In REGION You Must Try BEER

The cover of the Beer Map of Great Britain, 1970s.

A couple of years ago we suggested a few indicators of a healthy beer culture. Number eight on our list was the presence of a ‘must try’ regional speciality. Having been reminded of that post, we’ve been thinking about which UK regions have something that fits the bill.

Now, we’re not talking about which beers are best or most exciting but those which in some way reflect local history and tradition, in the same way a Maß of Helles tells you you’re in Munich.

Here’s a partial list, very much off the top of our heads:

  • Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire: pale ale — Bass, Worthington White Shield or Marston’s Pedigree.
  • Cornwall: strong (c.5%), brown, sweetish ale, e.g. Spingo Middle, St Austell HSD.
  • Edinburgh: 80/-. (It’s not unique to Edinburgh but it’s what we’d seek out if we were there for one day on a fortnight’s tour of the UK and were never coming back.)
  • Glasgow: Tennent’s Lager — brewed here since 1885, in a country which went over to lager decades before England seriously got the taste.
  • Kent: bitter with Kentish hops, e.g. Shepherd Neame.
  • London: porter. It died out, yes, but this is where it was born, and there are some fairly authentic local examples now available, e.g. Fuller’s.
  • Manchester: Manchester pale ale — historically Boddington’s, which was notably light in colour and high in bitterness; now Lees’ MPA or Marble Manchester Bitter.
  • Salisbury, Wiltshire: golden ale, specifically Hop Back Summer Lightning at the Wyndham.
  • West Midlands: Batham’s or Holden’s Bitter. We asked Tania, a noted fan, to summarise what makes these beers different: ‘It’s the subtle malty sweetness that kicks in at the end of each sip, once the restrained hop bitterness has refreshed your mouth, that makes Black Country bitters so easy to drink.’
  • Yorkshire: bitter. A very broad region and a very vague local speciality that Leigh Linley tried to pin down here.

It feels as if somewhere ought to own mild, but where? From fragmented observations, we’ve got a vague idea there’s a ‘mild line’ that runs through the industrial north from, say, Dudley to Manchester, where you can reckon on most pubs having one on draught, even if it’s only kegged, but we’ve yet to test this thoroughly on the ground.

Could Sheffield stake a claim to ‘pale’n’hoppy‘ — distinct from golden ale — with Kelham Island Pale Rider in mind? Or should that go to Harrogate as the birthplace of Rooster’s Yankee? At any rate, we’ve got a vague idea its home is somewhere in The North.

And in Somerset, the must-drink local style is probably… cider.

There’s certainly more to British beer that ‘warm, flat, brown bitter’ (let’s face it, that’s what most of the world thinks) and, with c.1,400 breweries about, reviving lost local specialities might be one way to carve a niche, and lure beer geeks to your part of the country.

Devon White Ale, if it still existed, would make for a great local speciality, though perhaps brewed without the raw eggs. (And Kent has a claim here, too.) Dorchester ale, which probably contained ginger, is also extinct but it would be nice if it came back, along with Taunton and Derby ales, whatever they were.

27 thoughts on “In REGION You Must Try BEER”

  1. This is good, agree with all your suggestions for the regions. Might I submit you are missing the entire of NE England, however. I always think in a modern context the distinctively north eastern style of beer is a mid-brown and malty (not unlike a lot of Scottish beer) and Workie Ticket fits the bill. A nod to the proper brown ales of the past (Newcastle Brown and Double Maxim) but certainly within the bitter category nevertheless.

    1. Please, replace Shep with ANY other Kentish brewery! No one should seek that industrial muck out when looking for traditional Kentish hoppy.

      Gadd’s No 7 or No 5 would be a good example IMO.

      Otherwise, interesting, including Stonch’s bit about the NE.

      Was Boddington’s the only traditional (very) pale Mancheser bitter, others being darker?

      1. Nick — comments on the Boddington’s post we link to above go into that in some depth. If not the only one, it was certainly the most prominent.

      2. Shep’s Master Brew, and I would guess Bishops Finger, are very much traditional Kentish. Not sure about the rest though.

    2. Was just thinking about NE beers, agree with Workie Ticket. I vaguely remember Scotch Ale being a Newcastle only thing, and I think I remember seeing one from Tynebank(?) a few years back.

    3. The NE beers, brown and malty, are damn close to being the same thing as the Edinburgh 80/- style. This is unlikely to be a coincidence. It is more about the availability and price of malts and hops in the C19.

    4. I think the north east could stake a claim to the dark bitter with slight roast and fruit. Thinking of Vaux now Maxim Samson, Cameron’s Strongarm, Tetley Imperial and John Smith’s Magnet.

    5. In a lot of the North-East, beers like Lorimer’s Best Scotch – ordinary bitter strength, but darkish and lightly hopped – used to pretty much staple beers.

  2. London Murky…

    As I’ve said before many times, mild is hugely popular in Cambridge. No idea why, but it is served in probably 50% of the pubs.

    1. I think that’ll just be because Cambridge is such a CAMRA city, as in a city where they hold a lot of sway in pubs. So its not really a reflection of the city’s affinity to mild as CAMRA’s!

      1. Its not a huge CAMRA city per se, no more or less than anywhere else I have been, its just a very, very middle class city, and real ale is a very, very middle class drink.

        1. I beg to differ. Massive beer fest and disproportionate number of CAMRA wet dream pubs. I bet membership figures and branch activity would bear me out on this.

          I know Cambridge quite well, in fact oddly I’ve been there more than Oxford in the last ten years

          1. Oh well if you’ve visited a few times, you must know better than me. I only live here, what would I know.

  3. Bit sad that Liverpool can only muster a mixed drink speciality. A “brown bitter” is a pint glass filled 3/5 with an easy drinking bitter like Cains or Thwaites served with a bottle of Mann’s brown ale on the side. Very pleasant.

    1. I thought so too, but when I actually went there I saw much more Bitter being drunk. Except at Sarah Hughes, of course. I do think you’re right about the area roughly from there to Manchester being places where you are likely to be able to find some mild fairly easily.

  4. Bang on with the West Midlands suggestions; Batham’s and Holden’s are both classics examples.

    Mild has a very deep-rooted connection with workers in the region, particularly the versions from Banks’s (Wolverhampton) or Ansells (Aston).

  5. If the criteria is that your visiting for one or two days and you want a traditional local pint then in CARDIFF it has to be Brains SA. The original. Not the SA Gold (and never ever the Rev James).

    1. That’s certainly the iconic local brand but I’m not sure it’s all that regionally distinctive.

      1. Not sure it’s still brewed, but you could say something like Allbright was the quintessential Welsh beer – weak, lightly hopped, designed to be drunk in large quantities to quench working men’s thirsts, and often consumed with a lemonade top. Once advertised as “The Most Popular Pint in Wales”.

        Still loads of Worthington BB sold in South-West Wales.

    2. “That’s certainly the iconic local brand but I’m not sure it’s all that regionally distinctive.” – that’s probably the case too for Summer Lightning. A more representative example of the central southern England style (in my experience) would be Wadworths 6X, Ringwood Old Thumper, or Gibbs Mew Bishops Tipple. Summer Lightning stands proud precisely because it’s at odds with the examples quoted above.

      While the presence of a “must try” beer in a locality is definitely a sign of a healthy beer culture, I would humbly suggest that it doesn’t necessarily imply, or have to be, a regional speciality. As you say, porter died out in London, and while there are interesting locally brewed examples now, that break in the timeline causes a bit of a problem when it comes to the idea of a regional speciality.

      1. It’s probably worth pointing out that there are regions and regions – Cornwall, for example, has a population of about 540,000: a third the size of Munich or a seventieth of California.

        Particularly given that the UK is generally very well connected and has a fairly mobile population, it probably makes sense to talk about cask ale as a regional speciality of the UK as a whole rather than pondering whether some rather specific variety of cask bitter can be considered characteristically East Anglian or whatever.

      2. We have less must-drink regional styles and more must-drink regional brewers. If you go to Suffolk drink Adnams etc.

  6. Growing up in the West Highlands, I seem to remember McEwan’s being the most common beer in the public bars as opposed to Tennent’s.

  7. You are lucky to be able to even attempt this. In North America craft has virtually destroyed former actual regionalization and, as when it does confront it in the form of northeastern regional micros, attacks it as just poorly made beer full of yikky balancing malts, idiotically using brand names older than 36 months.

  8. In my first ever blog post about beer – which dates from 2006 and was actually mostly about the sm*k*ng b*n – I wrote:

    In south London, where I learned to drink, the bitter is generally tawny and malty. In south Wales and East Anglia, the next two areas where I tried the beer, the bitter is usually both malty and tawny. The types of bitter native to Scotland, Cornwall and Yorkshire, in my experience, have similar characteristics. There are variations – Cambridge beer is flat and tannic; a lot of Scottish beer tastes as if a bag of toffees has been dissolved in it (which in a sense it has); and South Walian beer is the best in the world bar none. But they’re variations within a shared style: in most parts of the country, if you order the local bitter you can safely expect something T and M.

    I don’t know why I left Sussex off the list, but it fits (tawny and malty, but tannic and dry). Harvey’s bitter is a definite for any list of regional specialities.

    I do think Sussex brown bitter, Suffolk brown bitter, East Anglian brown bitter, south Walian brown bitter, north Walian brown bitter, East Yorkshire brown bitter and Scottish brown bitter are distinguishable one from another. Perhaps not quite as instantly distinguishable as Batham’s from Summer Wine, though.

    As for Sheffield and Manchester, I think of it as one thing from the beer perspective – a trans-Pennine pale’n’oppy belt, historically at least.

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