In its heyday, Boddington’s Bitter was among the most highly-regarded of British beers, and the pride of its home city of Manchester. These days, it is rather unloved and rootless. Where did it all go wrong?
Michael Hardman, one of the founders of CAMRA, mentioned it, alongside Young’s Ordinary, as typifying the ‘intense bitterness’ that, as a young man, he sought in a pint of ale: it was what those early campaigners were fighting for.
Beer writer and CAMRA stalwart Roger Protz has similarly rosy memories: “The first time I drank it, in a pub in Hyde, Cheshire, I thought I had died and gone to heaven: I couldn’t believe beer could taste that good.”
John Keeling, head brewer at Fuller’s and a native Mancunian, named it as his number one ‘desert island beer’: “In 1974 at the start of my brewing career there was no better drinking beer than Boddington’s.”
And the blogoshire’s very own Tandleman told us in an email:
It was a very dry beer, yet intensely bitter throughout, though not greatly hoppy. I’m guessing early hop additions to give that intensity of bitterness throughout. Good mouthfeel too – not thin at all.
But it isn’t just a matter of nostalgia. Contemporary sources note, albeit without waxing lyrical, that Boddington’s was ‘well hopped’ (Frank Baillie’s Beer Drinker’s Companion, 1973), ‘One of the best’ (the first edition of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, 1974) and ‘exceptionally bitter’ (GBG 1977).
A highly evocative description of how Boddington’s tasted in its prime comes from a letter to What’s Brewing from Mike Field of Batley, published in May 1984: “[It had a] bitterness that clawed at the back of the throat and took you back to the bar for another one.”
It owed some part of its reputation to what the 1978 Good Beer Guide called its ‘distinctive straw colour’, and Ewart Boddington, brewery chairman from 1970 to 1989, is said (by Mr Field) to have put the beer’s popularity down to the fact that it ‘looked like lager’.
Somewhere along the line, however, even as Britain was in the midst of the late-1970s ‘real ale craze’, Boddington’s edge began to grow blunt. The story is told by the brief entries in successive editions of the Good Beer Guide: by 1983, it had ceased to be ‘exceptionally bitter’ and had become, instead, ‘A popular light quaffing bitter’, and the 1984 edition noted that ‘locals are concerned that the bitter has lost some of its distinctive character’.
While it is possible that politics might have coloured local perceptions to an extent– when Boddington’s took over the nearby Oldham Brewery in 1982, it caused a serious falling-out with CAMRA – there are many accounts like this one from blogger Paul Bailey (no relation):
[As] far back as the late 1970s, when I was still living in Manchester, rumours abounded that Boddington’s had reduced the hopping rate of their most famous product to make it less aggressively bitter (blander), so as to increase its appeal to a wider audience. This was confirmed by someone we knew who worked at the brewery, although the company strenuously denied it (they would, wouldn’t they?). We ended up voting with our feet and switched to drinking in Holts’ pubs, where the bitter still tasted like bitter, and was also quite a bit cheaper as well!
Mike Field’s letter to What’s Brewing quoted above, along with complaints at the 1984 AGM, prompted the brewery liaison officer, microbiologist Kevin Buckley, to look into the matter. In a report in the April 1984 edition of What’s Brewing, he concluded as follows:
The traditional bitter was fermented to a very low final gravity – around 1000 – removing all fermentable sugars. Now fermentation is allowed to stop at an earlier stage… This affects the palate of the beer, increasing the ‘palate fullness’ or ‘body’ of the beer, so the light, slightly thin palate becomes smoother… In combination with the reduction in ‘bitterness’ and the use of less fragrant hop, the net effect is to produce a beer with a ‘smoother mouthfeel’, less after-palate, less alcohol and less hop-aroma.… The colour of the beer has also apparently increased – to mimic the more commonly accepted ‘national’ bitters.
And it worked, eventually: ‘blanded out’, Boddington’s did indeed become a national brand in the 1990s, after the brewery was sold to Whitbread. Launched in cans in 1990, it was the best selling canned bitter for almost a decade, supported by glossy but self-mocking adverts capitalising on its Mancunian roots in the era of the Happy Mondays and Oasis.
But it wasn’t really Boddington’s – it was an impostor, especially when, after 2004, new owners Interbrew moved production out of the City. Some Mancunians continued to drink it out of habit or nostalgia, while CAMRA members and other beer geeks wouldn’t be seen dead with a pint of its ‘smooth’ keg incarnation.
They weren’t interested in ‘creaminess’ – instead, they yearned for that dry, golden, truly bitter beer of 30 years before.
Filling a Boddington’s-Shaped Hole
The first brewery to attempt to plug the gap was Marble who launched ‘Manchester Bitter’ in (we think) around 2001. Never intended as a clone, MMB started from the idea that Boddington’s Bitter in its prime was actually a single expression of a localised style. In 2011, head brewer James Campbell was quoted by journalist Will Hawkes: “It’s a pale, mid-strength, hoppy bitter beer, as was drunk in Manchester 30 years ago. That’s the tradition here.”
Clone or not, how close does it come to its inspiration? Tandleman:
It does reflect… the dryness and colour of the original Boddington’s Bitter, but not the strength – it is much stronger.
When we drank it at the gorgeously tiled Marble Arch pub last week, we found it hard to distinguish from any number of other ‘pale’n’hoppy’ beers from the north of England, though perhaps less flowery or perfumed than some examples. If we could arrange for a pint of 1970s Boddington’s Bitter to be transported through time and space, would it strike us the same way? We suspect so.
In 2013, another Manchester brewery released a beer inspired, at least to some degree, by Boddington’s. J.W. Lees is a large family concern founded in 1828, with a rather conservative image. Their Manchester Pale Ale (MPA) at 3.7% on cask is an attempt to do something that, by their standards, is a bit ‘out there’, i.e. not brown. MPA is the name of this particular beer, but, again, seems to imply that there might once have been an entire set of beers in this style – golden, dry, and ‘sessionable’.
Perhaps partly because we’re suckers for context and cues provided by packaging and branding, we fell hard for MPA as consumed in a Manchester pub. While its bitterness didn’t claw at the back of our throats, it did trigger that pleasant chain reaction: pint-thirsty-pint-thirsty-pint… The crusty-bread character we’ve previously noted in the same brewery’s bitter is present and correct, but complemented with more and brighter hops. It won’t excite green-nostriled lupulin addicts frantically seeking their next fix, but as a beer to settle on for a few hours, it would be hard to beat.
Our own contribution to this nascent sub-style was a set of notes emailed to Matt Lovatt at Kirkstall Brewery who produced a beer under the name Revitalisation! for our appearance at North Bar in Leeds. We referenced this recipe from Ron Pattinson and Kristen England to suggest all pale malt and a bit of sugar, and then lots of Goldings hops to achieve dry bitterness without much aroma.
Matt put a lot of thought into interpreting our suggestions and came up with a beer that, as a beer inspired by Michael Hardman’s memories of Boddington’s or Young’s, was probably not quite right. It was, however, very clean, pleasingly austere, and extremely drinkable – we would have stayed on it all night if we’d been allowed.
The Cream of Manchester
We couldn’t leave the north without drinking at least one pint of the real thing – or at least, the beer that bears the brand of the real thing these days. We found ‘smooth’ keg Boddington’s Bitter on offer at a pub in central Manchester alongside a ‘super cold’ variant, though the standard version makes your teeth chatter. It came with an inch of shaving foam on top – weird-looking even in a part of the world where a ‘tight creamy head’ is the norm – and bubbles clustered on the inside of the apparently slightly grubby glass. It tasted… well, not bad, really. Extremely bland, of course, with a touch of sweetcorn, and reminiscent of, say, Estrella Damm, but not terrible.
None of the beers mentioned above are the best or most exciting you will find in Manchester – it is a city crammed with great bars and pubs – but we think they do tell you something about its culture and history, and drinking three beers that aren’t Boddington’s can help you discern its outline.
A final tip from Tandleman: “If you want a beer that tastes pretty much as I recall the original Boddington’s Bitter, I’d suggest Linfit Gold Medal from the Sair Inn near Huddersfield. It is a near as I’ve ever had. Quite a lot stronger though at 4.2%.”
We’re sure we read something somewhere at some point about the Boddington’s yeast strain being ‘cleaned up’ in the 1980s – if you can think where, let us know in the comments below.
UPDATE 02/09/2015: Another possible explanation for the decline of Boddington’s Bitter in the 1980s has come to light through the April 1993 edition of CAMRA’s What’s Brewing. When quizzed by Roger Protz, Boddington’s brewing manager Peter Laws and general manage Ian Kendal suggested that the change might be the result of a change in priming sugars: ‘The brewery had used a blend of of cane sugar and a variety called Ambrose… When [Tate & Lyle] phased it out Boddington’s switched to another blend from the same company called DAS… Kendel and Laws think that stands for “dark ale syrup”, a singularly inappropriate name for Boddington’s Bitter.’