This beer chosen for us by David of Beer Doodles fame (@beerdoodles) is either a modern Yorkshire classic or a ubiquitous supermarket PBA depending on your point of view.
‘PBA’? That’s ‘premium bottled ale’, a category which didn’t really exist before about 1990, when breweries and supermarkets decided they needed a way to grab the attention of real ale drinkers during their weekly shop. We tend to think of Black Sheep, founded in 1991 by Paul Theakston of the famous brewing family, as very much a product of the PBA era, perhaps because that’s the form in which we, living in the south of England, most often encountered its beers.
Recalling his youth David says Riggwelter is ‘a beer that was around when I was too young, really, to be drinking Strong Yorkshire Ale, so I have a certain affinity for its rough edges when served too warm’. We bought our bottles from Beer Ritz at £2.98 per 500ml but most supermarkets seem to be selling it at between £1.60 and 1.90 a bottle.
There’s a fair bit of chat online about whether or not Riggwelter is intended to be a clone of, or homage to, Theakston Old Peculier. Both are around the same strength and a similar red-brown. As far as we can see, Paul Theakston has never gone on record acknowledging the similarity but, having run the family brewery for much of the 1970s, he would certainly know how to brew a clone if he wanted to. They seem quite different beers to us, though — cousins rather than twins. Perhaps, as in the case of many beers vaguely based on other beers, the likeness was more obvious in the early days before Riggwelter evolved into its own thing.
When David suggested we try Riggwelter our first thought was, oh, a classic we’ve drunk loads of times. But then we started thinking… have we, actually? We’ve certainly never blogged or Tweeted about it which makes us think we must have had rushed past it in those pre-blogging days when we were trying everything we could get our hands on in supermarkets and corner shops, or by the pint in pubs around London. So, more than a decade on, this is essentially a new beer to us.
Popping the cap took us back a year or so to when we were tasting bottled milds in bulk with a whiff of brown sugar. It’s not a fizzy beer but it took a while to get it all into the glass: however slowly and carefully you pour, the head charges upward like biscuit-coloured shaving foam. It never quite looks like a black beer — the light always gets through — but it is very dark.
The strength, 5.7% ABV (slightly weaker than the cask version), and the blurb on the label ready you for something rich and luxurious but actually, it’s quite easy-going. There’s no mysterious spiciness as with Old Peculier and it doesn’t cling to the tongue.
The first wave of flavour was a mild sweetness with a copper-coin note in the finish — quite a common characteristic of pasteurised bottled beers, it seems to us, although that’s just an impression we have. A few gobfuls in a burnt savoury note began to build — a really harsh char, smoking toaster rather than, say, coffee beans. A dry-stone wall of bitterness emerged too, correcting our initial impression of its meekness. There was also a bit of butter in there — just enough to give extra interest without triggering disgust.
It struck us that this is what you might get if you mixed something like Sam Smith Taddy Porter with a very basic mild. It’s not quite remarkable enough to have set us swooning but it is a pleasant background beer and one we’d like to try a few rounds of on cask in a proper Yorkshire pub. The only problem is, at this ABV, it really ought to have more going on: beers over 5% that don’t demand our full attention seem a waste of liver capacity.
This is a decent, flavoursome beer that is easy to find at a reasonable price. If you’ve not had it in a while, or have never tried it because of traumatising memories of warm pints of Black Sheep in pubs that don’t know what they’re doing, then do give it a try.