The Loss of Local Preference as Observed in 1966

Book cover -- H.A. Monkcton: A History of Ale & Beer.

H.A. Monckton’s 1966 book A History of Ale & Beer is these days interesting mostly for what its epilogue tells us about the period of its writing, and about the tension between local and global.

That section of the book covers the rise of keg beer and the trend towards consolidation from an industry insider’s perspective (Monckton was on the board at Flower’s of Stratford-upon-Avon) but there’s a particular bit we want to zero in on here because it chimes with our Session post from last Friday which touched on the globalisation of taste:

Throughout history certain districts have favoured their own types of beer. There are definite differences between those beers brewed in the North, in the Midlands, and the South. Recently the strong preferences of certain districts have begun to weaken, not because of a change in the customer’s palate but rather because brewery amalgamations are bringing about the closure of many local breweries, which has meant the discontinuation of many local beers… In the case of bottled beers the situation was usually accepted without undue trouble, but often customer reaction to the introduction of new draught beers was strong. So strong has it been in several instances that the substituted beers have had to be changed to a type more in line with local requirements…

Unfortunately, he doesn’t break this down much further except to observe that sweeter beers were particularly popular in places like London, Birmingham and Coventry with high concentrations of manual workers, especially during and after World War II when sugar was rationed. He observes that:

All the successful beers launched on a national scale in the ten years following the last war, whether pale in colour or dark, were sweeter rather than drier. Now, some twenty years later, the situation is changing again, and full-drinking bitter beers, both in bottle and in cask, are returning to prominence. It is interesting that some premises in the Midlands are now selling increasing quantities of draught bitter beers where only mild ales have been sold for a quarter of a century.

Dry, bitter beers, he suggests, are simply better suited to our climate than ‘soft sweet beer’ — an argument we don’t quite follow, if we’re honest.

But, anyway, that’s stage one of homogenisation, driven by national consolidation and distribution, and countrywide marketing: everyone drinking the same style whether town or country, north or south, toff or scruff.

Harp lager beer mat (detail)

Then in the last paragraphs of the book he forecasts (or, rather, fails to forecast) stage two: in the midst of a great push that saw lager’s share of the UK market creep up from less than 2 per cent to 7 per cent by the end of the decade he suggests a certain scepticism about its suitability for the English weather. He was wrong, and lager now makes up something like 70 per cent of the market in the UK, and the vast majority of the global market.

On a related note, Alec Latham has an interesting post on lager in the UK at Mostly About Beer in which he observes that ‘Lambic has leap-frogged Lager’. (It’ll make sense when you read it.) If not exactly a return to local tastes as described by Monckton the failure of new breweries to engage with the market for lager does at least suggest — in some small way, in odd ways — some sort of shift.

And, while we’re pointing outwards, here’s a thought on a declaration by Carlsberg’s chief executive Julian Momen that the Danish giant is considering acquiring a UK craft brewery. Rather than join the (admittedly fun) game of guessing at specific breweries that might be in the frame we’ll just observer that previous UK acquisitions by global players have tended to be conservative. Camden, Meantime and Sharp’s all had strong brands popular in mainstream outlets; flagship beers at accessible strength (under 5% ABV); in classic styles (lager, bitter, pale ale); and straightforward, easy-drinking takes on those styles at that. (We’re being polite to Doom Bar, there.) In other words, breweries that already act ‘global’ seem more likely candidates than those that go out of their way to express any particular local or otherwise distinct character.

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’.

New Breweries, Classic Styles

Pilsner as an LP

It’s easy to mock self-consciously ‘craft’ (def 2.) breweries — [Chortle] ‘I suppose they make barrel-aged imperial India pilsner with passion fruit and freeze-dried raspberries! Hur Hur!’ — but it seems to us that the same breweries also do more than they are sometimes given credit for to keep classical styles alive.

A few years ago we stuck up for Brodie’s of Leyton, East London, who were accused of brewing ‘silly beers’. They did, and do, brew sour beers with fruit and a whole range of hop-heavy pale ales but they also did something that no-one had done in the London Borough of Waltham Forest for about 40 years by our reckoning: they made a standard cask-conditioned dark mild.

(We don’t know if they still do — their website is pretty useless and the last Untapp’d check-in appears to be from last August.)

Then, last month, we were astonished to see this line-up at BrewDog Bristol:

Beer menu at BrewDog Bristol.

For clarity (bad photo, sorry) that’s a straight-up stout (Jet Black Heart), a Dortmunder, an altbier (Candy Kaiser) and an eighty shilling, all on draught. All of them were respectful, straightforward attempts to brew (for better or worse) as per accepted style guidelines.

Elsewhere we have Buxton which has brewed straight-up and very convincing Belgian-style tripel, dubbel and patersbier; Thornbridge’s takes on helles, Kölsch, doppelbock, and more; and Harbour’s new line-up which also includes helles along with pilsner and even a bitter actually called Cornish Bitter.

There are plenty of other such examples, and likely to be yet more as Craft with a capital C converges with established breweries’ bandwagon-jumping efforts in Wetherspoon pubs, Tesco and other mainstream outlets.

Perhaps if people (hey, including us) stop sneering for a second and encouraged this kind of thing, they’d do more of it. And then maybe Fuller’s could jump on that bandwagon by making their ordinary bitter (Chiswick) and mild (Hock) more readily available all year round.

Session #121: Bock! (Absence Of.)

Illustration adapted from a vintage bock beer poster.

For this edition of the monthly beer blogging jamboree Jon Abernathy has asked us to think about Bock, which left us in a pickle.

You see, in multiple UK cities over the course of several weeks, we haven’t seen a single Bock for sale. Perhaps surprisingly there was a Cornish Bock from St Austell (very decent, too) but if it still exists, it’s in deep hiding.

So we were going to swerve this Session altogether until, researching an article on Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson last week, we got thinking about Dortmunder.

Dortmunder, like Bock, is one of the 25 or so varieties of beer listed in the style guide in Jackson’s original World Guide to Beer back in 1977, and of which multiple examples were listed in our Bible, his 1998 throwaway, picture-heavy Great Beer Guide. But we can’t remember the last time we encountered anything calling itself a Dortmunder. (Although there are a few Exports around.)

Absent from his 1977 style guide, however, is Gose, examples of which are fairly easy to come by these days. That’s odd, isn’t it? That sour beer with salt and coriander should be more readily available than what you’d think might be a more accessible strong lager.

Well, maybe not. To many drinkers — even those with quaite refained palates — lager is lager is lager, and not terribly interesting. And a strong lager with a narrower focus on unsexy malt over hops is an even harder sell in 2017, especially to British drinkers who really do expect fireworks to justify an ABV of more than 5%.

UPDATE 11:20: Oh, except that we did have a Dortmunder at BrewDog Bristol in February. No Bock, though.

Magical Mystery Pour 23: Magic Rock Salty Kiss + Special Guest Star

The penultimate beer of a set chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East is an old favourite: Magic Rock’s take on the salty, sour native beer style of Saxony.

We’ve drunk this beer many, many times, and have written about it often, including in our short and short-lived columnette in the Guardian Guide back in 2015. Nonetheless, we were very happy to give it fresh consideration, especially as we had a twist in mind.

People have been telling us to try Westbrook Gose (South Carolina, USA) for ages but despite its being theoretically widely available in the UK we’ve only ever seen it accompanied by the words OUT OF STOCK. But this time luck was on our side and we managed to nab a single can at £4.90 for 330ml from Honest Brew.

Which leads us to a first point of comparison: Salty Kiss cost £1.99 per 330ml can from the same source, which means Westbrook Gose has to be more than twice as good — stratospherically brilliant, in fact — to justify its asking price.

We drank both side by side. They looked remarkably similar in the glass — hazy gold, soft peaks — but the Westbrook gave off a more obvious sour smell, like a lemon in the compost bin.

The head on a glass of Salty Kiss.

Salty Kiss is made with gooseberries but does not taste of them, is not green, and will not strike you as all that weird if you’ve ever had a Fentiman’s lemonade. If any fruit comes to mind, it’s strawberries, but maybe that’s because of the design of the can, like a grown-up version of that experiment from Home Economics lessons at school where banana-flavoured milk dyed pink so easily fools the palate. Gose’s eyebrow-raising headline ingredient is salt but we don’t really taste it, perhaps because it is in balance with beginner-level sourness. Nor do we particularly latch on to any coriander, which presumably means its been used with the light touch 21st Century craft brewers (def 2) are so often chided for lacking. Our impression this time, as always, is that this is a classy, well-constructed beer that closely resembles the beers currently sold as Gose in Leipzig and around, only with a bit more punch, which is why it’s on the A Team.

Our first impressions of Westbrook Gose were of a much greater sourness. If Salty Kiss is Victorian pop, then this is some kind of sports drink designed to be chugged from a plastic bottle under the Friday Night Lights. The sourness is of a particular type: a sweaty, cheesecake funk; milk left too long in the sun. The obligatory fruit comparison: peaches. It clings to the tongue like peach tin syrup, too. There’s a line beyond which this kind of thing ceases to taste much like beer and, from our perspective, this beer is on the wrong side. Which is not to say we didn’t enjoy it — there is something moreish about it, and it’s not insanely sour or anything. If you always Go Large when the option is presented then, of the two, this might be the Gose for you.

Going back to Salty Kiss after the Westbrook Gose was a revelation. It was almost a different beer — lighter, fresher, hoppier, its pale ale DNA suddenly rampant. Different and, yes, better. Amazingly great. We’re still in love.