Time to Let The Old School Rejoin the Party?

This is an interesting Tweet from Matt Curtis who is currently doing some shifts in a pub:

One of our friends springs to mind: he likes bit­ter, hates ‘that grape­fruit thing’ and strug­gles to find any­thing he fan­cies drink­ing in places like The Craft Beer Co, despite its vast range. He has late­ly tak­en to putting his foot down and insist­ing on meet­ing in pubs with at least one old-school, brown, bal­anced beer.

So, yes, we reck­on pubs or bars with a craft iden­ti­ty (def 2.) per­haps ought to take account of this poten­tial mar­ket.

Of course many already do, often look­ing to craft brew­eries (again, def. 2 – found­ed since about 2005, graf­fi­ti on their pump-clips, etc.) to pro­vide some­thing a bit like bit­ter but with more pizazz – Amber or Red are the usu­al code­words.

But maybe that’s mis­guid­ed.

Maybe instead every­one should just acknowl­edge that the best old-school bit­ters are made by old-school brew­eries who have been doing it for 30, 40, 100 or more years, and embrace them.

Fuller's vinyl-record beer mat, 1956.
Fuller’s jump­ing on the pop music band­wag­on in 1956. Needs to be res­ur­rect­ed!

Five years or so ago the sight of, say, a Black Sheep or Tim­o­thy Tay­lor Land­lord pump in a would-be trendy post-gas­tro, pre-craft pub would have made us groan. Too many times we paid over the odds for some­thing stale, warm and head­less served in some­thing like an IKEA tum­bler. So point­ed­ly not serv­ing those beers, or Lon­don Pride, or But­combe Bit­ter, was a good way for Prop­er Craft places to sig­nal their intent: there’s no Per­oni here, only Cam­den Hells; we don’t have Guin­ness, try this Thorn­bridge stout; and we cer­tain­ly don’t sell any of The Usu­al Sus­pect bor­ing brown bit­ters. Then, that made sense. Then, we wel­comed it.

But now, that point doesn’t need ham­mer­ing home and so per­haps it’s time to let Fuller’s, Taylor’s, Harvey’s, Hook Nor­ton (def. 1) et al back into the par­ty.

We’d be quite hap­py to see Lon­don Pride, Land­lord or Sus­sex Best, in real­ly top con­di­tion, as part of the offer at the Craft Beer Com­pa­ny.

Or at a Brew­Dog bar.

[Exit left, pelt­ed with toma­toes.]

41 thoughts on “Time to Let The Old School Rejoin the Party?”

  1. The Old Foun­tain in Old Street is a good exam­ple of a pub which has this bal­ance right. As well as a com­pre­hen­sive “craft” range on cask and keg, Lon­don Pride is a main­stay (as in fact are Per­oni and Guin­ness, and very pop­u­lar they are too).

  2. So, yes, we reck­on pubs or bars with a craft iden­ti­ty (def 2.) per­haps ought to take account of this poten­tial mar­ket.”

    To which the bar own­er waves vague­ly across his pub and says “but look, we’re full and have no need to ser­vice addi­tion­al mar­kets”. Cer­tain­ly doesn’t apply in all cas­es of course. But I know a hand­ful that have *tried* to pro­vide a wider spec­trum of beers and find they throw out to much trad bit­ter, no mat­ter how good & well-received it deserved to be.

    There is of course good log­ic behind this in some cas­es. Folk try­ing too hard for some sort of false “craft puri­ty” and doing their busi­ness­es no good. There’s an oppo­site end of the spec­trum and that’s some of the flat warm cask hard­lin­ers who open “microp­ubs”… it’s like the third day of a tiny beer fes­ti­val every day. Grim. Best thing my local did for his microp­ub busi­ness was get a cou­ple of keg lines in from Adnams and put their lager(ish) thing on per­ma­nent. (Oh, he does wine & spir­its too – because if you’re real­ly try­ing to be some sort of com­mu­ni­ty local then why exclude folk? He’s got young and old alike drink­ing pre­mi­um beers that come in cans now too.)

    We’d be quite hap­py to see Lon­don Pride, Land­lord or Sus­sex Best, in real­ly top con­di­tion, as part of the offer at […] a Brew­Dog bar.”

    In “craft keg” pre­sum­ably? 😉

    1. Adden­dum: I was in a ran­dom sports facil­i­ty bar yes­ter­day day rip­ping a cel­lar out and noticed some local­ish brew­ery was pro­vid­ing them with trad bit­ter in KeyKeg hooked up to hand­pump. Per­haps one solu­tion to the prob­lem of less pop­u­lar beer going stale… but doubt it is an eco­nom­i­cal one in the cask mar­ket as it stands. (Also won­der if that’s going to cause a bit of a pain with draw­ing gas from the top of the KK blad­der.)

      Then there are ‘pins’ – but too few brew­eries have them, and few­er still are hap­py to let them out of their sight.

      Also cask breathers… poor much-maligned & mis­un­der­stood things.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. What I liked about the bars in Boston is that they had the Joe Blog­gs beers along­side the craft beers. Sure­ly this is the way to get more peo­ple into beer – if not to Beer Geek Lev­el 3, at least to a height­ened state of appre­ci­a­tion and under­stand­ing.

  4. I based a num­ber of Ale­yard beers on old­er, tra­di­tion­al, British recipes – some from var­i­ous old brew­ery records.

    While they go down well with many, so far a num­ber of the more “hip­ster” out­lets have informed me that they are “too tra­di­tion­al”, “too British” (???), “not edgy enough” and my favourite “good, but you aren’t a big name” – errr, right.

    Then again, some of the small­er, local out­lets have said “too strong”, “flavours were too rich (???), and anoth­er favourite “only if you put them in 500ml bot­tles” (and these were 7% and over brews!).

    Just goes to show you can’t please ’em all.

  5. With­out a fair­ly bal­anced beer menu you’re bug­gered in Not­ting­ham – we have a Brew­dog bar and a craft offer­ing (which imports a lot of US stuff of vary­ing qual­i­ty), apart from that all of the bars have offer­ings that mix tra­di­tion­al cask and a few keg lines: this suits me entire­ly and every­one gets a go at some­thing they enjoy.

    Basi­cal­ly, I won­der whether this is an issue rel­a­tive­ly con­fined to Lon­don – even in Man­ches­ter, the craft places have a fair­ly decent cask selec­tion.

    1. Most of the places I’ve been in Lon­don have had a decent cask selec­tion.

      Its a non-issue. The entire point of craft beer is that, unlike CAMRA and their pre­scrip­tive mes­sage of thou shalt not drink keg, it embraces every type of beer equal­ly and with­out bias.

      1. Just to be clear, it’s not about cask vs. keg – it’s about pubs with huge ranges of beer but not one well-cho­sen ‘nor­mal’ bit­ter for those in our par­ty who want one. There aren’t many places like this but they exist.

        1. But as you say, often they do have a “nor­mal” bit­ter, but its just called some­thing else.

  6. I feel I should use the com­ments sec­tion to ful­ly explain the sit­u­a­tion from which my tweet arose.

    We always have one cask bit­ter on at The Duke’s Head. We have ten hand­pulls, two of which are ded­i­cat­ed to cider. The rest of the eight pumps stock beer from what we think are some of the best small and inde­pen­dent brew­eries in the UK, because that’s the pubs MO. Over­whelm­ing­ly the most pop­u­lar beers are mod­ern, pale and hop­py: with Five Points Pale Ale and Moor So’Hop being among the most pop­u­lar. We can sell a 9g cask of one of these in a cou­ple of hours on a busy Sat­ur­day. As it should be.

    This week­end we had a cask of Tom Long on, a great bit­ter from the Stroud Brew­ery. We had a cask of our house Uley Bit­ter tapped and ready to go down­stairs but as it was busy we had four casks run dry at pret­ty much exact­ly the same time. While two of us manned the bar anoth­er went down and sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly changed each line one by one. How­ev­er we had to get a pale and hop­py on first as this is what most peo­ple come into the pub and want cask tend to ask for.

    But we had a 45 min gap with­out a bit­ter on – and of course every­one that want­ed a bit­ter didn’t real­ly like the cit­rusy, bit­ter pales that were on offer. It was a night­mare, most of them were sati­at­ed with a Ham­mer­ton N7 but it was 5.2% and not real­ly a Sat­ur­day ses­sion beer (by their stan­dards, at least).

    How­ev­er, when we’ve two bit­ters on, we strug­gle to sell them both through quick enough (aim­ing to shift a cask with­in a 72 hour peri­od as a max­i­mum) – and it would be even worse to let one, or both, stale as a result.

    Find­ing a bal­ance is dif­fi­cult, and I would say that every pub is dif­fer­ent depend­ing on its clien­tle. But my con­clu­sion is that a best bit­ter is a vital offer­ing – and many pubs such as The Craft Beer Co, Kings Arms etc should have this as a full time offer­ing too.

    Maybe it is time more peo­ple looked at the Clas­sics, they cer­tain­ly deserve our respect. But maybe its also time a few more great new brew­ers had a crack at pro­duc­ing a bit­ter of their own, such as Mag­ic Rock did with Ret­ro­spect last year.

    1. Maybe the names are mis­lead­ing; peo­ple see “pale ale” and think grapefuity/sherberty, but real­ly Five Points Pale Ale is not that far removed a very good bit­ter in the Land­lord tra­di­tion.

        1. That’s anoth­er inter­est­ing point about ter­mi­nol­o­gy: bit­ter = pale ale, his­tor­i­cal­ly speak­ing, but they’ve come to mean two dif­fer­ent things. Peo­ple tend to expect the for­mer to be stronger, paler and hop­pi­er, I think, and it is some­how a more ‘craft’ des­ig­na­tion.

  7. I wrote a blog post years ago bemoan­ing the fact that so many Man­ches­ter beers were yel­low and tast­ed of grape­fruit, and how this con­trast­ed with the pleas­ant brown malti­ness of the beer in every oth­er part of the coun­try I’d vis­it­ed (e.g. Sus­sex, East Anglia, Lon­don, S Wales, Glas­gow…). Times have changed, as have my pref­er­ences. But even now, all the big ‘nation­al’ cask bit­ters – Pedi­gree, Spit­fire, Cum­ber­land, Hob­gob­lin, Bom­bardier, Broad­side, the sad ghost of Rud­dles Coun­ty and all – are more or less brown and malty; there’s clear­ly a mar­ket for that stuff. (I’ll still drink one or two of those myself.) And the fact that there isn’t a mass-mar­ket pale bit­ter – the only two IPAs with nation­al name recog­ni­tion are Deuchars’ and GK – tells its own sto­ry. We’re still in a bub­ble – it’s just quite a big one these days.

    1. Cum­ber­land Ale is a pale beer, although not par­tic­u­lar­ly hop­py. Like­wise Wain­wright.

      There was a big rise in the pop­u­lar­i­ty of gold­en ales that pre­dat­ed “craft”.

  8. I think there’s room for a Harvey’s Sus­sex Best tap in every craft beer bar in Eng­land. It would sim­ply be a mat­ter of the bar staff ask­ing cus­tomers if they’d pre­fer to drink it iron­i­cal­ly or not.

    1. That’s what’s bugs me about han­dle mugs! It’s not that they’re used iron­i­cal­ly (“observe as I drink my bar­rel-aged black gose from this ‘old man’ mug!”); it’s not that they’re not used iron­i­cal­ly although I vague­ly feel they should be (“what do you mean, old man mug? we’ve only just got these in!”). What bugs me is that I don’t know whether they’re used iron­i­cal­ly or not. (Does any­one?)

  9. 1 – I was pleased to read Matt Cur­tis’ tweet as it goes some way to con­firm­ing some­thing I hoped was hap­pen­ing regard­ing malt as an ingre­di­ent. Folk (myself includ­ed) han­ker for new tastes and over the past decade it’s been first­ly about the punch­i­ness of hops then about the tart­ness of yeasts (i.e Lac­til­lo, Brett). Though I love these new sen­sa­tions I’ve start­ed to rekin­dle a fond­ness for the gen­tle bar­ley malt and I think oth­ers have too.

    2 – With regards to brown beers that nev­er back down, we always cite the same exam­ples. I can’t think of more reli­able than Land­lord or Sus­sex Best (nobody ever cites Mor­rells Grad­u­ate or Wad­worth 6X). It just goes to show how impor­tant it is to get a beer “just right” that it can with­stand the test of time. I recent­ly went into The White Hart Tap in St Albans which stocks a well cho­sen selec­tion of cask beers and even though there was a hand pump from Tiny Rebel and Mag­ic Rock, I went for a pint of Land­lord just to feel con­tent­ed.

    1. 🎼 Some beers are bet­ter than oth­ers… Some brrrrrown bit­ters are bet­ter than… Oth­er brown bit­ters… ♫

      I sup­pose anoth­er way we could have writ­ten this post is as a plea for ‘cura­tors’ (man­agers, pub­li­cans, who­ev­er) to just choose great beers whichev­er side of the new/old, craft/real, hip/square divide they fall on. Some craft beers are rub­bish, some old school beers are great, and vice ver­sa.

  10. When I first vis­it­ed the UK in 2011, the Amer­i­can-style craft was only just start­ing. It sat­is­fied my van­i­ty that Amer­i­can brew­eries had influ­ence there. But it didn’t take long before I was freaked out by it.

    Cask bit­ter is one of the hand­ful of tru­ly icon­ic nation­al tra­di­tions out there, and like some of the most famous (helles and dunkel spring to mind), they nev­er got a seri­ous fol­low­ing any­where else. It is addi­tion­al­ly cool because the brew­ing, cel­lar­ing, and dis­pense meth­ods are Byzan­tine and anti­quait­ed in the man­ner of basi­cal­ly no oth­er beers on earth.

    I get how it’s excit­ing to be drink­ing Sim­coe and Cas­cade pales at the pub, but it’s weird­ly deriv­a­tive. Why would you exchange a per­fect­ly delight­ful indige­nous tra­di­tion for one import­ed from–gasp here–the US? I have been hop­ing that it’s a fun flir­ta­tion and that folks will soon be mix­ing their old bit­ters into their beer-drink­ing regime. As a lover of cask ale–“boring” old bit­ters and milds and the like–I real­ly don’t want to see the nation con­vert­ed entire­ly to drink­ing Punk IPA, which was mid­wifed via Thorn­bridge straight from Cal­i­for­nia.

    (I’m in Dublin right now, and I could say the same thing about stout. Were Amer­i­can style IPAs to dis­place the native pint, that would also be a ter­ri­ble loss.)

    Is it pos­si­ble to have evo­lu­tion with­out aban­don­ing your nation­al tra­di­tion?

    1. Why would you exchange a per­fect­ly delight­ful indige­nous tra­di­tion for one import­ed from–gasp here–the US?”

      Because it tastes bet­ter? Isn’t that obvi­ous? Who cares where the style orig­i­nat­ed, that nev­er stopped us embrac­ing lager.

      1. I’m not sure that the main rea­son we embraced lager is because it tast­ed bet­ter.

        It’s cold, it’s clear, it’s con­sis­tent, it’s refresh­ing, it looks like stuff we had on our hol­i­days in Spain, yes, but not because it tast­ed bet­ter than estab­lished bit­ters.

        1. Well I don’t think it tastes bet­ter, but clear­ly a lot of peo­ple do. A lot of my mates who learnt to drink in the 90s or ear­ly 2000s think that all bit­ter tastes absolute­ly foul.

    2. As a lover of cask ale–“boring” old bit­ters and milds and the like–I real­ly don’t want to see the nation con­vert­ed entire­ly to drink­ing Punk IPA…”

      Us nei­ther, but that is still a sideshow – a bit of spice on the side – and things *will* come full cir­cle; cask is so arcane and ‘vin­tage-y’ that it’s bound to become hip again soon. I think craft types just need, or need­ed, a bit of space to decide this for them­selves, like a strop­py teenag­er learn­ing to appre­ci­ate the parental record col­lec­tion in their twen­ties…

      1. This might be slight­ly off top­ic but I don’t think it’s about cask beer being out of fash­ion, but about cask beer being unpre­dictable and not always rep­re­sent­ing what the brew­er wants. Ulti­mate­ly the way the pub trade works in the UK is that it employs main­ly short term / part time staff. To keep and serve cask cor­rect­ly takes a decent amount of invest­ment in train­ing etc for the staff that most com­pa­nies and pub­li­cans are not pre­pared to spend. Why make a beau­ti­ful, del­i­cate brown ale that suits being in cask when its not going to be looked after prop­er­ly by half your cus­tomer base when you can make a punchy pale ale that can han­dle a lit­tle bit more abuse? Until the British atti­tude to hos­pi­tal­i­ty and ser­vice jobs, change this will always be a prob­lem.

  11. Also I haven’t slept in 36 hours and prob­a­bly shouldn’t be com­ment­ing on any­thing that requires brain activ­i­ty.

    1. Jeff, our only “native pint” is, arguably, heather ale, but we can dis­cuss this AT LENGTH over some very strong beers in a cou­ple of hours.

  12. This is all an exam­ple of the “big fish, small pond” syn­drome. Most ale drinkers in this coun­try go for ‘bor­ing brown’ beers. As Meer For Beer once wrote: “While I don’t mind being chal­lenged there is a point where enough is enough … it doesn’t need to slap me in the face to get my atten­tion.”

    My local has upto 11 real ales on, yet John Smiths Smooth is very pop­u­lar, as are brown real ales when they appear. For every pub or bar that sells beers that the cool peo­ple would approve of, there are dozens that don’t.

    Bor­ing brown beers nev­er left the par­ty. It’s just that the beer trendies are sit­ting in a spotlit cor­ner, con­grat­u­lat­ing each oth­er about how dis­cern­ing they are, while the rest of the room is filled with the major­i­ty who are con­tent not to define them­selves so pre­cious­ly by their choice of tip­ple.

    1. Quite right, Nev. Tra­di­tion­al-style bit­ters nev­er went away, and remained the best-sell­ing cat­e­go­ry of ale across the coun­try. It’s just that the US-influ­enced “craft” move­ment set itself up in oppo­si­tion to “bor­ing brown bit­ter” and “bor­ing beardy blokes”, the Brew­Dog schtick being a prime exam­ple of this.

      The crafties are now real­is­ing that gen­uine craft beer was being brewed in the UK long before they came up with the idea.

      All the new brew­eries that aim to sell into main­stream pubs rather than just enthu­si­ast bars, such as Brad­field and Weet­wood, have always pro­duced an “ordi­nary” bit­ter.

    2. It’s just that the beer trendies are sit­ting in a spotlit cor­ner…”

      That’s the spe­cif­ic par­ty we’re talk­ing about, though.

  13. Best sell­ers in my local are def­i­nite­ly the lager and tim­my tay­lors land­lord or bolt­mak­er. Think­ing around Leeds pubs for ones that can’t meet expec­ta­tions of typ­i­cal old bloke order­ing ‘pint of bit­ter’ and real­ly it’s only the self con­scious­ly craft places ( even north bar they may well get lucky)

  14. Absolute­ly. Tim­o­thy Taylor’s “Land­lord” is THE craft beer. Black Sheep is not bad either so they cer­tain­ly deserve their places in the craft beer par­ty. I nev­er knew that beers like Tim­o­thy Taylor’s actu­al­ly fell out of fash­ion. At least peo­ple in York­shire still love their Tim­o­thy Taylor’s and Black Sheep.

  15. My office is mer­ci­ful­ly close to the Pelt Trad­er, itself part of the Can­non Street Sta­tion com­plex. They’ve recent­ly had Har­veys Sus­sex Best as stan­dard (they seem to have bought some of that along­side an order for the also-stun­ning Har­veys Porter, which is crim­i­nal­ly a March-only sea­son­al. They should have that all win­ter). It goes down very well with the cus­tomers.

    I do love me a Burn­ing Sky Plateau (anoth­er reg­u­lar at the Pelt), but if Sus­sex Best is on, I’ll usu­al­ly nab one. Why wouldn’t you?

    1. Good to know, John – cheers.

      It’s kind of embar­rass­ing how hard it is for for­eign vis­i­tors to Lon­don to find a trad. porter on offer in the city. Maybe it ought to be like chemists where one pub is the duty pub required to have a cask of Harvey’s or Fuller’s on so pun­ters know where to find it?

  16. Sure­ly the rea­son why trendy craft bars don’t serve BBB is because any­one who likes tra­di­tion­al beer is unlike­ly to be drink­ing in said bar ?
    In the real world of peo­ple who’ve nev­er read a beer blog in their lives – pluck­ing a fig­ure out of the air let’s say 98% of the pop­u­la­tion – they drink all sorts of tra­di­tion­al beers brewed by old-estab­lished and rel­a­tive­ly new brew­eries in pubs that have exist­ed for decades.
    It’s only in the par­al­lel uni­verse of the twit­ter machine and the inter­web where the eso­teric offer­ings of here-today-gone-tomor­row upstarts gains any res­o­nance.
    I occa­sion­al­ly find a craft beer drink­able but real­ly only very occa­sion­al­ly.

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