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.

10 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.

  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.

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