The magazine of the Consumers’ Association was only three years’ old when, in August 1960, it published its first report on the state of British beer.
Covering seven full pages, the article covers 25 draught bitters, 16 draught milds, and around 80 other beers in bottles and cans:
With about 300 brewers making nearly 4,000 different brews, a full, or even representative, coverage of every area has been impossible. We have, however, chosen all the nationally distributed beers, together with a selection from the larger regional breweries throughout the country.
Original gravity (OG), alcohol by volume (ABV), percentage of unfermented matter (PUM), hop bitterness (HB) and price are recorded for each.
Three years before the founding of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW), no particular attentions is paid to distinguishing between kegged and cask-conditioned beers, and filtering, pasteurisation and method of dispense are not among the various quality criteria considered:
People drink a particular beer largely because they prefer its flavour and quality to that of other brews which may be available in the district. Habit and, to some extent, fashion, also influence their choice.
All the bitters were between 3% and 4.6% ABV; the cheapest cost 6½d per-half-pint, the most expensive 11d. The best value for money bitters, Which? concluded, were from Ansell’s of Birmingham, the Carlisle State Management brewery and Friary Meux. Flower’s Keg was notably poor value being the most expensive per half-pint but with a measly 3.4% ABV.
The draught milds all cost between 5½d and 6½d per-half-pint; the weakest was Watney’s at 2.5%, the strongest Hammond’s Best Mild, from Bradford, at 3.6%. The latter seems to have been an unusual brew: not only was it relatively strong but was also more bitter even than most of the bitters with 37 HB, and a PUM of 29 which suggests it was also fairly light-bodied and dry. The milds with most poke-per-penny were from Ansell, Carlisle SM, Charrington and Fremlins.
Looking at the bottled beers, it begins to seem obvious why kegged Guinness draught (kegged) stout had such a solid reputation among beer geeks: it was by far the most bitter beer measured at 62 HB, 30 PUM. By way of comparison, the most bitter of the bitters managed only 40 HB.
It’s a shame other beers beloved of early beer geeks aren’t listed, though — we’d love to see hop bitterness stats for the legendarily intense Boddington’s and Young’s Ordinary as they were in their prime.
The purpose of this exercise, for those who missed the previous posts, is to find a beer that suits us, with a view to selecting finalists for a ‘taste-off’ before buying a case to see us through the winter. It’s not ‘the best’ but something much more floaty and subjective.
One of the triggers for our current focus on porters was the launch by Guinness of Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter under the banner of The Brewers Project.
We’re including them in this tasting, despite the fact they’re not British, for several reasons. First and foremost, they’re our rules and we can break them if we like. Secondly, and less petulantly, the parent company is also UK-based, and the beers are being sold in mainstream stores across Britain, not only through specialist importers. Finally, there’s the significance of Guinness Porter in the story of British beer.
Guinness stopped brewing porter in the early 1970s — they had been producing a tiny amount for a dwindling Northern Ireland market — thus rendering the style temporarily extinct until it was revived by one of the first microbreweries a few years later. (Brew Britannia, Chapter Four.) So, there is a certain emotional appeal to Guinness using the word on the label of a beer, even if there’s no real difference between porter and stout, and even if, despite claims to be ‘inspired by’ recipes from 1799 and 1801 respectively, they aren’t really historic recreations.
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For our tasting, we decided to throw standard bottled Guinness Original (4.2% ABV, £2.15 for 500ml at CO-OP) into the mix to check whether (a) the new Guinness porters actually taste any different and (b) just in case it turns out, within the parameters of this project, to be just what we’re looking for. It isn’t, but it really doesn’t taste bad at all: it’s quite nice. Too sweet (for Boak’s taste in particular), rather watery, and definitely lacking in wow factor, but not as grim as some critics, who are perhaps tasting the corporate structure, might have you believe.
Dublin Porter (3.8%; our bottle was sent to us by their PR people, but currently £1.50 for 500ml in supermarkets) is definitely quite different. Despite it’s lower ABV, it seems to have additional ‘oomph’, being drier and more bitter, with some milk chocolate notes where Original has only brown sugar. Only by contrast, though, not in absolute terms, and compared to the other porters we’ve tasted so far, it’s a fairly one-dimensional beer. It’s fine, tasty enough, and reasonably good value, especially if you’re after something vaguely mild-like. But it’s not a contender.
West Indies Porter (6%; pricing as above) does have a bit of star quality. In fact, it struck us as almost as good as the Sam Smith’s Taddy Porter which we’re benchmarking against. It has a firm, almost chewy body, and a pleasing acid-sweet-bitter balance — black forest gateaux territory. But… Smith’s is better and weaker, at 5%. Then again, GWIP is more readily available and, for now at least, cheaper — £18 for 12 bottles as compared to £31, plus delivery. That’s not a saving to be sniffed at. (Theatrical pause, tense music.) It’s a contender and it’s going through to the final taste-off.
On balance, we’d rather Guinness put the energy and effort that’s gone into these into sprucing up their standard range — why not make Guinness Original a more distinctive product, bottle-conditioned, at a higher ABV, and give that a sexy vintage-style label?
We’ve got a few more rounds of this to go. Next up: Kernel Export and other animals.
The invaluable and labyrinthine Internet Archive (archive.org) recently made available millions of public domain images from old books, searchable by keyword, on Flickr.com.
(We’ve tidied the images up a bit and flipped them all the right way round.)
As long as we’ve been aware of beer, we’ve known that Guinness was the draught stout, utterly dominating the UK pub market. Even the lager market, with its many very similar products, is not ruled by one single company to the same extent.
Their rise to dominance over the stout market happened quickly in the nineteen-fifties and especially in the sixties but, at the end of that period, there was one last serious attempt to challenge it.
Bass Charrington, the biggest group of its kind, and Watney Mann, the Red Barrel concern, will at the month-end launch a test market of Colonel Murphy’s draught stout at 500 pub in the Manchester and Brighton areas. Within a year, they expect to have enough information to give the new product national coverage… If Colonel Murphy’s is a success it will be a blow to Guinness, because between them Bass and Watney control more than 16,500 of Britain’s 60,000 pubs and it is reasonable to assume that the majority of these will be closed to draught Guinness. (The Financial Times, 26 June 1969.)
Unfortunately, the challenge came too late; the summer was hot; and, though they spent plenty on advertising, it wasn’t anywhere near enough to build from nothing a brand to compete with Guinness. Only six months later, the Charrington-Watney alliance conceded defeat. They not only withdrew Colonel Murphy’s from sale in their UK but also signed an agreement to sell draught Guinness in all of their pubs. Guinness had won.
Fittingly, they announced the end of hostilities, and their unconditional surrender, on 11 November. Beer geeks welcomed the conquerors with open arms.