Q&A: Which Classics Might I Have Missed?

“I was drinking a bottle of Proper Job yesterday and thinking about how I only started buying it after reading your blog. Later, I drank some Beavertown Gamma Ray and Magic Rock Cannonball and wondered if, by drinking fancy craft beers usually modelled on American style, I was missing something. Can you recommend any perennial British beers, the kind of thing you perhaps take for granted but that might have been overlooked by people who’ve only come to love beer since craft really took off?”* — Brendan, Leeds

That’s an interesting question and, let’s face it, exactly the kind of thing we semi-professional beer bores dream of being asked.

To prevent ourselves going on for 5,000 words we’re going to set a limit of five beers, and stick to those available in bottles, although we’ll mention where there’s a cask version and if it’s better. We’re also going to avoid the temptation to list historically significant beers that we don’t actually like all that much — those listed below are beers we buy regularly and actually enjoy drinking.

Four strong Harvey's bottled beers.

1. Harvey’s Imperial Extra Stout is a big, intimidatingly flavoursome, heavy metal tour of a beer that makes a lot of trendier interpretations look tame. It was first brewed in the 1990s to a historically inspired recipe. We didn’t used to like it — it was too intense for us, and some people reckon it smells too funky– but now, it’s kind of a benchmark: if your experimental £22 a bottle limited edition imperial stout doesn’t taste madder and/or better than this, why are you wasting our time? It’s available from Harvey’s own web store.

Samuel Smith Taddy Porter.

2. Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter (5%) almost won in our big porter taste-off in 2014 — ‘luscious… tongue-coating, silky, fortified wine… cocoa and plummy, dark berries’ — and was definitely our favourite British take on the style. Beer Ritz have it at £3.18 per 550ml bottle.

Marble Manchester Bitter.

3. Marble Manchester Bitter (4.2%) was first brewed in around 2001 as an attempt to replicate the Boddington’s Bitter of 20 years before which was legendarily pale, dry and bitter. It’s been up and down in recent years but a bottle we had last week was absolutely perfect, and very cask-like. It’s not totally old school — there’s some citrusy floweriness that probably isn’t 1970s-authentic — but it’s definitely different to most other beers on the market. It is also available in cask form and probably better that way. You can get it at Beer Ritz, Beer Gonzo, Beers of Europe and probably in quite a few other places too, for around £3 per 500ml bottle.

Fuller's ESB.
SOURCE: Fuller’s website.

4. Fuller’s ESB (5.9% bottle, 5.5% cask) was a cult beer during the real ale revolution of the 1970s and now, half a century on, is still great. Well, sometimes. Get a good fresh bottle, or a really great pint in a pub, and it’ll give you the full Golden Shred marmalade treatment around your chops. Unfortunately, in shelf worn state, it tastes more-or-less like any old bitter, only boozier. We’ve found reliably whizz-bang pints at the Jugged Hare on Vauxhall Bridge Road in London; and bottles direct from Fuller’s, as in this mixed case, also ought to be in good nick.

Oakham JHB pump clip.
SOURCE: Oakham website.

5. If you like Proper Job then there are quite a few other British breweries that were doing that kind of hoppy before Thornbridge and BrewDog. Meantime IPA at 7.5% pre-dates Jaipur, for example, although we don’t know that we can wholeheartedly recommend it these days. Rooster’s Yankee, now in trendy cans, was around even before that, as long ago as the early 1990s and still tastes pretty good, especially as a cask ale. Our recommendation, though, is Oakham JHB (3.8%) which you might have overlooked because it sounds like a brown bitter, and also fades next to the sheer glamour of the same brewery’s Citra or Green Devil. But it’s really good, and definitely pale’n’hoppy. It’s better cask-conditioned but there’s nothing wrong with the bottles at all. Quite a few supermarkets stock it, we gather. (But not down here in Cornwall.)

So, that’s us, but if you’ve got any suggestions for Brendan, leave ’em in the comments below.

* Edited for length.

21 thoughts on “Q&A: Which Classics Might I Have Missed?”

    1. “In the right pub, Adnams Broadside. The bottled version is not a patch mind you.”
      That’s because it is not the same beer. I asked the brewer, then why call the bottle Broadside?
      He said: The Marketing boys like the name. And with that raised his eyes to the ceiling!
      Likewise Adnams Bitter in bottles isn’t Adnams Bitter. I think it is Extra which is rare to find in casks.

  1. Anyone who’s really curious about old-school English beer should go to Sussex immediately and drink a lot of Harvey’s Best. (They don’t bottle it as such; the Blue Label is supposedly based on Best, but I can’t vouch for it.) Failing that, I’d honestly recommend working your way through some of the better supermarket beers: Butcombe Bitter, Adnam’s Best, Woodforde’s Wherry, Fuller’s London Pride, Coniston Bluebird, Timothy Taylor Boltmaker and Landlord. Drink them in ascending strength order – and don’t drink any other beers for as long as it takes to work your way through them; give your palate a chance to adjust – and by the end of it you should have an idea what the fuss is about.

    These days strength goes with IPAs and imperial stouts, but back in the 1970s & 80s ‘strong’ tended to mean ‘heavier and sweeter’. ESB is a good recommendation, and I’d also recommend one of the darker beers from Conwy – Welsh Pride or Rampart. Not a million miles from ESB, but with a larger truckload of malt. Adnam’s Broadside is worth a try, too.

    At the top end of the old-school strength scale you’d find pale, sweet barley wines and dark, sweet old ales. Robinson’s Old Tom and Lees’ Manchester Star are fine examples of the latter, both available in supermarkets. (Manchester Star is a new beer, so I should really have recommended the much longer-established Moonraker – but the brewery have dropped the strength on Moonraker, and I think Manchester Star is a better representation of how it used to be.) Where you’d find a really good old-school barley wine in bottle I’m not sure; let me know when you find out!

    1. Woodforde’s Wherry is pretty mediocre at the moment, even in a pub that serves it well. Not had it out of a bottle in ages though.

  2. If you’re restricting it to bottles, a problem is that brewery-conditioned bottled beers, while they can be very good, are never a patch on a well-kept pint of the cask equivalent. Taylors Landlord is a prime example.

    But, off the top of my head,

    Robinsons Old Tom
    Worthington White Shield
    Samuel Smith’s Organic Pale Ale (or Nut Brown Ale)
    Adnams Southwold Bitter
    Caledonian Edinburgh Castle

    I would have included Hop Back Summer Lightning, but recent sightings have not been bottle-conditioned, which is a bit disappointing.

  3. Had a pint of cask Bass the other day it is still great.
    Everards Tiger is not up to scratch now but their Original is still worth drinking, although not quite as good the previous incarnation, Old Original.

    1. Keiran, a little bird told me youre in the process of opening a micro brewery yourself? Is this the kind of brew you’ll be producing?
      You are right about Tiger, but their 6 nations promo beer was acceptable, like tiger lite.

    2. Agreed that cask Bass is still great – see here.

      However, the bottled and canned versions are not brewed in Burton but, I believe, by AB InBev at Samlesbury, and can’t be said to have more than a faint echo of the cask.

  4. Worthington’s White Shield
    Old Chimneys Good King Henry and Old Chimneys Good King Henry Special Reserve

  5. A bottled beer that’s easy to find and really divides drinkers is Theakston’s Old Peculiar. It’s in my local Tescos and hundreds of off-licences and corner shops have it. It reminds me a bit of dandelion and burdock and might have cloves in it. Golden & hoppy it certainly ain’t. It’s definitely a “have to be in the right mood for it” beer.

  6. Thanks for the recommendations everyone, I’ll have my work cut out for me, trying to track these down and having a try of them, but I really appreciate the help.

    I’ll confess to turning my nose up at Adnams, largely based on some poor supermarket bottle purchases that weren’t really up to scratch so even if I’d seen it in a pub I would have ordered something else. Next time I see some Broadside I’ll try it.

    I’d probably ignore Bass based on the almost certainly unfair assumption it was old fashioned and stuffy. That perception is likely based on the unshakable nostalgia that the name and logo instantly inspires in me, of drinking warm cans of shandy as a child in the mid to late 1980’s.

    Nice to see one or two I have managed to try like Caledonian Edinburgh Castle, but in truth ones that I haven’t seen for ages – probably more to do with the types of places I’ve ended up drinking in over the past few years which stock either craft end beers or ultra local breweries trying to do solid but uninspiring cask beers that are just variations on a theme.

    I’ve had some very hit and miss experiences with the Sam Smiths pubs of Leeds in terms of quality but will look at the bottles as I suspect the quality is down to how the stuff is kept than anything else.

    I have a distant memory of Robinson’s Old Tom…from a few years ago, I think it was probably a bit much for me at the time but I know my tastes have changed since then so I’ll have another crack at it.

    A good friend of mine mentioned to me that Theakston’s Old Peculiar get’s a lot of positive mentions by American based home brewer online which I found interesting so that’s one that was already on my list.

    Anyway, thanks again.

  7. I would go for:

    White Shield and Bengal Lancer

    I would also love to try Sam Smith’s Stingo. Its a traditional Yorkshire style only brewed by Sam Smith nowadays.

    1. I drank a bottle of Yorkshire Stingo the other day – it’s delicious. Highly recommended.

  8. Gale’s (Fillers) HSB is simply wonderful. I would recommend it to anyone.

    Young’s Special London Ale is another.

    I had a pint of Gale’s Spring Sprinter recently as well. Lovely stuff.

  9. I think most craft beer aficionados who know what they’re talking about recognise the quality of product produced by the likes of Adnams and Fullers. Sam Smith’s bottled beers are also a match for any new wave brewery.

  10. Agree with just about everyone’s comments and recommendations. Harvey’s Sussex Best was the first real ale I drank 40 years ago, in the college bar at Brighton Polytechnic at Falmer, just a few miles from the brewery in Lewes. Whenever I have a pint these days it takes me right back. A glorious pint for a pub session. Fuller’s Bengal Lancer on draught if possible but wonderful in its bottle conditioned form too, and nobody’s mentioned the same great brewery’s 1845 yet, my favourite regularly available bottled beer, though Fuller’s do some amazing limited edition bottles too, Vintage Ale and the Past Masters series.

  11. Bass definitely – if you can find it, and Harvey’s is probably THE best example of a best bitter but for me Batemans XXB in top form beast the rest.

  12. Hepworth’s Prospect Ale and Ridgeway Organic Bitter (ROB) are both fantastic bottle-conditioned beers worth searching out. I agree with a previous post, in that I would have also have included Hop Back Summer Lightning. Unfortunately it appears that the brewery has bowed to pressure from supermarkets (didn’t specify which ones) and now produces brewery conditioned bottles. A disappointing decision, it is not the same.

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