Generalisations about beer culture opinion

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

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).

“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? 😉

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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?)

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.

???? 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.

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?

“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.

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.

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.

“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…

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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)

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.

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?

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?

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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