The Batham’s, at Last

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On more than one occasion, we’ve been asked, “Have you tried the Batham’s?” On answering “No,” we’ve had the distinct impression that our credibility as commentators on beer has been reduced to zero.*

Of course we want­ed to try it any­way, hav­ing heard from var­i­ous sources, on numer­ous occa­sions, that the small West Mid­lands fam­i­ly brew­ery pro­duces beers which are deli­cious, with a hard-to-define ‘mojo’. And we’re not immune to the tick­ing instinct, either.

Hav­ing trav­elled for 6+ hours from Pen­zance to Birm­ing­ham, we weren’t, how­ev­er, quite in the mood for a fur­ther hour of bus­es and trains to get to the brew­ery tap at Stour­bridge and turned, instead, to some­one with local knowl­edge.

Tani­a’s sug­ges­tion was the Great West­ern next to Wolver­hamp­ton cen­tral sta­tion – 20 min­utes on the train, plus five min­utes walk­ing. Per­fect!

A cute, flower-cov­ered pub sur­round­ed by rail­way archi­tec­ture and indus­tri­al waste­land, it was dec­o­rat­ed through­out with mem­o­ra­bil­ia from the GWR, which once passed through the city. (Its west­ern ter­mi­nus is, as it hap­pens, Pen­zance.) On a sun­ny Fri­day evening, it had a pleas­ant buzz, and a mixed clien­tèle per­haps just tend­ing towards late mid­dle age.

And there it was: Batham’s Best Bit­ter (4.3%). We ordered two pints along with a pork pie (‘real’, not ‘craft’), a hot pork roll and some ‘Bostin’ Crack­lin’’ – if you don’t like pig meat, food options are rather lim­it­ed in the evening – and set about get­ting acquaint­ed.

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There are some men­tal con­tor­tions to go through when tast­ing a leg­endary beer for the first time. On the one hand, it’s easy to end up tast­ing the hype, and prais­ing the Emper­or’s new clothes. On the oth­er hand, it can also be easy to end up feel­ing let down. We tried to for­get all of that and just drink it.

It was cer­tain­ly very pret­ty, scor­ing 11 out of 10 for clar­i­ty. As for the taste… Well, we were momen­tar­i­ly sur­prised by a pro­nounced hon­ey note, but could­n’t help but be impressed. The bal­anc­ing bit­ter­ness devel­oped as it went down, and there was almost a sug­ges­tion of nut­ty grains between the teeth.

Ulti­mate­ly, though, it had that qual­i­ty which makes writ­ing about beer dif­fi­cult at times – some­thing impos­si­ble to put into words, but which is per­haps a result of fresh­ness, or a sub­tle com­bi­na­tion of bare­ly-per­cep­ti­ble aro­mas and flavours. A cer­tain mag­ic.

But…

Much as we enjoyed it, we did find our­selves won­der­ing how much of its rep­u­ta­tion was down to the beer’s rel­a­tive scarci­ty, and the glam­our of time and place. It did­n’t strike us, fun­da­men­tal­ly, as that much dif­fer­ent, or bet­ter, than the prod­ucts of many oth­er fam­i­ly brew­eries.

For exam­ple (and we’ll prob­a­bly get told off for this) in Man­ches­ter, we attempt­ed to approach Robin­son’s Uni­corn (4.3%, gold­en) with sim­i­lar detach­ment, and actu­al­ly rather enjoyed it. If Robin­son’s restrict­ed its sup­ply, and if it was only served in pubs like the Great West­ern which kept it in tip-top con­di­tion, per­haps it too would have a cult rep­u­ta­tion.

We can’t wait for the chance to drink a few more pints of Batham’s just to make sure, though.

Fur­ther read­ing: Bar­m’s recent post about pub-crawl­ing in Dud­ley is a crack­ing read, and this 2012 piece by Pete Brown was prob­a­bly where we first real­ly reg­is­tered the exis­tence of Batham’s.

* “What cred­i­bil­i­ty?” &c.

19 thoughts on “The Batham’s, at Last”

    1. It’s been a few years since we’ve had a real­ly spot-on pint of Land­lord, sad­ly, so don’t quite feel able to make the com­par­i­son with con­fi­dence. Land­lord is prob­a­bly dri­er and lighter in body, though.

    2. I would­n’t have said so – Land­lord is heav­ier, for one thing (when my local did both I used to have Tay­lor’s BB as my ses­sion pint & fin­ish off with a Land­lord). Batham’s is light and sweet – when you first taste it you think it’s going to be too sweet. And it’s aro­mat­ic, and it’s got a very dry, bit­ter fin­ish – it’s unusu­al­ly mor­eish for a 4.4% beer.

      I take the point about scarci­ty and hype (not touch­ing the Robin­sons’ sug­ges­tion!), but I’d argue it a bit dif­fer­ent­ly. If you’d nev­er had a dry, tan­nic, malty bit­ter you’d think Har­vey’s HSB was a superb beer, and that it was amaz­ing and unique. It is a superb beer, but it’s basi­cal­ly a good exam­ple of the local style of bit­ter. Batham’s Bit­ter for me tastes like a good exam­ple of a style of bit­ter I’ve nev­er had any­where else. It’s very tempt­ing to go hyper­bol­ic, because there’s so lit­tle to com­pare it with. (See also Spin­go. Flo­ra Daze, Ben’s Stout and even Spe­cial can be com­pared against rea­son­ably sim­i­lar beers, but what would you com­pare Mid­dle to? Hence the temp­ta­tion to go over­board on how amaz­ing­ly incred­i­bly unique it is.)

    3. Fun­ni­ly enough, “how does it com­pare to Land­lord?” was going to be my ques­tion. Clear­ly Land­lord is the default ref­er­ence point for a decent tra­di­tion­al bit­ter.

      1. But in this case “how does it com­pare to Land­lord?” is only slight­ly more use­ful than “how does it com­pare to Guin­ness?”. Vis-a-vis Land­lord, it’s lighter, sweet­er, paler, dri­er, more aro­ma-hop­py and less malty… but apart from that it’s quite sim­i­lar!

  1. I used to live a short walk from the Bull & Blad­der, which is the brew­ery tap (it’s actu­al­ly called The Vine). I only went there once. I nev­er found Bathams to be any­thing spe­cial, to be hon­est, but per­haps that’s because I could get it when­ev­er I want­ed it.

  2. Batham’s rep­u­ta­tion has noth­ing to do with its scarci­ty and every­thing to do with it being a superb beer. Some­times it’s best to just enjoy things with­out over-think­ing them.

    1. Some­times it’s best to just enjoy things with­out over-think­ing them.”

      Well, I’ll need lots of expen­sive ther­a­py, then.

  3. I remem­ber buy­ing a bot­tle of Bathams Best on a Black Coun­try brew­ery vis­it in the 1990s and it had that leg­endary cachet among CAMRA legion­naires then; I have a vague mem­o­ry of spindly sweet­ness. How­ev­er, I went to the Vine for a Tele­graph review cou­ple of years ago and thor­ough­ly enjoyed the bit­ter, spright­ly was what I wrote at the time and with a crack­er-like dry­ness. Was an amaz­ing pub, though I did won­der that if it was my local I would yearn for some­thing stronger at the end of a ses­sion, like a bar­ley wine or some­thing with a lot of hops in it.

  4. Bathams (and Hold­ens too) are pale, a bit sweet­ish and hon­eyed, mov­ing into bit­ter­ness. Full bod­ied with great drink­a­bil­i­ty and mouth­feel. Typ­i­cal Black Coun­try beers real­ly and best enjoyed for what they are and where they are. They are clas­sic beers in clas­sic pubs.

    And noth­ing like Land­lord what­ev­er which is, in my opin­ion, no longer much of a bench­mark for any­thing.

  5. How nice to see such an engag­ing dis­cus­sion of clas­sic Eng­lish pale ale.

    Gary

  6. I’ve always had a very soft for Bathams and have hap­py mem­o­ries of the Swan in Chad­des­ley Cor­bett. One of my rel­a­tives used to dri­ve me and my broth­er out there in the 1970’s. I drank quite a bit of it ear­ly in my booz­ing career so I’ve nev­er thought of it as exot­ic or dif­fi­cult to get hold of.

    It’s still a crack­ing pint. Though I usu­al­ly drink their Mild, which is at least as good a beer:

    http://barclayperkins.blogspot.nl/2011/09/black-country-part-two.html

  7. I am a lead­ing mem­ber and forum mod­er­a­tor of SABRE – the Soci­ety of British Road Enthu­si­asts (sad bas­tard alert). Every year we hold our AGM in late April at the Great West­ern, and the Batham’s Best Bit­ter is invari­ably won­der­ful, and far ahead of any oth­er beer avail­able in the pub.

  8. I’m so glad my sug­ges­tion worked out and you got to try some! Don’t know if you got the chance to try a Hold­ens Bit­ter or Gold­en Glow while you were there (the pub is actu­al­ly owned by Hold­ens I believe) – they are anoth­er Black Coun­try fam­i­ly-owned brew­ery, and would have been a good com­par­i­son point. Both make excel­lent beers and I do feel there is a par­tic­u­lar ‘Black Coun­try Bit­ter’ style, which has all of that ini­tial sweet­ness going on, but a dry fin­ish that make them very pintable beers (as in, you want to set­tle in for a good pint or two, not just sip a half then move to some­thing else). I don’t think it can just be scarci­ty that has made them so leg­endary – I know ram­pant hop-crazed tick­ers that still make Bathams a reg­u­lar beer even when they have oth­er “more excit­ing” options on offer, and I have had crav­ings for Bathams/Holdens quite a bit since I left the area – noth­ing else seems to hit that same flavour spot! Sad­ly I did­n’t get any on this Mid­lands vis­it – I need to plan anoth­er trip with that as my main goal 🙂

    1. We tried Hold­en’s Bit­ter and Best Bit­ter, too. They did­n’t seem to be in quite as good con­di­tion – not bad, just not ‘singing’, as it were – so we’re reserv­ing judge­ment.

  9. Sor­ry for a late com­ment, but your men­tion of the Great West­ern made me think about just when did Hold­ens buy the pub? My old records say I first went there in 1990, but I think it was Hold­ens from at least 1989 since I stopped in Wolver­hamp­ton that Sep­tem­ber and was intend­ing to vis­it the GW (only sane rea­son to tra­verse the sub­way from HL sta­tion at the time) but did­n’t have a lot of time and was divert­ed by find­ing a beer fes­ti­val in full swing on the Low Lev­el plat­forms, which were still in place then. Con­sult­ing my pub his­to­ri­an friend (cit­ed in The Book), he thinks that the pub was pre­vi­ous­ly a free house that was already sell­ing Bathams – the rel­e­vant point (at last?) being that this is why you can still get Bathams as a reg­u­lar beer in a Hold­ens pub.

    My most recent vis­it was when I stayed in Wolver­hamp­ton last Novem­ber for a cou­ple of nights and spent some time in the GW on both evenings. My rather unsci­en­tif­ic obser­va­tion was that Bathams Bit­ter out­sold Hold­ens Bit­ter by 2:1, and I agree that the for­mer had the edge (my own con­sump­tion was def­i­nite­ly more than 2:1 in favour of Bathams). There was hard­ly any inter­est in the guest beers.

    The LL sta­tion rede­vel­op­ment includes a new Pre­mier Inn (no con­nec­tion, I last used the Mer­cure) and you could do worse than stay­ing there for a Black Coun­try week­end espe­cial­ly as the GW is 2 min­utes away and also the bus sta­tion is very near the remain­ing sta­tion and has very good ser­vices, at least in the day. With your inter­est in his­tor­i­cal beer recon­struc­tions, the Sara Hugh­es pub in Sed­g­ley has to be high on the list of places to try.

    Ian

  10. Well well… I just nipped out to the local Pre­mier con­ve­nience store and it turns out they stock bot­tles of Bathams! So nat­u­ral­ly I had to buy one. We’re 30 miles from the brew­ery.

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