit the occasional whine about the ‘agony of choice’.

Continue reading What Do We Mean by ‘Variety’?

Doom Bar and the Question of Origin

It’s official: thanks to Lucy Britner at Just Drinks we now know that Sharp’s Doom Bar — the bottled stuff, at least — has been being brewed outside Cornwall since 2013.

From the moment Molson-Coors bought out Sharp’s in 2011 people down here in Cornwall have been wondering how long it would be before production moved to Burton-upon-Trent. Others assumed it had already happened and that there was slyness afoot. One local source even told us they’d heard a Sharp’s brewer dropping big hints about it last year.

Now the cat’s out of the bag, what does it mean?

In a part of the world where the act of buying local is highly politicised it might create opportunities for other Cornish brewers to supply restaurants, supermarkets, delicatessens and bars which have, until now, been happy with bottled Doom Bar.

In reality, though, we suspect it will take months for most people to clock this news and, even then, many won’t care — it’s a popular beer which presumably sells to the trade at a competitive price and it’s still Cornish-ish, right?

But if we ran a business and had for the last two years been buying those bottles on the understanding that the beer was Cornish-made — and probably pitching it to our customers as such — we’d be pretty annoyed.

We came to this story via the Western Morning News and are grateful to Kev Head for pointing us to the original source.

UPDATE 01/07/2015

We asked Sharp’s the following question on Twitter but have yet to get a reply despite prodding:

Choosing a Lager in the UK

The arrival of a new beer from Sweden on the UK market has made us wonder about the hierarchy of packaged lagers available in the UK.

The graphic below isn’t a league table, exactly. Rather, we imagined that someone was offering to buy us an entire case of lager, and then played the options of against one another, based on our most recent experiences of each beer.

So, if offered the choice between a case (or, rather, a slab) of Foster’s or one of Carling, we’d take the Carling. If we were then given the opportunity to trade up to a case of Camden Hells, we’d certainly take it.

This is based on our personal preferences and prejudices, of course — your table would likely look different because, for example, you might not have a soft spot for the curry house favourite Cobra like we do.

There’s a vague attempt at order — imports to the right; bigger UK breweries down the middle; those pitched as ‘craft’ towards the left. The wishy-washy colour coding is intended to hint at a scale from nasty to delicious, via bland (or neutral if you want a more, er, neutral term).

An attempt to rank lagers available in the UK with Schlenkerla Helles our top pick and Foster's at the bottom of the pile.

As it was samples of Fagerhult from Swedish cider-makers Kopparberg that kicked this off, we should say that we didn’t much like it — drunk on its own, it’s bland shading to nasty, with no discernible bitterness or malt flavour, just some sweet vegetal notes. It was OK with salty, spicy food (a tomato-based curry), seeming more bitter by contrast. We can’t imagine buying it over most other bog-standard brands, though, unless it was hugely discounted or, say, we were having a Swedish-themed Wallander watching party.

It’s also worth noting that we’ve heard worrying reports of a recent and sudden drop in quality of bottled Pilsner Urquell. When we last had it, it was as pungently weedy and bitter as ever but we will try a bottle or two in the new packaging when we get the chance and report back.

UPDATE: We might have been too generous to Fuller’s Frontier above, with the not-bad draught version in mind, rather than the bottles which we didn’t like at all last year.

Boak & Bailey’s Golden Pints 2014

Prompted by Andy Mogg at Beer Reviews, here are our nominations for the best bevvies, bars, book and blogs in the world of beer in 2014.

Bearing in mind that we live a long way from where the action is and haven’t been abroad, our choices are perhaps a bit parochial and conservative. In general, though we try to keep a bit of distance and remain objective, you might also want to cross-reference this lot against our disclosure page. And who knows how this list might have looked if we’d written it yesterday, or tomorrow.

Best UK Cask Beer: St Austell Proper Job

Proper Job pump clip.After much over-thinking, we decided that we wanted to recognise a beer from one of our local breweries, of which we have drunk several pints every week, usually at the Yacht Inn in Penzance, and which consistently delighted us — that is, made us say ‘Ooh!’ and ‘Ah!’ The peachy, pithy, juicy aroma gets us every time, laid over a clean, fresh-tasting beer with no rough-edges at all. Through compromise rather than design, it’s been an American-style IPA at session strength for some years, which is now apparently all the rage. We expect to drink lots more of it in 2015.

Best UK Keg Beer: Brew By Numbers Cucumber & Juniper Saison

Brew by Numbers Cucumber and Juniper Saison.At first, we struggled to think of any keg beers we’d drunk often enough to form a strong opinion — we dabbled with a lot of one-off glasses in Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol and London, but didn’t go back for seconds of many or any. Then we recalled this beer which we enjoyed back in June and liked enough to seek out for a second session. A gimmicky beer from a brewery whose beers we don’t find universally brilliant, it nonetheless knocked us for six — the beer equivalent of a classic ‘fruit cup’. (We have also found it good in bottles, but not as good as from the keg.)

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer: Thornbridge Tzara

Thornbridge beer bottle caps.The most convincing Kölsch you’ll taste outside Cologne and, debates over style and stylistic sub-divisions aside, one of the best lager beers around. The most impressive thing about it is the malt character — solid enough to chew on. Not flashy but classy, and a real demonstration of brewing skill. (Here’s what we said back in February.)

Continue reading Boak & Bailey’s Golden Pints 2014