The Ram Rampant

The Young's brewery ram mascot on a London pub window.

Great beers can sometimes burn brightly before passing into memory. Young’s Ordinary Bitter, unlikely as it might sound, was one such beer – beloved by ale drinkers, legendary in its brilliance, until the light went out.

When we interviewed Michael Hardman, one of the founders of the Campaign for Real Ale, his eyes blazed as he talked about Young’s Ordinary. ‘It used to have an intense bitterness that was almost too much for some people,’ he said. A good beer tasting note will trigger a surge of desire and Mr Hardman’s brief comment, delivered with such passion, and as straightforward as the beer it described, did just that.

We can’t say he didn’t warn us, though, that in 2012 Young’s Ordinary had become a shadow of its 1970s self. Having worked for the brewery as a PR executive for 30 years Hardman watched with sadness as, first, the brand lost its great champion, the company’s eccentric chairman John Young, who died in 2006 and then as, in 2007, the historic Wandsworth facility ceased brewing and moved production to Charles Wells at Bedford.

For London ale drinkers this was a ravens departing the Tower moment, leaving London with a mere handful of breweries and only Fuller’s as an independent of any size. There were reassurances that extensive testing had been carried out to assure continuity and even rumours that the last batches of Wandsworth-brewed Ordinary were being blended with the new version to ease the transition. But Wells could point at specification sheets and test results all they liked: the beer changed and people who drank it regularly knew it.

Bedford-brewed Ordinary wasn’t terrible – we drank plenty and enjoyed it – but veteran drinkers would push it away, shaking their heads at its sheer… ordinariness. Wells & Youngs, as they were then known, could brew something like Young’s Ordinary but could not breathe into the essential spark of life.

At the same time, Young’s London pubs, for so long a kind of defensive line against modernity, were also sold off and became a separate company. They generally continued to serve Young’s branded beers, however, so that, superficially at least, not much changed beyond a general ‘smartening up’. On trips to London we would invariably end up in one or another, either out of convenience or nostalgia, and check in on Ordinary. This was a sad, fruitless habit until the summer of 2014 when, suddenly, the beer seemed to jolt out of its coma – paler, drier, and more vigorous than we’d ever known it. But we doubted ourselves – perhaps it was a one-off? Or wishful thinking?

Young's Ordinary.

But, no: since then, the beer seems to have got better every time we’ve encountered it. It knocked our socks off at the Prince Alfred in Maida Vale earlier this year and now, after making a point of trying it in multiple pubs in four corners of London, and also in Exeter and Bristol, we want to underline this point: the sickness has gone and Young’s Ordinary is once again A Great Beer.

On our most recent trip to London at the Flask in Hampstead — a gorgeous Victorian pub whose discreet partitions and ornate details will frankly make any beer taste a little more interesting — we drank luminous, comically foaming pints of it that are among the best beers we’ve enjoyed this year, full stop.

It isn’t one of those 2017 beers perfumed with pine, citrus, mango or green onion. There’s barely a flavour note to latch on to, in fact, beyond a suggestion of minerals and lemon peel. But it has the austere structural elegance of a Victorian railway terminus, with a snatch of tame funkiness for seasoning.

We’ve been telling people the good news, and now we’re telling you. After all, with Charles Wells selling up to Marston’s, this resurgence might not last.

14 thoughts on “The Ram Rampant”

  1. Proper, balanced drinking beer brewed by a brewer with experience, more than likely a Heriot-Watt degree and a white coat. You’ve hit the nail on the head when you say there’s ‘barely a flavour note to latch on to’ but surely that’s the point of all good (great even) British beer – overall drinkability and uniqueness without having to be flavoured with something out of a hedge? The problems start when beer is brewed to appeal to the lowest common denominator – Doom Bar, anyone?

  2. Winter Warmer was probably the least damaged of Young’s beers by the move, but that too has really improved in the last few years. A joy to find.

    1. So are we these days. Can certainly report excellent pints at the Flask, the Pied Bull in Streatham and the Prince Alfred. (Although not quite as good in August there as it was in February.) The Bristol pint was a bit less exciting but the Exeter ones… Blimey, they were amazing.

      But it’ll be interesting to hear what you think either way.

  3. I was very pleasantly surprised when I was last drinking Young’s Ordinary. I thought it was the best it’s ever been.

  4. This really is great news to hear.
    After decades of working in London and drinking Youngs I too stopped imbibing after the move out of Wandsworth,sad to see the decline in a great beer.
    On fleeting visits now I usually turn to London Pride but next time I;m back in the smoke I’ll definitely the Ordinary again.
    The pictured pint looks superb.
    Any reason why it’s going through a renaissance ?

    1. “Any reason why it’s going through a renaissance ?”

      We’ll probably never know. Whenever we ask larger breweries about this kind of thing, which we’ve done a couple of times, we get a blank wall of bullshit: “Nothing has changed, the beer has always been great and continues to be great in exactly the same way.” Then you find out thirty years later that the yeast was horribly infected for half a decade or something.

      Our *guess*, though, is that they’ve dialled back on the crystal/caramel type malts and upped the bittering hops. But that is just a guess and we don’t know the past or present recipe.

  5. The slow decline of Young’s beers has always worried me. Their Double Chocolate Stout was really poor even in cans last year, and has only improved in the last six months.
    I agree with brewing to the lowest denominator being something to fear; Doom Bar is a classic example of that, and people who drink Bombardier or Pedigree probably feel the same!
    Ordinary is an adventure I’m looking forward to.

  6. To my mind, Wells are very accomplished brewers, and I find the average quality of both their cask and bottled offerings considerably better than either Greene King or Marston’s. It remains to be seen whether this will survive the Marston’s takeover.

    Even Bombardier is a much better beer than many give it credit for.

    1. I’ll be honest, a decent draft Bombardier is lovely, but the majority of those I’ve encountered in recent times have failed to live up to its early promise.
      I am craving proper old fashioned tangy bitter currently, and other than Harbour Cornish Bitter I’m struggling to find one in the Westcountry that hits the spot.

  7. “comically foaming”

    Reminds of a pint I had of it on a very hot night back in June this year at a one-handpump sports club in west London. It was my third pint of it and this one was just after the barrel had been changed . The first two were OK but this third one was something else, probably my most memorable pint of it in about 20 years of drinking the stuff. I’ve never really been a big fan of it but still enjoy the occasional pint. Unfortunately it was time to leave so I didn’t get to sample another.

  8. Very interested to read this: I have drunk a great deal of Young’s over the last forty-five years or so, though I have a feeling it is at least a couple of years since my last (unmemorable) pint. I enjoyed the ordinary bitter brewed at Wandsworth in the 1990s and beyond the turn of the century (and I felt Charles Wells did a reasonable job of matching it – at least initially – after the brewery closed), but it was quite different from the beer of the early 1970s. I seem to remember something went wrong during the hot summer of 1976 (there were various rumours), and I am not sure the beer was ever the same again.

  9. Had a very lovely half of the Special down here in Broadstairs a few days ago. Really quite well done. Ain’t seen the Ordinary.

  10. Young’s Special in the White Lion, Penzance (did you have the pleasure?) has been pretty damn good when I’ve been in there on Karaoke night. I still haven’t drunk enough, though, to unleash my Phil Collins tribute turn…

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