A Mixed Case of History

British beer bottle cap.

If you were to go to your local specialist beer shop or an online beer retailer you could put together quite an interesting mixed case of reasonably easy-to-find beers which would each tell part of the story of ‘alternative’ British beer in the last fifty years.

1. Worthington White Shield (India Pale Ale) — one of a handful of ‘bottle-conditioned’ or ‘sediment’ beers remaining by the seventies and an inspiration behind the IPA boom of the last twenty or so years. Alternatives: this was the emergency purchase for a real ale drinker in a keg-only pub; after White Shield, they’d resort to Guinness, so maybe that?

2. Courage Imperial Russian Stout — another bottle-conditioned survivor of the seventies, newly resurrected, which held the torch for imperial stout through a period when bitter was king. Alternatives: Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout.

3. Chimay Red — one of the first really exciting ‘world beers’ imported into the UK. To better appreciate it, imagine that you have only ever tasted about six beers in total in your entire life, five of which were bitters between 3% and 3.8% ABV. Alternatives: Westmalle Dubbel.

4. Theakston’s Old Peculier — the cult beer of the nineteen-seventies, sold at a premium in the hippest real ale pubs, and renowned for its terrifying strength. (5.6% ABV doesn’t seem so scary today.)

5. Anchor Steam — by the end of the seventies, the coolest imported beer in Britain, wowing visitors at the Great British Beer Festival in 1979 with its similarity to English beer (brown!) and dissimilarity to Budweiser. Alternatives: German Altbier was also very cool at around this time for the same reasons.

6. Butcombe Bitter — a surviving example of a late seventies ‘real ale revolution’ bitter. We don’t know the recipe, but, having spoken to Martin Sykes from Selby and Patrick Fitzpatrick from Godson’s, a theme begins to emerge: pale malt with a little black for colour; Fuggles and Goldings hops; yeast from the back door of a larger regional brewery.

7. Ramsgate Brewery (Gadd’s) Dogbolter— one of David ‘Firkin’ Bruce’s most famous beers was Dogbolter. Every Firkin brewer made it differently aiming for a broad specification of ‘heavy and dark’, and Eddie Gadd, who learned to brew with Firkin, continues to make it to his personal recipe.

8. Hopback Summer Lightning — if not the first ‘golden’ ale, then at least the one that inspired both Sean Franklin and Brendan Dobbin to brew ‘pale and hoppy’. Alternative: Exmoor Gold.

9. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale — the other key inspiration behind ‘pale and hoppy’ cask ales. Again, it helps if you can imagine that you’ve never tasted Cascade hops before — perhaps spend a week drinking John Smith’s bitter to recalibrate your palate?

10. Rooster’s Yankee — an early ‘pale and hoppy’, now brewed by Sean Franklin’s successors at the brewery he founded in the mid-nineties.

11. Freedom Lager — arguably the first ‘craft lager’, in the sense that it was as much about packaging and presentation as it was the beer. Originally brewed by Alastair Hook in West London, we can’t vouch for how closely its current incarnation matches the original, but still… Alternatives: Meantime Pilsner or London Lager.

12. Nethergate Umbel Ale — there were a few breweries experimenting with Belgian-inspired ingredients in the nineties and Umbel, which contains coriander, is a surviving example of that trend. Alternatives: St Austell Clouded Yellow.

13. Anchor Liberty IPA — first brewed in 1975 one of the influences upon the resurgence of IPA in the UK from the mid-nineties. We’ve seen people ask if it’s become less bitter and aromatic: the answer is, probably not, but it certainly has a lot more competition these days. Alternatives: Goose Island IPA.

14. St Austell Proper Job IPA — like a lot of people, much as we love it, we thought this was a big regional brewery jumping on the US-influenced IPA bandwagon. In fact, it was one of the earliest such beers to appear in the UK. Alternatives: Marston’s Old Empire, Thornbridge Jaipur.

15. Brewdog Hardcore IPA — inspired by US brewery Stone in every detail down to the label blurb, this is a great example of the IPA escalation which took place after 2005.

16. Wild Beer Co. Ninkasi — the end of beer as we know it? Made with ten per cent apple juice and, fermented with wild yeast, and presented like champagne, it’s no wonder the brewers refer to it, rather pointedly, as a ‘celebratory drink’. (Disclosure.)

Unfortunately, we don’t think there is a single online retailer which stocks all of these beers, but Beer Ritz has several, as does Beer Merchants.

Notes:

  • This isn’t a list of the best beers or best breweries; if we’ve not mentioned a beer or brewery, it doesn’t mean we don’t like them.
  • Some of these beers are very different to when they were first brewed.
  • We’re still researching some of this, hence the vagueness in places.
  • It’s OBVIOUSLY not comprehensive.
  • It slightly defeats the object to drink beers from the ‘real ale revolution’ from the bottle rather than on cask…

19 thoughts on “A Mixed Case of History”

  1. Nice post, and a partial answer to something I’ve been wondering about recently, ie to what extent were the things that we associate with the Craft Beer Revolution – big hops, high strengths, unusual flavourings, foreign beer styles etc – were actually being tried out from time to time by the Stuffy Old Traditionalists before said revolution happened?

  2. Of course some of the most authentic Belgian beers made in the UK (then and since I would suggest) were those from Passageway Brewery in the mid-1990s.

  3. Excellent list. I’d add a clutch of influential English pale ales such as Young’s “Ordinary”, Fuller’s ESB (especially), Ruddles County, and Adnams bitter (what Roger Protz said had an intense seaweed taste – always wondered if that particular pint was off though!). These were greatly influential on the real beer revival both in America and in the U.K. (certainly there were others). Okay, one more: Mackeson Stout. Gran-dad of the American crop of milk stouts.

    Gary

    1. We thought about including ESB. After Old Peculier, it was the other big ‘cult’ beer.

      I guess, without thinking about it, we omitted Young’s Ordinary because we know it’s nothing like the beer it used to be, but then that hasn’t stopped including several others.

      Mackeson’s an interesting suggestion. We didn’t really start getting milk stouts in ‘craft beer’ until very recently, and then they were inspired by US examples rather than Mackeson.

      What we really wanted to include was a revivalist porter but neither of the first two, Penrhos and Tim Taylor, are still on the market. Maybe Fuller’s London Porter, from twenty years later, is is in the same tradition?

  4. Fully agree re Fuller’s Porter (and the other points made). I believe there was a porter with some influence from the brewery associated to the Beer Shop in Pitfield. Probably it was American porters which had the main say in the current crop and good porter and stout in England, and withal it seems still a small category there.

    Gary

    1. Yes! Now you say it, Anchor Porter (via Michael Jackson) was probably what triggered Tim Taylor/Penrhos.

    2. The Pitfield St brewery beer you’re referring to was probably Dark Star if memory serves

  5. Indeed, Dark Star, and no question of the influence of Anchor Porter via the preachings of St. Michael. The Anchor beers were early exports to the U.K. I believe, much like Sierra Nevada a decade later..

    Gary

  6. I’m not sure what Taylor’s Porter was influenced by. When did it appear – 1978-ish? It was a very sweet beer and if it was influenced by anything it was Mackeson. I’m guessing that neither it not Penrhos were influenced by Anchor Porter. I don’t know when that first came into the UK but it may have been later than than? In any event I think it had a very low profile.

    1. John — I’m not so sure now I think about it.

      Having said that, what we *think* we’ve picked up, but can’t yet prove, is that Michael Jackson got everyone worked up about the fact that porter had disappeared after 1973, in writing and in person; and that, in particular, the fact a US brewery (Anchor) was making one, as mentioned in his World Guide (‘sweeter than Guinness, but still very well hopped’) added insult to injury.

      Frank Baillie also wrote about Anchor Porter in What’s Brewing in October 1977; with Taylor’s announcing their porter the following month. No definite connection, but talk of porter definitely very much in the air.

      So, whether or not they had actually tasted Anchor’s Porter (and I wouldn’t be surprised if brewers and beer geeks had) we reckon its very existence was an influence.

      1. Yes, the existence of arevivalist porter like Anchor may well have played its part. Having been around at that time I would in fact be surprised if many, if any, brewers had tried Anchor Porter you know? Things were much more conervative and insular then. And as foer “beer geeks” – the concept was really unknown. There may have been a tiny handful of serious enthusiaists who could equate to the modern day “bere geek”. Not least due to the fact that beers didn’t get around so much then – by and large, if you wanted a beer you had to go to its locality to get it. There were not, as far as I am aware, any modern day wholesalers around then and as you will have seen, very few “multi-beer free houses”. Unless you were there I think it is quite difficult to appreciate how utterly different the beer scene was then. Mind you by the late 70s and early 80s things were starting to change but it was initially quite a slow fuse

  7. I think existence is a good word likely (existence of a revivalist porter), i.e., even if the English brewers who restarted porter so-called hadn’t tasted it, I think they saw the discussion in the landmark 1977 book and it is interesting to know Franck Baillie had written about Anchor Porter too. Jackson’s book mentioned Yuengling porter too and some Continental ones IIRC, so porter was in the air so to speak.

    Gary

  8. Yes porter may well have been “in the air” so to speak. It also occurs to me though that Taylor’s “porter” may well have simply been a cask version of their “Black Bess” sweet stout (or at least a variant thereof).

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