‘Are there still any widely sought-after beers among traditional Real Ale afficionados? It’s pretty easy to spot what’s hot with craft beer geeks, but less so with traddies, probably because they aren’t all on Twitter. Are there still beers that would clear the floor at a CAMRA AGM if the rumour went around that a cask had just gone on at a nearby pub?’ — Dave S, Cambridge
This isn’t a question with a right-wrong answer — it’s an invitation to a thought experiment, which is fine by us. But we did begin by asking a few people we thought might have some insight into the tastes and desires of ‘traddies’ (a new word inspired, we assume, by the similar, faintly sneering ‘crafties’).
First, Tom Stainer, head of communications at the Campaign for Real Ale (disclosure: we’re sometimes paid to write for CAMRA) took issue with the question:
I’ll gently accuse you of stereotyping. I’m not sure there is a broad, identifiable group of ‘traddies’ who all respond in the same way. I’d also suspect that… a fair number of AGM attendees would be as likely to sprint for the bar whether you announced a rare cask of Greene King 5X was being tapped, or a Camden collaborative keg.
That’s something to start with, though. Greene King 5X, the strong wood-aged beer that GK use for blending but otherwise don’t sell to the public, was a sensation at the last Great British Beer Festival we attended in 2012, strictly rationed and triggering the kind of agitated, faintly panicky queuing behaviour at which we Brits excel.
Tom also suggested that at the GBBF whatever is named Champion Beer of Britain ‘disappears pretty quickly’, and that anything in an unusual style is also popular, e.g. chilli porter. He asked around and got no other suggestions.
Tandleman couldn’t think of anything that quite fit the bill either, although he agreed with our suggestion that the humble Batham’s Bitter might get people a bit excited.
Phil, who has a beer blog at Oh Good Ale!, named a personal favourite of his, Blue Anchor Spingo Middle, but added that this was really all a question of geography:
Harvey’s might draw a crowd in Manchester, but not in the south-east…. [A] lot of the older breweries have got a beer that rarely travels, often a strong bitter – think Young’s Winter Warmer or Timothy Taylor’s Ram Tam…
On our long walk across country on Friday we gave this some thought ourselves, slightly refining Dave’s question as follows:
We are at a decent small regional CAMRA festival with a list on a par with, say, Bodmin. All the beers on offer are being served in perfect pub condition, the festival building is warm, comfortable and aesthetically pleasing, and we have a table. (Because, by default, we’d rather drink something ordinary served properly in a nice pub than something exotic dribbled into a dirty glass, with no head, at a festival.) Word goes round the festival that the pub down the road is serving X, which is not on the festival list, in equally good condition. What would X have to be to lure us away?
(Yes, we are casting ourselves as traddies, which we are, or at least more so these days than we are crafties.)
Phil’s response above highlights the extent to which the cult real ales of today aren’t so different to those of 40 years ago: Young’s Winter Warmer, which has a limited release, is regionally specific, and is in an obscure style, is a great example. Even though we’ve had it, and don’t love it, we feel obliged to drink it when we can because there’s always the fear that it might never be brewed again. See also: Fuller’s Hock (mild).
Cask Theakston’s Old Peculier might be another. It’s a national brand in bottles, and not widely admired in that format, but remains an obscurity as a draught beer, outside Yorkshire at least. We know that beer historian Ron Pattinson is a big fan and will go out of his way to drink it when he’s in London.
Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby mild is definitely one — a beer that is often talked about but rarely seen, that is an oddity at 6%, which also makes it a bit naughty. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also based on a historic recipe.
Elland 1872 porter, a multiple CAMRA award winner in a rarely-seen style, strikes us as another, although Tandleman tells us it’s easy to find in Wetherspoon pubs up north, which perhaps supports Phil’s point about geography.
We wouldn’t go out of our way for a pint of London Pride, even though we like it, because it’s not hard to find, or endangered; but we might for another bitter, Harvey’s Sussex Best, which is just that bit more obscure, quirkier (that occasional Brettanomyces character!) and, frankly, better. And Fuller’s own London Porter (cask) is beloved of traddies and crafties alike but rarely seen even when, in theory, it’s on release as a seasonal.
Then we got on to some beers that don’t exist, or not at the moment, or not yet, but that could easily be summoned into being. Cask-conditioned Guinness, for example, would just be irresistible:
Actual proper cask conditioned Guinness on the way* for realsies. You heard it here first.
*to @opengatebrewery and no further most likely
— The Beer Nut (@thebeernut) June 1, 2016
We’d be out like a shot for a pint of Bass brewed to a 19th century recipe, dry-hopped to hell, and aged for a few months, like those brewed by Mark Dorber and enjoyed by influential beer geeks, brewers and writers at the White Horse in Fulham in the 1990s. The chance to drink any Fuller’s Past Masters beer on draught would probably do it, too, especially Double Stout. And, of course, any attempt at Boddington’s of yore.
So, a couple of conclusions, or maybe we should say generalisations:
- Crafties lust after hoppy and/or sour beers; traddies are more likely to be seduced by the dark side.
- Limited edition, or limited supply, is what makes the biggest difference, just as with your triple IPAs and Cantillon frenzies.
- If traditional/regional/family brewers want people to coo over them and cask ale the same way they do over, say, Magic Rock and keg IPAs then they might be missing a trick by failing to simultaneously exploit and withhold their own back catalogues — if Zwanze Day can be a thing, why not the same for GK 5X?
Here’s the list we’ve ended up with, in no particular order:
- Greene King 5X (especially if there’s an option to blend it with other beers).
- Cask-conditioned Fuller’s Past Masters 1910 Double Stout.
- Bass brewed to any pre-1970 specifications.
- Harvey’s Sussex Best.
- Boddington’s to c.1968 spec.
- Cask Guinness.
- Young’s Winter Warmer.
- Theakston Old Peculier (cask).
- Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby mild.
- Elland 1872 Porter.
- Batham’s Bitter.
- Cask Fuller’s London Porter.
Not bad a line-up, eh?
But do feel free to ask yourself the question as set out above and let us know what would do it for you in the comments below.