Gold or Pale or Mancunian?

Thornbridge Made North.

We’ve been thinking again about how different three pints of ostensible similar yellow beer at c.3.7% can taste depending on which sub-species they belong to.

First, there’s what we think of as ‘hon­ey­ish’ gold­en ales. Exmoor Gold, reck­oned by some to be the first gold­en ale of the mod­ern era, is one exam­ple; Tim­o­thy Tay­lor Gold­en Best might be con­sid­ered anoth­er. Ah-hah, but, you say, that’s real­ly a light mild. And you’re on to some­thing there, because mild is a much bet­ter word than bland, which we used to dis­miss this group a few years ago. These beers might look light but they have a fair bit of body and some resid­ual sweet­ness, end­ing up almost syrupy. ‘Gold’ real­ly works, sug­gest­ing as it does rich­ness and a cer­tain weight.

Then there’s the pale-n-hop­pies. These descend from Hop­back Sum­mer Light­ning, of which more in a moment, and are defined by their extreme pal­lor and high per­fume. They’re usu­al­ly light-bod­ied, too – spritzy. Oakham Cit­ra is a good exam­ple, or Hawk­shead Win­der­mere. A decade ago we used to find this kind of beer hard work, all qui­nine and air fresh­en­er, but tastes change.

Final­ly, there’s an extinct sub-style which has been revived in recent years: the aus­tere­ly bit­ter Man­ches­ter pale ale which has Boddington’s as its sole ances­tor. Ray came back from his trip to Sheffield last week­end all abuzz about Thorn­bridge Made North; North­ern Monk’s (defunct?) True North was anoth­er excel­lent exam­ple. Eng­lish or oth­er restrained Euro­pean hops, used pri­mar­i­ly to cre­ate bit­ter­ness, are a defin­ing fea­ture, as is a cer­tain dry­ness, and evi­dent whole­meal malti­ness.

So where does Sum­mer Light­ning sit? We reck­on these days it’s got more in com­mon with the Man­ches­ter sub-style (Ger­man hops, not huge­ly aro­mat­ic, but by no means hon­ey­ish) than the pale-n-hop­py rev­o­lu­tion it inspired, via Rooster’s Yan­kee. Young’s Bit­ter AKA Ordi­nary, depend­ing on which month you catch it, might almost belong in that group too. Cer­tain­ly when those north­ern lads who found­ed CAMRA end­ed up in Lon­don, it was Young’s to which they turned in the absence of their beloved Bod­dies.

The prob­lem is for the con­sumer is that these beers all look more or less alike, and as we know peo­ple less obsessed with beer than us lot often buy based on some com­bi­na­tion of colour and ABV. If you like Gold­en Best and end up with Oakham Cit­ra  because it’s the right strength and shade, or vice ver­sa, you might feel dis­ap­point­ed. And with­out know­ing the con­text it would be easy to taste one of the Manchester/North ales and think, huh, this pale-n-hop­py from a not­ed pro­duc­er of aro­mat­ic beers is a bit dull.

Per­haps what we’re hop­ing for is some sort of con­ven­tion in nam­ing and labelling. It’s already half there, to be fair: hon­ey­ish beers are often called Some­thing Gold or Gold­en Some­thing, and Boddington’s clones seem invari­ably to have ‘Man­ches­ter’ or ‘North’ in their names. And that mid­dle lot… They always spec­i­fy which hops are used on the pump-clip, don’t they?

If a les­son in hops, malt and yeast is Mod­ule One in learn­ing about beer, then per­haps tast­ing these three sub-styles could be one branch to fol­low for Mod­ule Two.

15 thoughts on “Gold or Pale or Mancunian?”

  1. Did the Man­ches­ter bit­ter style ever actu­al­ly become extinct? (If it is a style – but I see that you, and indeed we, dis­cussed that top­ic exten­sive­ly a few years ago.) If it ever was com­plete­ly unavail­able, it would only have been for a few years in the 90s. Bod­dies’ sold up in 1989, although brew­ing car­ried on at Strange­ways till 2004* – so at least some­thing com­pa­ra­ble to the debased Bod­dies of lat­er years was prob­a­bly avail­able into the 1990s. Oak (whose head brew­er Tony Allen start­ed at Pen­rhos, con­ti­nu­ity fans) changed its name to Phoenix in 1991, and I’d cer­tain­ly put a cou­ple of their cur­rent beers in the ‘Man­ches­ter bit­ter’ zone.

    *Accord­ing to Wikipedia, Boddington’s cask was being brewed – in Hulme – until 2014. I can’t think when I last saw a Boddington’s hand pump, but it cer­tain­ly wasn’t in a year begin­ning with 2.

    1. It’s a ver­sion of Trigger’s Broom – “Boddington’s is still around, it’s just a dif­fer­ent colour, less bit­ter, and brewed some­where else.”

  2. I’m a fan of Okell’s Manx Pale Ale. Although accord­ing to their web­site it has Galaxy & Cit­ra hops, I would put it more in the Man­ches­ter sub-style you refer to rather than pale & hop­py. I enjoyed sev­er­al pints of it on my last cou­ple of trips to York­shire.

    I think I only ever had cask Boddington’s once, I reck­on it must have been in the very late 90s pos­si­bly even ear­ly noughties. Not a good time to have tried it judg­ing by what I’ve read about it.

    1. By then it was a pale imi­ta­tion, lit­er­al­ly. When Bods was con­fined to the North West, pre Whit­bread, it was the epit­o­my of a bal­anced, drink­able, gold­en bit­ter beer. My first taste was in a lit­tle booz­er behind Man­ches­ter Vic­to­ria Sta­tion and spit­ting dis­tance from the brew­ery (Grapes? Not the Old Grapes though) served by an elec­tric pump from hogsheads.

  3. I lived in Wandsworth in the ear­ly 80s and John Gilbert used to come along to some of the local CAMRA events. I think that at the time he was brew­er at the now long gone Con­way Tav­erns chain but had worked for Youngs at some point and Sum­mer Light­ning did have some inspi­ra­tion in what Youngs Bit­ter used to be like. I recall that he had some fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries about his time at Youngs, includ­ing the direc­tor who was com­plete­ly ‘out of it’ by 10 or 11 each morn­ing.

  4. aus­tere­ly bit­ter Man­ches­ter pale ale which has Boddington’s as its sole ances­tor” – No, def­i­nite­ly not.

    A few pieces of evi­dence: “Greater Man­ches­ter has … some very dry brews” (Jack­son, 1986); Holt’s bit­ter “bit­ing … uncom­pro­mis­ing­ly acer­bic” (Dunn, 1979), “extreme­ly hop­py” (Jack­son, 1986),“very dry and bit­ter, pale, straw-coloured” (Dunn, 1986) “stun­ning­ly bit­ter” (Protz, 1991).

    Else­where in the North West: Hartley’s Bit­ter “straw-coloured” (Protz, 1991); Jen­nings “real­ly sharp” (Dunn, 1979), “very bit­ter” (John, 1982), “won­der­ful­ly hop­py” (Jack­son, 1986); Mitchell’s Best Bit­ter “pale gold” (Protz, 1991); Yates & Jack­son “very bit­ter” (Dunn, 1979), “well-hopped (John, 1982); Yates “straw coloured, excep­tion­al­ly dry” (Protz, 1991).

    So there’s strong evi­dence that the North West was home to a style of pale ale/bitter that was very bit­ter and often very pale (Jen­nings wasn’t/isn’t), and Boddington’s is mere­ly the best-known of these.

    1. Yates’ was a rel­a­tive­ly new addi­tion to that lot, though. My per­son­al favourite, and a beer I miss enor­mous­ly; many a long day on the Lake­land fells was reflect­ed on with a few pints of Yates’.

      Holt’s was always my favourite Man­ches­ter beer, and was also incred­i­bly cheap.

    2. Mitchell’s bit­ter only became gold­en in colour after the demise of Yates & Jack­sons in the mid-80s. They took over the brew­ing plant and (I believe) the brew­er and most like­ly the recipe. Pri­or to that their bit­ter was dark, sweet and malty.

    3. Sor­ry, Mar­tyn – missed this com­ment when you post­ed it for some rea­son.

      We meant that this cur­rent set of beers are all (we reck­on) direct­ly inspired by Boddington’s, even if Boddington’s wasn’t the sole exam­ple of that style. You nev­er hear any­one men­tion those oth­er beers when describ­ing the influ­ences, per­haps because of the sen­ti­ment attached to Boddington’s. But we’ll try to be clear­er if we repeat this point in future.

  5. I remem­ber still see­ing cask Bod­ding­tons Bit­ter in a few pubs around Man­ches­ter pret­ty much up until Hydes stopped con­tract brew­ing it in 2012.

  6. Is is real­ly a north west thing? Stones was a pret­ty pale and hop­py drink though by the time i was in pubs it was just a keg beer and no longer brewed in sheffield.

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