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. This “abso­lutism” is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of every beer cul­ture in the world oth­er than the Amer­i­can and Bel­gian.

        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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