Gold or Pale or Mancunian?

Thornbridge Made North.

We’ve been thinking again about how different three pints of ostensible similar yellow beer at c.3.7% can taste depending on which sub-species they belong to.

First, there’s what we think of as ‘honeyish’ golden ales. Exmoor Gold, reckoned by some to be the first golden ale of the modern era, is one example; Timothy Taylor Golden Best might be considered another. Ah-hah, but, you say, that’s really a light mild. And you’re on to something there, because mild is a much better word than bland, which we used to dismiss this group a few years ago. These beers might look light but they have a fair bit of body and some residual sweetness, ending up almost syrupy. ‘Gold’ really works, suggesting as it does richness and a certain weight.

Then there’s the pale-n-hoppies. These descend from Hopback Summer Lightning, of which more in a moment, and are defined by their extreme pallor and high perfume. They’re usually light-bodied, too — spritzy. Oakham Citra is a good example, or Hawkshead Windermere. A decade ago we used to find this kind of beer hard work, all quinine and air freshener, but tastes change.

Finally, there’s an extinct sub-style which has been revived in recent years: the austerely bitter Manchester pale ale which has Boddington’s as its sole ancestor. Ray came back from his trip to Sheffield last weekend all abuzz about Thornbridge Made North; Northern Monk’s (defunct?) True North was another excellent example. English or other restrained European hops, used primarily to create bitterness, are a defining feature, as is a certain dryness, and evident wholemeal maltiness.

So where does Summer Lightning sit? We reckon these days it’s got more in common with the Manchester sub-style (German hops, not hugely aromatic, but by no means honeyish) than the pale-n-hoppy revolution it inspired, via Rooster’s Yankee. Young’s Bitter AKA Ordinary, depending on which month you catch it, might almost belong in that group too. Certainly when those northern lads who founded CAMRA ended up in London, it was Young’s to which they turned in the absence of their beloved Boddies.

The problem is for the consumer is that these beers all look more or less alike, and as we know people less obsessed with beer than us lot often buy based on some combination of colour and ABV. If you like Golden Best and end up with Oakham Citra  because it’s the right strength and shade, or vice versa, you might feel disappointed. And without knowing the context it would be easy to taste one of the Manchester/North ales and think, huh, this pale-n-hoppy from a noted producer of aromatic beers is a bit dull.

Perhaps what we’re hoping for is some sort of convention in naming and labelling. It’s already half there, to be fair: honeyish beers are often called Something Gold or Golden Something, and Boddington’s clones seem invariably to have ‘Manchester’ or ‘North’ in their names. And that middle lot… They always specify which hops are used on the pump-clip, don’t they?

If a lesson in hops, malt and yeast is Module One in learning about beer, then perhaps tasting these three sub-styles could be one branch to follow for Module Two.

Twenty-First Century Brewpub

A version of this post first appeared in the autumn 2017 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s quarterly magazine BEER and is reproduced here with permission.

To brewers, publicans and drinkers, there is undoubtedly something almost irresistible about the idea of making, serving and drinking beer within the same four walls.

If you’d been around three hundred years ago and ordered a quart of beer the chances are you’d be served something brewed metres away from where you drank it. The brewhouses weren’t necessarily on display but anyone who has ever visited the Blue Anchor in Helston, Cornwall, will know how a brewery makes itself known even from behind closed doors – with tumbling steam that carries the aroma of malt and hops. It seems to make the beer taste better and certainly adds to the romance.

Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, industrial brewing developed, with production becoming ever more centralised in ever bigger facilities. By the mid-20th century a handful of big brewing concerns were operating across the country and the number of ‘homebrew houses’ had dwindled to fewer than ten.

But in the 1980s, as part of the post-CAMRA real ale boom with its rejection of the industrial and mass-produced, the ‘brewpub’ was invented. The primary driver in that was a brewery in the basement of a South London pub, The Goose & Firkin, set up by David and Louise Bruce in 1979. They opened several more pubs with their own breweries in the decade that followed, mostly in London. The Firkin chain made the Bruces’ fortune as they sold strong beer brewed on site to pubs rammed with the type of customer happy to pay a little more for something truly unique.

Continue reading “Twenty-First Century Brewpub”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 10 February 2018: Lancashire, Lager, Lambic

Here’s everything on the subject of beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from northern pubs to northern clubs via Belgium.

First up, a post from Katie at The Snap & The Hiss which offers some insight from behind the bar into what pubgoers really want to drink, and how they feel about being confronted by a world of choice:

Marketing a product to people who already love that product is about trends and loyalty and surprises. Finding new fans is a more difficult endeavour, especially if you’re so far down your own rabbit hole that you don’t know what they don’t know. A large percentage of drinkers aren’t invested in the breweries you care about/you are. Many people don’t understand what they’re buying. A lot of drinkers aren’t actually sure what the difference is between cask and keg. And yes – some drinkers, to our constant unfair derision – truly believe that cloudy beers are off. It’s time to admit it: we’re answering the wrong questions about beer.


Four brewers.

Will Hawkes, one of the few bona fide nose-poking journalists working in beer, sniffed out the story that Mahrs of Bamberg was opening a brewery in London. Now, for Imbibe, he has all the fascinating details, including the fact that the brewery is now called Braybrooke Beer Co and actually ended up in Northamptonshire:

It’s the result of a collaboration between restaurateurs Luke Wilson and Cameron Emirali, who run 10 Greek Street, distributor Nick Trower of Biercraft and Stephan Michel, the owner of Mahr’s Bräu, the craft-beer world’s favourite traditional German brewery…. The result is a kellerbier, an unfiltered and unpasteurised amber lager inspired by Mahr’s world-renowned ‘Ungespundet’ (known as ‘U’). It’ll be made with German malt and hops, fermented with Mahr’s yeast, and brewed in the traditional way, including a single decoction step and four weeks’ lagering.


Vintage SIBA sign on a pub in London.

If you’re interested in the non-sexy behind-the-scenes business of the beer industry then this post from brewer Steve Dunkley of Beer Nouveau offers an interesting take on moves by the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) into distribution and wholesaling, and its deepening connections with pub companies:

SIBA have created an expensive box-ticking exercise that replicates what breweries already have to do legally. They’ve removed a route to market for non-members, are taking money from PubCos intent on dropping cask from local breweries, and are risking further reducing choice for drinkers whilst also increasing profits for PubCos at the expense of brewers and drinkers alike…. I really can’t see how they can claim to represent the interests of independent breweries, and I can’t see how CAMRA can continue to use Flying Firkin [which SIBA recently acquired] as a recommended wholesaler whilst it runs the very real and emerging risk of reducing consumer choice.


Collage: a fractured pub.

This week saw the release of statistics from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) suggesting that though beer consumption overall is up, sales of beer in pubs and bars (the on-trade) was down by 2.4% based on the previous year, equating to some 88 million fewer pints. Tandleman has some thoughts here: “For those with jobs and ‘just about managing’, choosing to drink cheap beer at home as pub prices increase on those already wage squeezed, is rapidly becoming a no brainer.”

(We’ve said similar ourselves: the problem is that nobody has any money!)


Illustration: lambic blending.

For Beer Advocate Gail Ann Williams and Steve Shapiro offer a portrait of a new wave Belgian ‘nano-blendery’. As well as a discussion of the cultural significance of a new blendery charging what by Belgian standards are eye-watering prices for challenging products (cinnamon Framboos!) it’s also full of interesting details on the process:

Souvereyns combines three inoculated wort components for all of his beers, relying on relationships with three Lambic producers: Girardin, Lindemans (in Vlezenbeek), and De Troch (in Wambeek). In particular, he believes the De Troch influence is key to his flavor signature. “De Troch is one of those breweries that is so underrated. The Lambic [it] makes is phenomenal but people only relate that brewery to sweetened products,” he laments, referring to quickly-produced fruit beers which subsidize the old brewery’s limited Oude Gueuze production.

(We’re not quite sure when this piece appeared online but we only noticed it this week.)


We’ll finish with this archive film from the BBC on the boom in northern clubs during the 1960s. It contains lots of shots of foaming pints.

How Come Nobody Criticises That Rosé de Gambrinus Label?

We admit it: the rhetorical “Where’s the outrage?” winds us up.

What it so often means is, because you forgot to mention This, you must now shut up about That, AKA ‘whataboutery’ — a means of shutting down rather than adding to an ongoing discussion.

In relation to beer we’ve seen this argument rolled out a few times lately as part of the renewed discussion around sexist beer labels. Here’s the latest nod in that direction (a very mild one, it must be said, and hardly malicious) which directly prompted us to post today:

At this point, we chipped in: people do talk about this label. We’ve seen them do it. We were involved in a Twitter discussion about it ourselves just before Christmas  prompted, of course, by someone asking “Why is nobody complaining about Cantillon’s classic Rosé de Gambrinus woman getting touched up on a bench?”

It also featured in this widely shared 2015 list of sexist beer labels from Thrillist; was mentioned in passing by Natalya Watson in a well-read blog post in January 2017;  has been picked up by Mike from Chorlton Brewing on a couple of occasions, e.g. here; and it has frequently come up in discussion at Beer Advocate and RateBeer. People have noticed it and aren’t 100 per cent comfortable; it has not sailed beneath the radar.

But, yes, it’s true it isn’t one of the top beers on the hit list, and we can’t find any really impassioned posts by any of our fellow beer bloggers calling for that particular label to change or be removed from shelves.

In fact if you go back far enough you’ll find various people sticking up for it and, indeed, citing criticism of the label as evidence of humourless puritanism. Here’s Jay Brooks of Brookston Beer Bulletin, for example, writing in 2006 about US censorship of the RDG label: “I cringe every time I think what prudes we are as a nation and how ridiculous we must seem to the rest of the civilized world.” Here’s the one that will probably most surprise people, though: Melissa Cole saying something quite similar a decade ago. It’s so at odds with Melissa’s current stance that we felt compelled to ask her about it via Twitter DM:

I was wrong. I also didn’t realise it was a pattern of wider misogyny in the naming of the beers at Cantillon, I only found out what Fou’ Foune meant relatively recently and given that they are happy to change their mind for commercial reasons in the US, how about they change their minds for the sake of coming into the 21st century too?

I was probably also a bit worried about taking aim at one of the ‘untouchables’ as well. At that time I had taken about six months of quite serious stick and was being denied information and quotes by a cabal of brewers who were closing ranks and trying to keep me quiet by making it very difficult to do my job – fortunately most of them have now retired or folded.

I’ve never claimed to be a perfect person or a perfect feminist (if either of those things actually exist!) and I’m happy to say I got that one wrong and I’ve been quite happy to be vocal that it needs changing recently partly because I don’t worry about being bullied any more and partly because, even if people do come at me, I feel I’ve got a far better way to communicate my points these days – a decade of challenging issues of inequality in the industry, even imperfectly, will do that for you!

The bar has clearly moved and the boundaries are continuing to change. Things that seemed fine a decade ago, or even a couple of years back, have acquired an unpleasant stink. The Rosé de Gambrinus label isn’t violent or sweaty; it’s so soft it seems almost abstract; and the beer doesn’t have a baldly suggestive name to go with the picture. In 2018, though, none of that quite washes, and we suspect there will be more direct criticism of Cantillon in the next year or two. And, yes, we suspect Cantillon probably were given a bit of a pass because they are cool, interesting and mysterious in a way microbreweries in middle England rarely are.

But it does seem to us that we’re reaching a point where there are (per Melissa’s very honest admission) no longer any untouchables, and rightly so, at least in part because of people asking “Where’s the outrage?”

In the meantime remember, if you think this label or that is particularly nasty, there’s nothing stopping you from writing about it. You don’t have to wait for Melissa or Matt Curtis to do it.

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Having said all that, there are plenty of good reasons why British commentators might choose to concentrate on British beers. First, this is our turf and we feel entitled to a say in what goes on here, whereas it feels somehow presumptuous to put pressure on brewers operating in different countries or cultures.

Secondly, as consumers and commentators in this ecosystem, we stand a faint chance of influencing the decisions of brewers and retailers, so it feels worth the bother. Or, to put that another way, the folk at Castle Rock might just care what we and others think, whereas we doubt the aloof enigmas of Cantillon, who can’t brew enough beer to meet global demand, give a flying one. If someone did want to pressure them, how would they do it? When Cloudwater drops a clanger its Twitter feed blows up; Cantillon isn’t on Twitter, and is barely on Facebook.

Finally, there’s the fact that Rosé de Gambrinus might as well not exist in our world. We don’t remember the last time we had it or saw it for sale, and if we did we probably wouldn’t want to pay the asking price. For us, and probably for many other, it simply doesn’t come to mind. Teignworthy Bristol’s Ale or Castle Rock Elsie Mo, on the other hand, are beers we have actually encountered in a pub in the last month.

* * *

There’s also, of course, an argument for not mentioning particular breweries at all. There’s not much here that can’t be discussed in terms of general principles, is there?

Yes, Greene King — More of This

For some years now we’ve been repeating one message: old family brewers should be focusing on their heritage, not trying to keep up with BrewDog. So we were delighted to hear that Greene King has upped its historic beer game.

Their new limited edition bottled heritage range doesn’t quite approach the full-on authenticity of Fuller’s Past Masters series being, as far as we can tell, only vaguely ‘inspired by’ archive recipes rather than painstakingly recreating them. What is notable is their use of a once near-extinct variety of malting barley, Chevallier, the revival of which you can read about here:

Starting a few years ago with only a handful of seeds, by 2013 half a tonne was available for brewing…. Now the 2015 harvest is nudging 200 tonnes and there’s Chevallier malt aplenty. With another 15 tonnes reserved for seed, the expectation is that similar harvests will be possible in future years…. “People that have tasted it say that it has a very rich, malty flavour. We’ve had comments back from the States such as, ‘It’s the most aromatic malt that I’ve ever brewed with.’ … There’s a perception of a difference, of richer maltiness.”

We bought one bottle of each of Greene King’s heritage beers at our local Tesco supermarket for £2.49 each. That’s a touch pricier than many bog standard supermarket ales but then the bottles are full-pint sized and the beers are both relatively strong.

Suffolk Pale Ale at 5% ABV knocked our socks off. We found it vigorously bitter, almost too much so, with a remarkable freshness that suggests the pop of just ripe gooseberries. (It’s bottle-conditioned which perhaps helps.) It has a beautiful aroma which is hard to pin down — a certain sappiness might be the way to describe it, with some suggestion of fresh-baked bread. There’s nothing of the new world about it though the use of German hops (obvious once you read the label) offer a subtle twist, herbal rather than fruity. If you can’t bothered to brew one of the 19th century pale ale recipes from Ron Pattinson’s book this is a decent substitute. It’s delicious, thought provoking, and perhaps the best Greene King beer we’ve ever tasted. In fact, it’s one of the best beers we’ve come across in recent months.

Vintage Fine Ale at 6.5% less brilliant but it’s still very much a step in the right direction for Greene King. Deep red-brown in colour it has a distinct autumnal feel. On the plus side there were the various facets of richness — golden syrup, Christmas pudding and plums. The only things holding it back were a husky stale note (which we suspect might disappear with a few months ageing) and the fact that Fuller’s already makes similar but better beers in this style. On the whole, though, we liked it and would — indeed probably will — buy it again.

Let’s hope these sell well, that the Pale Ale becomes a regular, and that there are more heritage beers to come. But, seriously, when do we get the funk? Bring out the nip bottles of 5X and let’s get some blending going.