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.
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.
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.