That Type of Cask Ale…. You Know the One

You know, the type that’s very pale but still has a bit of body… It’s not just about hops… But it’s definitely got hops. Yeah, you could call it balanced, but there’s a problem with that…

On our recent trip up North, without really trying, we stumbled upon a few examples of this which might, we’re beginning to think, be our favourite very specific, hard-to-pin-down type of beer.

Manchester Bitter in a pint glass at the Marble Arch.

Marble’s Manchester Bitter — currently tasting good in both bottle and on cask, by the way — is a pretty good example. It’s not like a bunch of flowers being shoved in your face but nor is it a miserable old bowl of soggy cornflakes. It’s somewhere in between. It tastes zesty, fruity, fresh and very bitter, but it’s not ‘Like drinking bloody grapefruit juice.’ Which leaves space for the actual flavour of malt — the bread-nuts-cracker chewiness that isn’t just a backdrop or a base but a pleasure in its own right.

So, that’s actually balanced, right, in a positive sense? The constituent ingredients are each allowed to express themselves fully, with none overpowering the rest.

We did a bad doodle that might or might not help:

Golden Ales, 1: extravagantly hoppy, 2: boring and flaccid, 3: balanced, shining bright.

Number 1 is your grapefruit beer — a delight in its own way but ultimately one-dimensional. Number 2 is what we think of when we read ‘golden ale’ these days — it might be yellow but only in a sense of the absence of brown; it’s sweet, bland, balanced like an empty see-saw. And number 3 is what we’re into right now — a nice bit of engineering, but nothing flamboyant.

In Liverpool, we had Okell’s IPA (4.5% ABV) which we’d put into this category, though we suspect they think it’s a Number 1 – ‘Said to be hoppier than a hopping mad hopi’. And, in Manchester, at the Piccadilly Tap, Northern Monk Brew Co’s True North (3.7%) struck us as another example, as satisfying as a fresh roll ten minutes out of the oven. Down in Cornwall, Penzance Brewing Co Potion No. 9 fits the bill. (St Austell Proper Job, while hardly over-the-top, is biased towards hops over malt.)

We’re not arguing that this is a distinct style that needs a name or anything but it’s a thing we know when we encounter it.

Any others spring to mind?

42 thoughts on “That Type of Cask Ale…. You Know the One”

  1. Hawkshead Lakeland Gold – although that is darker than the name suggests.
    Lees MPA in a slightly toned-down way.
    Ringway’s pale beers were like that before the brewery closed down.

    1. MPA, yes, just about, I think. We only managed to get in one pint of that on our recent trip — on keg, funnily enough, at the Moon Under Water. It was pretty good and very How-Boddington’s-Used-T0-Be.

    1. I’d have thought something similar from the bit about tasting the malt, but Landlord and Boltmaker are much fuller & biscuitier than the beers being described here, and Batham’s is much sweeter (and Landlord and Batham’s are much diacetylier).

      1. I know BB is a bit darker but I was thinking of that characterstic bitterness

        1. Seem to recall Barnsley Bitter having a bit of that caramel thing going on. We’re big fans but I reckon one of the specific characteristics of the type of beer we’re talking about above is absence of caramel/crystal character. They’re malty, but more Helles than HSD.

          1. yeah you’re right just looked up Pete Brown’s review of it for 1001. Phoenix Arizona (mentioned elsewhere) was a revelation when I drank it years ago in north Wales so that might fit in somewhere.

          2. Phoenix do a raft of these – Pale Moonlight is another. I was a big fan of Thirsty Moon at one time, but I think it’d be a bit ‘brown’ for me now.

    1. We nearly tied this into our big Boddington’s post from a couple of years back. Bringing to mind descriptions of how Boddington’s supposedly used to taste/look might be another way of putting what we’re getting at. I’m not sure we ever reached a satisfactory conclusion as to what ‘northern bitter’ was or whether it really existed. Leigh Linley made a good sideways attempt to pin it down, though..

      1. Well, Yorkshire’s a big place. ‘Yorkshire bitter’ to me has always evoked something bitter and thin-bodied but definitely brown, with a strong malt character, albeit burnt-toast malt rather than digestive-biscuit. Regionally I think we’re talking West Yorks/East Lancs, Manchester at one extreme and Sheffield at the other: Transpennine Pale?

        As for whether it ever existed, you’re the historians, but the reputation of Boddies’ on one hand, and the abundance of first-new-wave brewers in the Manchester/Sheffield zone making pale, dry beer on the other (KI, Rooster, Phoenix, Ossett, Pictish, Marble…) seem suggestive to me.

        (Sorry about the thread-bombing, I’ll shut up now!)

  2. I was writing about this type of beer ten years ago!

    At least since the heyday of Boddington’s, there’s been a distinct local style of ale [in Manchester]: pale and hoppy, with variations ranging from light-but-sour through cyanide-with-a-hint-of-malt to just-plain-undrinkably-bitter. I am not, as you may have gathered, a fan of this style – but the brewery which owns one of my two main locals [Marble] is very big on it. They brought on a seasonal ale in summer (when, to be fair, pale and hoppy styles do go down well); I tried it once and seriously considered leaving the pint unfinished. It was the bitterest thing I’ve ever tasted, clove oil not excepted. The brewery does three or four different bitters, but they’re all pale and hoppy; most of the time the guest beers [at the Marble Beerhouse] are pale and hoppy too. There’s a definite demand there, too. You can tell by the way the regulars’ favourite guests keep coming back – and the way their names keep including words like ‘white’ or ‘golden’. I’m in a minority on the tawny-and-malty front. A couple of years ago I had two pints of a guest mild they had on, and the barman asked me when I wanted to have the other 62[sic].

    (I’ve grown to like it since.)

  3. Lots of the Ossett beers fall nicely under this ‘pale bitter’ category. Sikver King a good example of I remember rightly

    1. I find beers such as Silver King rather thin and one-dimensionally hoppy. They don’t have the solid malty backbone that beers in this style should have.

    1. We had something from Brimstage at the Baltic Fleet that was definitely in the right territory but we weren’t taking notes.

  4. Sounds remarkably like Three Notch’d Bitter 42 – not really surprising as it is based in part on such Northern Bitters as Landlord and Bitter & Twisted.

  5. “Good” is the word you’re looking for, I think; you’re describing how a beer can be tasty and balanced, rather than bland and balanced as so many are. Just the type I like too, as it happens. A tasty-and-balanced beer, to me, has got more than one thing going on, which is why you don’t get bored of it.

  6. Perhaps “Northern Pale” is the name you need. I think of examples such as Ilkley Pale and Cloudwater Pale which would seem to fall into this category. Also get good examples from Mallinsons in Huddersfield (definitely better as draught beer) and from the Rat Brewery in Huddersfield (owned by Ossett Brewery).

  7. Definitely agree with Beer Nut and Barm – as soon as you started describing the beer I could see a Landlord badge. The only thing I could add to improve on it even more – gorgeous in a beer garden. Today’s weather might have influenced that thought.

    1. But Landlord tastes (and looks) very different from Manchester Bitter, Pint, Phoenix Arizona et al.

      The bit about tasting the malt in Manchester Bitter (echoed by Mudge in comments) is confusing me, I have to admit. ‘Dry and hoppy without being fruity’ fits Phoenix Arizona*, Marble’s standard bitters and some others like a glove (breweries like Abbeydale, Bazen’s, Pictish, Rooster, Oakham – I’d put JHB and Bishop’s Farewell in this bracket). Never tasted any malt in that lot, though.

      *Just seen what they did there, only about five years after I first had it. D’oh!

      1. We just had a chat about Landlord over the washing up and reckon it might fit here although, to my mind, it’s a bit fruitier and not as dry. But then we don’t get to drink it regularly in good nick so our memory of it is beginning to slip.

        We definitely get a good bite of malt in MPA bearing in mind that we’re talking about the lager-malt, bread-crust thing rather than toffeeish (can’t think of a better word) brownness.

        A few others that people have mentioned might be in category 1, i.e. pale’n’hoppy, which is something slightly different. We reckon Marble Pint is over that line, for example — definitely perfumed/citrusy last time we had it. (And very good, too.)

        We’re really splitting hairs here, we know.

        1. There’s an ocean (of malt) between Landlord and just about anything by Marble. ‘Maltier’, heavier, even sweeter, I’d say (not to mention the diacetyl).

          I’ll have to ‘listen out’ for this breadcrust lager-malt thing of which you speak. What’s a good ‘malty’ lager in this sense?

          1. We get it in Thornbridge Tzara (“Not technically a lager.” — style bores) off the top of my head. Stuff we’ve drunk in Germany, mostly, which isn’t much help.

        2. I do think it’s a distinct style, even if its frontiers are blurry: pale colour, a bit of sharpness, a dry bittering-hop finish, not much else (apart from this breadcrust thing!). The boundaries are blurry, but they’re not the same as golden ales (not bitter enough), post-‘American pale ale’ pale’n’oppy (too fruity) or contemporary IPAs (too much marmalade). Pale, bitter, but basic – not in an bad way. I was drinking a bottle of Manchester Bitter a while back and caught myself thinking “this is how you reinvent beer!” – it tastes basic, stripped down to the essentials, but a different set of essentials. (I realise I’m about 20 years late to have this revelation, but there you go.)

          If you get a chance to try them, Marble’s new beers Damage Plan and Built To Fall make an interesting comparison. DP (7.1%) is way over on the fruit-salad end of pale’n’oppy; BTF (5.5%) is much more full-on, dry and with a flavour you could call smoky, but not in an appealing, tobacco-y way. For a couple of years Marble’s favoured hops smelt, to my nose at least, of stale beer & vomit – and no, it wasn’t a problem with the beer; they put little dishes of hops out at a Meet the Brewer event, and I got the aroma there as well. BTF reminds me of that period, but in a good way(!). It’s very much this year’s entry for the pale-and-flintily-dry stakes. (Great word, ‘flinty’ – denotes nothing at all.)

      2. Don’t agree re Manchester bitter , IMO the malt is very much there, even if the dry/hoppy is more dominant.

        I do agree that Landlord doesn’t quite fit the style described here.

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