Q&A: Which Classics Might I Have Missed?

“I was drinking a bottle of Proper Job yesterday and thinking about how I only started buying it after reading your blog. Later, I drank some Beavertown Gamma Ray and Magic Rock Cannonball and wondered if, by drinking fancy craft beers usually modelled on American style, I was missing something. Can you recommend any perennial British beers, the kind of thing you perhaps take for granted but that might have been overlooked by people who’ve only come to love beer since craft really took off?”* — Brendan, Leeds

That’s an interesting question and, let’s face it, exactly the kind of thing we semi-professional beer bores dream of being asked.

To prevent ourselves going on for 5,000 words we’re going to set a limit of five beers, and stick to those available in bottles, although we’ll mention where there’s a cask version and if it’s better. We’re also going to avoid the temptation to list historically significant beers that we don’t actually like all that much — those listed below are beers we buy regularly and actually enjoy drinking.

Four strong Harvey's bottled beers.

1. Harvey’s Imperial Extra Stout is a big, intimidatingly flavoursome, heavy metal tour of a beer that makes a lot of trendier interpretations look tame. It was first brewed in the 1990s to a historically inspired recipe. We didn’t used to like it — it was too intense for us, and some people reckon it smells too funky– but now, it’s kind of a benchmark: if your experimental £22 a bottle limited edition imperial stout doesn’t taste madder and/or better than this, why are you wasting our time? It’s available from Harvey’s own web store.

Continue reading “Q&A: Which Classics Might I Have Missed?”

Time to Let The Old School Rejoin the Party?

This is an interesting Tweet from Matt Curtis who is currently doing some shifts in a pub:

One of our friends springs to mind: he likes bitter, hates ‘that grapefruit thing’ and struggles to find anything he fancies drinking in places like The Craft Beer Co, despite its vast range. He has lately taken to putting his foot down and insisting on meeting in pubs with at least one old-school, brown, balanced beer.

So, yes, we reckon pubs or bars with a craft identity (def 2.) perhaps ought to take account of this potential market.

Of course many already do, often looking to craft breweries (again, def. 2 — founded since about 2005, graffiti on their pump-clips, etc.) to provide something a bit like bitter but with more pizazz — Amber or Red are the usual codewords.

But maybe that’s misguided.

Maybe instead everyone should just acknowledge that the best old-school bitters are made by old-school breweries who have been doing it for 30, 40, 100 or more years, and embrace them.

Fuller's vinyl-record beer mat, 1956.
Fuller’s jumping on the pop music bandwagon in 1956. Needs to be resurrected!

Five years or so ago the sight of, say, a Black Sheep or Timothy Taylor Landlord pump in a would-be trendy post-gastro, pre-craft pub would have made us groan. Too many times we paid over the odds for something stale, warm and headless served in something like an IKEA tumbler. So pointedly not serving those beers, or London Pride, or Butcombe Bitter, was a good way for Proper Craft places to signal their intent: there’s no Peroni here, only Camden Hells; we don’t have Guinness, try this Thornbridge stout; and we certainly don’t sell any of The Usual Suspect boring brown bitters. Then, that made sense. Then, we welcomed it.

But now, that point doesn’t need hammering home and so perhaps it’s time to let Fuller’s, Taylor’s, Harvey’s, Hook Norton (def. 1) et al back into the party.

We’d be quite happy to see London Pride, Landlord or Sussex Best, in really top condition, as part of the offer at the Craft Beer Company.

Or at a BrewDog bar.

[Exit left, pelted with tomatoes.]

Bottle Milds 4: Old & Dark

This time, we’re tasting two beers that weren’t on our original list, one from Glamorganshire, the other from Sussex.

There was a bit of angst on Twitter and elsewhere when we said we hadn’t been able to get Brain’s Dark for this tasting. We really did try, checking six or seven different supermarkets, and online. We’d given up and moved on when, suddenly, it appeared in our local Tesco. It wasn’t on display proper but hidden in a plastic-wrapped slab on top of the shelving from where a chap with a ladder had to retrieve two bottles. We paid £1.50 per 500ml in a four-for-six deal.

Despite the cryptic name the label trumpets a ‘best mild ale’ award from the World Beer Awards. The ABV is 4.1%, nudging above where most milds sit. It’s not bottle-conditioned or self-consciously artisanal so there were no gushes or quirks on pouring and it produced a glass of black topped with a thick wedge of beige without fuss. This is the blackest mild we’ve tasted so far — a real light-stopper.

Continue reading “Bottle Milds 4: Old & Dark”

Retro Bottles from Harvey’s

A £37.50 mixed case from Harvey’s of Lewes brought us a selection of 24 gloriously old school beers in tiny 275ml bottles.

They look as if they’ve been pulled from a dusty shelf behind the bar at a pub that closed in 1983 — not ‘faux-vintage’ but evidence that, if you wait long enough, most graphic design starts to look cool again. Here, we’ve focused on four that belong to styles popular in the mid-20th century but which have long been abandoned by most other breweries.

Blue Label (3.6%) sends all the signals of ‘light ale’ — a type of beer that all but disappeared with the arrival of ‘premium bottled ales’ in the 1990s. Being based, however, on the almost universally adored Sussex Best — the brown bitter even the most desperate hop-hounds conceded isn’t boring — turns out to be rather good. The carbonation is arguably too low — getting a head on the beer was tough and it slipped away instantly — except that this seems to give it a hop-oily, tongue-coating richness. The core flavour is toffee, yes, but it’s heavily seasoned with drying, grassy hops that leave a final twist of medicinal bitterness on the tongue. In short, it’s good beer in its own right, and much better, or at least more interesting, than many over-cooked bottled bitters available in supermarkets.

India Pale Ale (3.2%) is similar — amber-gold, caramelised sugar, stewed tea hoppiness — but watery with it. We reckon it’s a pretty good example of what IPA meant to British pub drinkers 30 or 40 years ago but how many beer geeks trained on Goose Island and BrewDog Punk have been let down by it in the last five years? It wasn’t any effort to drink but we’ll have another Blue Label next time, thanks.

Continue reading “Retro Bottles from Harvey’s”

Harvey’s: Christmas in a bottle

Four strong Harvey's bottled beers.

One of our best Christmas memories is of sitting in the splendidly Victorian Royal Oak, not far from London Bridge, drinking Harvey’s Imperial Stout, when, very obligingly, heavy snow began to fall outside. That’s probably why, when it came to thinking about which beers we wanted in the stash to see us through the bleak midwinter, our thoughts turned to the venerable Sussex brewer.

Their recently tarted up online store offers a mixed case of strong beers with a ‘lucky dip’ approach, i.e. you get what they’ve got in. We ordered one with fingers crossed hoping for at least a couple of bottles of IS and (woop!) got six, and the same of Prince of Denmark, Elizabethan Ale and Christmas Ale. All are in neat little 275ml bottles, perfect for a session with the mince pies.

The great news is that, though IS (9%) remains the star of the show, the others (all 7.5%) are also excellent. They highlight the character of the slightly funky house yeast which adds complexity to what might otherwise be rather sickly-sweet beers.

By way of specifics: Christmas Ale (and this a compliment) could pass for a Fuller’s beer — fruity and round with plenty of orange peel and cherry character; while Prince of Denmark, billed as ‘dark ale’, is in export stout territory — all liquorice and cocoa under a thick brown head. Elizabethan Ale, first brewed in 1952, we’re still getting our heads round, but our first impression was very much ‘Yum’.

While shopping online, we also considered this twin-pack of mini-kegs from Adnams as a Christmas present to ourselves but it didn’t quite suit our plans. Have you spotted any similarly tempting packages?

PS. We’ve never received any freebies from either Harvey’s or Adnams — not even a Christmas card, tangerine or walnut — and paid for the selection box above from our own pocket money.