The Brown Bitter Company

The Brown Bitter Company. (Mockup image.)

It’s in central London — let’s say Bloomsbury — and based in a renovated Victorian pub. It’s not very big and the fact that it’s entirely panelled in dark wood only makes it look smaller.

Over the door is a slogan: “They only taste the same to uneducated palates”. On the walls, further bits of propaganda: “If you want to drink tangerine-flavoured hop-juice, you’re in the wrong bar”; “Extreme beer? Bloody rude beer, more like”; and “If a pint of bitter was good enough for your granddad, it’s good enough for you.”

On the bar are twenty handpumps serving different cask bitters from around the country. They are all in impeccable condition, cool but not cold, served with our without sparkler depending on the customer’s preference, in straight pint glasses. The vast wall of fridges behind the bar are stocked with more than 200 bottled bitters, some bottle-conditioned, others not. The one thing these beers have in common: they are brown.

There are several hefty leatherbound volumes filled with detailed tasting notes by an eminent British beer writer, aimed at helping customers detect the subtle differences between the vast range of ostensibly similar beers.

There is also a very small import section featuring American and European interpretations of bitter. For the handful of lager drinkers, there are a few bottled German dunkels on offer.

Does that sound like a nightmare, a dream or something in between? Is there fun to be had in exploring nuances and learning to appreciate subtlety? Or is variety the only path to enlightenment?

We’re not the first people to imagine a bar by a long chalk, by the way. Here are a few of Leigh’s.

58 thoughts on “The Brown Bitter Company”

  1. What a pair of troublemakers you are! For me it’s a bit like being asked whether I’d like to be shot in the hand or stabbed in the foot. Do they have a kettle, could I have a nice mug of Earl Grey?

  2. I’d totally stop there for a few. Sometimes all you want is a pint of ‘brown’ or three. Then i’d go up to Craft for something by Mikkeller.

  3. I’d LOVE to go to a place like this! After having my taste buds battered by ‘tangerine-flavour hop juice’ for the past couple of years, I’m slowing getting back into ‘boring’ bitters and actually appreciate them a lot more now.

    People only say that bitter is boring because there are so many of them. Give it five or six years and people will be saying the same about highly-hopped IPAs …

    And no, I’m not some bearded 60 year old CAMRA member – I’m a sprightly 33 year old 🙂

  4. If it is the only pub in town, it has its limitations. But if it is around the corner from “Stouts R Us” and along the way from “Miscellany Arms” where no beer like another in any respect… why not?

  5. Sounds wonderful – and let’s face it, ‘brown’ covers a hell of a lot of ground, from best bitter to mild to porter to old ales to stout to Dunkel to dubbel to Rodenbach to Spingo… But I’d still leave room for a sneaky IPA on the way home!

    1. Oh hang about, you specified brown bitters. Well, on reflection it still sounds wonderful. My very first foray into beer blogging was a whinge about how the Manchester area (actually everywhere from here to Sheffield) seemed to be afflicted with hoppy yellow beers, in contrast to the many and various malty brown beers served everywhere else. I’ve managed to acquire the taste for pale hoppy beers since then, but I stand by the rest of it – East Anglian brown bitter is a very different beast from Yorkshire ditto, or the counterparts from London, Sussex or South Wales, to name but a few.

  6. The only thing wrong with this theme bar is its in that London. Otherwise, its fine.

    I say open it up: you can always baulk at a BrewDog in the Euston Tap or go and wince at a Steel City Brewing beer in a nearby craft bar. In which case choice wins. Especially since I enjoy Steel City beers.

  7. I think everyone should take a step back. Sounds like a case of getting used to steak and longing for a hamburger (Iceland frozen 20% identifiable meat one at that)

  8. Might be nice to have a few dark brown milds as well. But, assuming that this place stocked the full variety of British bitters, from 3.1% defunct boys’ bitter strength, to 5.6% ESB strength, I’d be round there like a shot.

    Bateman’s, Brakspear’s, Taylor’s, Hook Norton, Butcombe, Donnington, yum…

    This may be the next urban hipster fad, you know.

  9. Thanks for comments, folks.

    Tandleman — we couldn’t possibly comment.

    Maxwell — don’t you like any brown bitters, then? Interesting. (Mind you, nothing wrong with a nice cup of tea. If this wasn’t a beer blog, it might be a tea blog, only how many reviews of fair trade red label can you write?)

    TIW — a-ha! Maybe we were making a point and didn’t realise it. The audience for this place (and for traditional ‘real ale pubs’) probably overlaps more with Brewdog Camden/Craft Beer Co than some people would think.

    Steve — our first draft suggested a choice of glasses including dimple mugs…

    Olsta — yes, we agree: as with anything else subject to the tides of fashion, beers will come, become ubiquitous, become boring, and be replaced by souped up versions of what we had six years before. Brown bitter will be back.

    Wittenden — never heard “Yorkshire Helles” before. Love it!

    Alan — it’d be educational every now and then, right?

    Phil — again, maybe we were making a point: much as we’re irritated by pubs which *lazily* present three brown bitters, there is a staggering range of flavours on offer in beers of that type. You might have to look a bit harder for them, but they’re there. Like visiting Cologne and drinking nothing but Koelsch, this would be a great way to recalibrate tired palates.

    Beefy — yes, as Alan says, this would only work in a city as part of an overall picture of variety and choice.

    Curmudgeon — we think it could be! If this was sold to hipsters as an intelligence test (i.e. a hint of snobbery was implied) it could be a huge hit. And, yes, this would have to be about highlighting the variety of flavours, colours and strengths captured in the catch-all “brown bitter”.

    KHM — we were going to offer you the New Zealand franchise, but if you’re going to mess with the core concept, the deal’s off…

  10. The major problem with this vision is the 20 handpumps: that’s at least 18 handpumps too many (assuming one handpump equals one brand of brown beer) and possibly 19 handpumps too many. The best way to appreciate good, well-kept, not-too-strong British bitter (and mild) is to have several pints of the same one, one after the other. That’s the way they were designed to be drunk. Flitting from one bitter to another over the course of a session might satisfy the ticker, but means you miss much of the subtlety in each individual beer. This is not true of other types of beer: I enjoy an American pale ale, or a draught Russian stout but one’s enough before my palate demands a change. That never happens with, eg, Tim Taylor’s Landlord, and that’s one of the beauties of the style Landlord fits into.

    1. MC – I agree.

      Maybe I was a bit hasty writing off brown beer. I really like Landlord and I can regularly find well kept Butcombe and Old Hooky round my way which does make for a good session.

      20 handpumps is definitely overkill though.

    2. That’s a really interesting point. Some beers, one’s not just enough, it’s too many – sometimes when I’m drinking an imperial stout I enjoy the first couple of mouthfuls enormously, then have to flog myself through the rest of the glass (why did I have to get a whole third?) A nice brown bitter just says Drink Me, and goes on saying it at least to the bottom of the second pint.

      Nothing wrong with two or three handpumps, though. A pub near me used to have Taylor’s Best on alongside Landlord, but they’ve dropped it in favour of Golden Best (light mild); if they’d kept all three on I’d be a happy camper.

  11. “Like visiting Cologne and drinking nothing but Koelsch….”

    Sorry – what else would you drink in Cologne? Warsteiner?

  12. Sounds good. I’d drink there.

    Brown bitter isn’t boring. it’s just a tad overfamiliar for a lot of people. Sometimes I like a good malty bitter and will avoid the Thornbridge pub at one end of the town where I live and go for a pint of Spire Chesterfield Bitter in the real ale pub at the other end of town instead. May be heresy to some “craft” beer fanboys but not I’m sure to everyone else.

  13. I’d be keen on a place like that. Serving different shades of the same color. Using different amounts of the exact same ingredients can give you distinctly different beers. Fiddle with the mash temperature and you can change things a bit more.

    It’s definitely a fun idea for me. Even among beer fans, those that should know better, too many are quick to discount simplicity.

  14. I have to say, I wouldn’t walk past this place. If they are well kept, I could see myself going along with a couple of friends. I did exactly that at Brewdog Camden today and had several fantastic beers (Jura Paradox from whisky barrels, Lost Dog from rum barrels,etc), but if I wanted to go to a bar and NOT talk about the beer in a slightly nerdy way, then the Brown Bitter Co sounds great.

  15. I can’t wrap my head around this.

    If Stone made a true British-style bitter—Maris Otter, EKGs, caramel heavy, 3.2% ABV, cask conditioned—the whole kit-and-kaboodle, sent it to the U.K., would that be exceptable? Would a place like The Brown Bitter serve it?

    I am truly dumbstruck by the obstinate nature of some U.K. beer drinkers. Turkey sadwiches are good, but sometimes I want roast beef. If you don’t like tangerine-flavored hop juice, order a Pedigree, and if you don’t like “boring” brown bitter, order a Victory Hop Wallop. Where does this absolutism come from?

  16. would that be exceptable? Would a place like The Brown Bitter serve it?

    What makes you think it wouldn’t?

    Where does this absolutism come from?

    Where does your impression that there’s any absolutism around here at all come from?

    1. would that be exceptable? Would a place like The Brown Bitter serve it?

      What makes you think it wouldn’t?

      I don’t know, that’s why I asked.

      Where does this absolutism come from

      Where does your impression that there’s any absolutism around here at all come from?

      Really?

      Far be it from me to assume something about another culture, but British beer (not all British beer, mind you but a fair amount), especially on the consumer end, has presented itself to the rest of the world as fairly absolute.

      Just saying, that’s how it comes off.

      1. Allow me to clarify me position. The beer itself isn’t absolute—rather the drinkers attitude toward the beer, is what is absolute. The judgement seems to come not at the expense of the beer but rather the beer drinker.

        I’m just baffled by the exclusivity of it all. Personally I drink it all, and would be happy to see a variety of beer offered everywhere.

        1. You’re baffled by the exclusivity of what? Nobody on this thread is saying they only drink anything. Who are you complaining about?

          1. Craig — this post is about taking an idea to its silly conclusion, i.e. that brown bitter (the most common type of British beer), which many people think is boring, could itself be a ‘gimmick’. In reality, no-one is doing anything like this.

            We could perhaps just as easily have written this post as “The International Pilsner Bar”.

            Most British beer enthusiasts, even if they have a preference for one type/strength/style of beer, aren’t close-minded enough to drink nothing else.

          2. I’m not complaining about anyone and I understand that this is an exercise in absurdity. But, as an American, even the idea of a pub or bar serving a single kind of beer is literally a foreign concept. Honestly, as an American I’ve read about CAMRA, and the debate between real ale keg beer. To an outside observer, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that a pub like this might open. I asked my wife to read the post, and she asked “Why would a bar want to sell only one kind of beer?” She has no connection to any beer, in fact, she doesn’t even like beer. My answer to her was “I don’t know.”

          3. Craig – I’ll repeat what I said at Martyn Cornell’s blog recently:

            “Variety is for the beer geeks – and for the breweries that want to strike out in new directions every five minutes. But beer geek culture is still only one strand of British real ale culture, most of which goes back to before real ale was called real ale.”

            (If this sounds confrontational, bear in mind that I’m a beer geek myself.)

            Most beer drinkers in most British pubs don’t know or care about styles; they’re just people who have come out for A Beer. Some excellent beer is brewed with those drinkers in mind, and it’s well worth investigating and celebrating.

          4. Who’s Paul?

            Actually I’ve done no such thing. I said that beer geek culture is one strand of British beer culture, and that the non-geek part contains much that’s worth celebrating. I’m not slagging off beer geeks, and I like variety myself – I am a beer geek, after all.

            A single-style beer bar like this hypothetical example would exist alongside other bars, as several people have said. When you say you can’t see the point of a single-style bar, you’re the one who’s closing doors.

    2. Phil, sorry for the name error.

      But I never said I didn’t see the point of a single-style bar. I understand what the concept is and why it was presented. My point is, to an American, the concept seems unusual. Your statement that beer geekiness is “…only one strand of British real ale culture…” is absolutist. Beer appreciation is about beer, regardless of place. I’m not trying to be confrontational, I would have noted the same thing if an American blogger had imagined an all hop-bomb IPA bar. Both concepts are absolutist.

      1. Your statement that beer geekiness is “…only one strand of British real ale culture…” is absolutist.

        No, it’s a statement of fact – and, I think, a statement about how the British scene is different from the American scene. There are lots of British beer drinkers who appreciate good beer but don’t feel any need to try new & different beer. Are they missing out? Yes. Are they drinking good beer? Yes.

        I don’t think there’s any exclusivity in this discussion or any absolutism – except from the people who say they hate the idea of a Brown Bitter bar.

        1. There are lots of British beer drinkers who appreciate good beer but don’t feel any need to try new & different beer.

          That seems like a fairly absolute comment on the state of British beer.

          My point is, by making a statement such as that, supported by the idea of a single-style, “bitter bar”, compounded by national organizations like CAMRA; British beer presents to the rest of the world as absolutist—beer should be served a certain way, look a certain way, and taste a certain way. Period.

          If bitter is the most common beer in the UK, and nearly everyplace sells it, what’s the point of opening a bitter-only bar—other than to elevate the status of bitter in your own opinion?

          I’m not judging British beer or it’s drinkers—in fact I really love bitter and I like most of the Brits I interact with. I’m just letting you know how it appears to everyone else.

          By the way, I never said I hated the idea of a single style bar, I simply said I didn’t understand why you would want to open one.

          1. If bitter is the most common beer in the UK, and nearly everyplace sells it, what’s the point of opening a bitter-only bar—other than to elevate the status of bitter in your own opinion?

            I think you’ve just explained it. Lots of British beer geeks are dismissive of the standard brown bitters that are produced by the major regional brewers; when they go on to rave about double IPAs and imperial stouts, it can look as if they’re dismissing brown bitter outright. But brown bitter is often a good & satisfying drink, and there’s a lot of variation within the style. Hence the thought-experiment of celebrating the style, and the variation within it, in a beer-geek-style dedicated bar.

        2. I’m also, in way, implying that American beer and it’s drinkers don’t have their own set of idiosyncrasies, too. Trust me, that’s far form the case!

          1. Reading some of the new comments. I have to provide an American counter point.

            I don’t think this is a strange or foreign concept. Technically there are plenty of American bars and restaurants that serve only one kind of beer. All that lack luster swill pawned off on the masses by Bud, Miller, and Coors. Without so much as a Sam Adams, and then it’s always the Boston Lager. They cater to drinkers that consider BMC beer, without the knowledge or tastes to know any better.

            Only difference with something like the Brown Bitter Company, their selection is a gimmick. A novelty to intrigue assorted beer geeks, with a bold attitude about it to appeal to drinkers that might otherwise pass it off.

            Suppose “The Lager Lounge” opened up in the US. Americans are used to the over-saturation of lagers. But there’d be plenty of people at a loss when they realize how many of the lagers are “dark” compared to their familiar “cracker water” they usually drink.

            For the most part “ale “is a foreign concept to the average American drinker.

            So this isn’t an alien concept, the majority of American drinkers don’t realize they’re already familiar with it.

  17. I’m an American beer geek and find nothing obstinate about a pub taking a stand and showcasing a much scoffed at traditional brew. I’ve been reading a lot of UK beer blogs, Browns generally seem to be overlooked and considered boring.

    I don’t think an all Brown Ale pub would care about a beer so long as it were, well, brown. Stone’s already partnered with Flying Dog and if anyone could make an exceptional brown, it’d be them. But I don’t see how that’s relevant. Other than you seem to assume they have an issue with American beer.

    It would be kind of counter-intuitive if “The Brown Bitter Company” served anything else. It’s their gimmick and they deserve kudos to have the chutzpah to follow through with it.

    If British beer is absolute about anything, it is that it’s British beer. So you’re right. But what else is it going to be, Norwegian?

    1. Aaron — this imaginary pub would definitely serve an American interpretation of an English bitter, especially if it was cask conditioned.

      1. That’s what I figured. Beer is a great way to bring people together! And speaking of cask beers. I just found out there’s a “pub” near me that has casked beer on tap. So the US is starting to like the idea.

  18. This is just as stupid an imagining as some pub/bars that only sell extreme ales. If you only had three pumps, ideally you would have one straw coloured ale, one copper coloured ale and one dark ale, in my opinion. A pub that isn’t selling a brown beer isn’t selling a full range.
    But there are plenty of pubs selling three or four cask ales which are essentially the same. One near me sells Doomsh*te, London Pride and Butcombe. And it’s a freehouse for christsake.

    1. LD – But there are plenty of pubs selling three or four cask ales which are essentially the same.

      This is an all too common situation which made for my original antipathy towards the idea. It’s never 3 or 4 porters or stouts, 3 or 4 pale ales or IPAs. It’s 3 or 4 badly kept, mass produced, uninteresting brown beers.

      Surely as an owner of a freehouse, it’s in your interest to offer variety and widen your customer base? It really baffles me.

      1. Maxwell, it does my head in. Why would any freehouse owner take say Butcombe over Cheddar Ales’ Gorge Best. The Best is cheaper, and a whole lot better. I have a freehouse myself, with five pumps, and always try to have a full range of cask ales. I just don’t understand what these people are thinking of.

  19. Blimey. What a lot of comments while we were away drinking brown bitter all weekend. (Butcombe, Exmoor Ale and — when those ran out — Trophy…)

    Craig — I’m afraid we don’t really understand what your point is. There are several schisms in British beer culture, it’s true. Ours isn’t a straight macro vs. craft situation because, historically, big breweries were making both the bad *and* the good beer for most of the twentieth century.

    The pub imagined in this post, I’m sure, seems odd to almost everyone, British or not!

    Again, if there’s a point to this post, it might be to provide a commentary on the idea of the ‘craft beer bar’ (new to the UK) and to probe the idea that beer geeks prefer novelty at the expense of appreciating subtletly. We find thinking and talking about this kind of stuff (sometimes derided as navel-gazing) interesting. If it makes us and others who join in look geeky… well, then maybe it’s giving an accurate impression…

    Beer Nut — bad news: “Everyone Else” inform us that your membership expired when you stopped paying your subs. Don’t quite know where that leaves you.

  20. I have to say that I like the idea of opening up a pub that just sells darker cask ales. It’s something that I would love to try to see if it worked. You would have to do it somewhere central, probably London or something, in order to have enough dark ale enthusiasts close enough to make it viable.
    You can probably tell that dark ales are my favourites, usually.

  21. An establishment that only serves canned beer? Novel idea. So long as the place itself were fun enough I’d be game. Not just saying that to save face. Novelty is good enough reason for me to enjoy plenty.

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