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.

Mostly Imaginary Beer Nemeses #1: The Sneering Bitter Hater

A lion-headed man who hates bitter, for some reason.

There are no doubt beer enthusiasts out there who hate bitter on a point of principle but surely not so many that they’re worth worrying about.

Now, there are lots of people (like us) who like to drink things other than bitter, in between pints of bitter, which they also enjoy very much.

There are also those (again, like us) who think a pub that serves three beers all within a hair’s-breadth of the same technical specifications is missing a trick. But that doesn’t just apply to bitter, and it doesn’t mean they think bitter, in itself, is fundamentally ‘boring’.

There are definitely people who dislike certain specific brands of bitter, having tasted them and made a more or less informed judgement.

Detail from an old beer mat: BITTER!

There are even people who rarely choose to drink bitter if there is something else on offer because they prefer lager (most of the UK population) or, for example, American-style IPAs. But they probably don’t care what you drink; nor do they want bitter to disappear from the face of the earth.

And there are people who’ve just never got the taste for bitter because it’s, er, too bitter. But they’re often also sceptical about beer in general — they’re not snooty hipster beer geeks looking down on this one style in particular.

Perhaps you’ll be able to point to a few tagged specimens in the wild — a blog post here, a Tweet there — but, really, isn’t The Sneering Bitter Hater just a rhetorical device? A comfort blanket for the oddly self-loathing bitter lover?

Next time on Mostly Imaginary Beer Nemeses: People Who Think Only Murky Beer Tastes Good and/or is ‘Craft’.

Magical Mystery Pour #25: Bishop Nick 1555

For this latest round of Magical Mystery Pour (the fifth) we’ve asked Justin Mason (@1970sboy) to pick us some beers from Essex in the east of England. He’s deeply immersed in the local beer scene as evidenced by his beer blog and the Twitter side project @BeerInEssex.

First, a quick recap of the premise of Magical Mystery Pour: we ask someone to pick an online retailer, choose five or six beers they think we’ll find interesting in one way or another, and send us some notes. We then buy the beers, drink them, and write them up.

We approached Justin because the idea behind MMP is to find beers we might otherwise miss and to highlight less talked about breweries, and we don’t know Essex beer at all well. Also, we both have family connections there, Boak more so than Bailey, and share a fascination with a county which at one end is tangled up in in London and at the other with East Anglia.

The first beer in this round is 1555, badged as an amber ale, from the Bishop Nick Brewery of Braintree. Its ABV is 4.3%. We bought our 500ml bottle from Essex Food for £3.10. Justin says:

Bishop Nick Brewery was founded from the ashes of Ridleys Brewery, at one time Essex’s oldest and largest by the son of its last chairman, and fittingly 1555 is named after the year that his ancestor, Nicholas Ridley was burnt at the stake for his Protestant beliefs in the reign of Bloody Mary. Hopped with Styrian Goldings this fruity red ale is one of my ‘go-tos’ if I see it on the bar on in a bottle.

We approached this with some wariness. The label says hip-young-things, the bottle size and the style says trad-as-your-dad, and ‘amber ale’ (i.e. bottled bitter) is rarely terribly exciting, even when (especially when?) bottle-conditioned, as this is. We’ve simply been burned too often by gushers and accidental lambics.

Bishop Nick 1555 in the glass.

But, thankfully, there was no drama during pouring, just a discreet pssst, the right amount of carbonation to give a decent pub-style head without requiring lots of management, and well-behaved yeast that stayed put in the bottle.

It was bright in the glass and made us want to resurrect the disgraced descriptor ‘polished mahogany’. How about the skin of a freshly-hatched conker for a social realist alternative?

The taste was remarkably unremarkable, which is a good thing. It is squarely in the brown bitter tradition, but more or less flawlessly executed.

It’s a beer ruled over by malt — round, nutty, wholemeal, chewable. Malt-led beers can often end up tasting sugary or toffeeish but there’s none of that here: it’s been properly finished and polished, with hops doing their work behind the scenes, out of sight. Well, mostly — the further we went, the more we detected a quirky fruitiness which might have been Styrian Goldings, or the yeast, or a double act between the two.

It’s hard to say what sets this beer apart but we’d guess it’s some combination of (a) precision in practice, (b) good ingredients, and (c) discerning palates. A similar brewery that came to mind was Westerham — if you like their beers, you’ll probably like this.

This is a conservative beer. It is grandfather clocks, National Trust floorboards and Inspector Morse. Don’t buy it looking for Alton Towers and fireworks. Do buy it if you’re the kind of person who can find themselves captivated by a rather interesting carved chancel screen.

That price tag, though hardly exorbitant, might put some people off when supermarkets are knocking out similar beers at less — sometimes much less — than £2 apiece. Bottled Butcombe Bitter, for example, is in similar territory, and solid in its own way, but this is better. Your money, your choice, and all that.

It Is Even Worse in England: Mild, Bitter & Lager, 1933

Detail from the cover of The American Mercury.

In 1933 the conservative American journal The American Mercury published an article on the state of British beer and pubs by English journalist H.W. Seaman, who lived and worked in the US and Canada for some years.

We stumbled across it looking for contemporary accounts of ‘improved pubs’ but in its 15 or so pages there’s plenty of other gold to be mined. We’ll let you explore the rest for yourself but wanted to put the bit specifically about the state of our beer under the microscope.

First, Mr Seaman makes clear that he found no evidence of British beer being adulterated:

Hop substitutes are used, I regret to say, but the roots of duodenal ulcers are not there. English ale is probably as clean and as honest as ever it was. But it is unhealthily weak.

Then he says something which counters the romantic view of English session beer:

Ale to be wholesome must be strong. The German- and Bohemian-type beers which America favored in the old days and will now favor again exert their humanizing influences not violently but gradually, and the patient passes through an infinity of pleasurable states before attaining the final, beatific anesthesia. Ale, however, is intended by the Almighty to deliver its message at once. Its appeal is unsubtle.  Three half-pints, and you know you have had it. If it is strong, it has vastly sweetened you and your surroundings. If it is weak, it has soured your stomach and your outlook.

In other words, chilled lager chills you out while British ale ought to knock you out.

Another startling statement comes next though perhaps we might write it off as pandering to an American audience:

My present homesickness, in fact, is less for good ale, on which I was weaned, than for the softer, kindlier brews that were later revealed to me—the light American beers of the Pilsner and Munich varieties, that came up cold and clear, with a creamy collar that clung to the glass. Their going down was as lovely as their coming up.

Yes, American beer, which even now some British drinkers take to be uniformly awful with Lite Lager in mind, was more enjoyable than British mild or bitter. He reckons that’s partly because it was cold but points out that British ale doesn’t work when chilled — it just turns ‘thick and flat’.

Patzenhofer Lager advert, 1937.

Next, he mentions the availability of Continental lager beers in London, providing further evidence for our argument that lager was the ‘craft beer­’ of its day:

It is true that Münchener Lowenbrau and Pilsner Urquell, perhaps the noblest brews of their respective orders that are obtainable today, are on tap, in good condition, in certain dispensaries of the West End of London, but their high price, thanks to the tariff, puts them out of reach of more than nine-tenths of the people.

(Consider the trajectory of lager in the decades that followed and think for a moment about what that might mean — moral panic over Hop Hooligans off their faces on licence-brewed American IPA in 2086?)

PUB SIGN: 'Public Bar'.

He also provides a handy key to the class status of the various styles, as well as some telling tasting notes (our emphases):

Call for ale in the saloon bar of a London pub, and the barmaid will say, ‘Other side, please,’ jerking her wet thumb in the direction of the public, or four-ale bar; for ale in London is a vulgar word. The middle-classes there drink bitter, a pale, golden beer so sharply hop-flavored that foreigners find it undrinkable. Burton, in London and certain other cities that have come under the Cockney blight, is a generic name for a dark ale of standard strength or less, whether it is brewed in Burton-on-Trent or elsewhere. Its social status is above mild and below bitter; although its price is that of bitter, it is rarely seen in a West End saloon bar. In the North, beer of similar character is called strong mild. Bitter is unpopular in Scotland; the ale of that country, dark and sparkling as Miinchener, is excellent, and is commonly kept and dispensed at a lower temperature than English ale.

Seaman, being a professional man, drank bitter, of course. There’s another nugget there for those of us tracking the evolution of golden ale, and sharply hop-flavoured sounds very appealing. It would be good to find later comments from him — he died in 1955, as far as we can tell, so would certainly have had chance to try the earliest keg bitters, for example.

Finally, there is this statement which seems to be spoken directly to 2016 through some kind of Time Tunnel:

[The] words can and growler, in the American sense [are unknown in Britain]. Nobody above the rank of chimney sweep could afford to be seen carrying home the supper beer.

There is a red herring here, which has caught out a couple of people lately: mentions of cans in sources from the 1930s and earlier often refer not to sealed tins as we know them but to small pails or jugs, i.e. canisters. That mention of growlers still works though, except that nowadays carrying a takeaway container of draught beer is an almost exclusively gentrified behaviour, isn’t it?

N.B. After World War II The American Mercury ceased to be merely conservative and became ‘virulently anti-Semitic’ so watch where you step if you go wandering off through the archive.

Q&A: Which Are the Best New Wave Takes on Brown Bitter?

Detail from an old beer mat: BITTER!

‘Which new wave micros make what could be considered a quality brown bitter, possibly with just a slight modern twist, that could compare favourably to Harvey’s Sussex Best or Adnams’s Southwold Bitter?’ Paul, Ealing (@AleingPaul)

This question was prompted by our previous Q&A post on ‘Traddies’ and came with an example of the kind of beer Paul has in mind: Brass Castle’s Loco Stock.

We’ve been repeating a standard line for a few years now: one possible very broad indicator of a brewery’s ‘craft’ status (def. 2) is that its best-known or flagship beer will be an American-style pale ale or IPA rather than, as with Fuller’s or Wadworth, one of its brown bitters. What this acknowledges is that many post-2005 new wave British breweries do still brew a bitter, even if it’s an also-ran in their line-up.

For example Thornbridge (disclosure: various) still make a version of Lord Marples (PDF), the cask bitter they brewed before Jaipur was invented, which was designed to appeal to traditional Sheffield drinkers. We’ve not tasted it for a while but we recall it being notably deep brown and distinctly bitter. It uses only English and/or European hops and contains crystal malt — indicators of its old-school identity.

But Paul’s question is quite specific: which of these new wave brewery bitters are as good as the best examples from the trad-regional-family brewers? Lord Marples is one of the best of the new breed but, being totally honest, faced with choosing between it and Sussex Best for one pint, all else being equal, we’d choose the latter every time. (As, we suspect, would most so-called ‘crafties’ these days.)

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