breweries marketing

The secret language of Young’s is being lost

Young’s was an important London brewery, and remains an important London brand, but it might be losing its place in the city’s language.

Back in the 1970s, Young’s, under the leadership of John Young, was a holdout against keg beer and its beers were championed by the Campaign for Real Ale. It even had its own fan club.

But when we first started blogging about beer, in 2007, things weren’t going so well.

The beer, people said, had been declining in quality for years, and wasn’t what it used to be in those early days of CAMRA.

In 2006, Young’s had sold a majority stake to Charles Wells, John Young died, and the Ram Brewery in Wandsworth closed. Production moved to Bedford.

It felt like the end of an era, especially as it took London down to just 9 breweries, 5 of which were brewpubs.

In the decade that followed, Charles Wells bought out Young & Co and the brewing brand and pub company became totally separate entities, though Young’s branded beer was still generally found in Young’s branded pubs.

What surprised us was the persistent fondness for the brand in London, and especially in South West London.

People really didn’t seem to care where it was brewed, or whether it was any good, as long as they could still buy a pint of ‘Ordinary’ (bitter), a pint of ‘Spesh’ (Special, the best bitter), and perhaps a bottle of ‘Ram’ (Ram Rod bottled strong ale).

Practical linguistics

That traditional insider vocabulary has always delighted us, and its persistence was a sign that Young’s fandom was clinging on as an idea and a sort of subculture.

Back in about 2013 we tried to order “Half a pint of Special in a pint glass and a bottle of Ram Rod, please,” only for the teenager behind the bar to reply, witheringly, “I do know what a Ram’n’Spesh is.”

At a Young’s pub in Wandsworth in 2022, with the pandemic still distorting the pub going experience, we were delighted to find Ram’n’Spesh as an option in the Young’s app we used to order beer to our table.

And even in Bristol, at The Highbury Vaults, we still seem to be able to order Ordinary and get a pint of Young’s Bitter – despite the fact it’s been renamed London Original.

But there are worrying signs.

A pint of what?

In more than one pub on recent trips to London we’ve found that the secret language of Young’s no longer works.

At The Lamb in Leadenhall Market, for example, asking for Ordinary baffled the bar staff. Asking for Ram Rod confused them, too.

Perhaps that’s because these days it’s less a pub for City clerks from the Surrey Side and more of an Instagram-worthy tourist attraction.

Or maybe Carlsberg-Marston’s, which owns the brewing brand, has started to enforce brand discipline.

Starbuck’s coffee shop staff are supposedly to repeat your order back in the correct brand language:

“A small black coffee, please.”

“A tall Americano?”

Something like that, perhaps.

After all, when you’re spending money marketing London Original you sure as hell want people to call it that, and ask for it by name.

And while ‘Ordinary’ strikes us rather a lovely bit of self-deprecating understatement, it’s perhaps not where you’d start if you’re naming a beer to stand out in the crowded market of 2024.

What’s your experience?

Have you successfully ordered a pint of Ordinary recently?

Or, on the flipside, encountered a member of bar staff who didn’t know what you were talking about?

We’ll keep testing the water when we’re in Young’s pubs, asking for Ordinary, and seeing what we get.

12 replies on “The secret language of Young’s is being lost”

I used to drink in a Youngs pub in the late 90s/early 00s and remember one landlord who really didn’t like you calling it “Ordinary”!
Always liked it when they had the Winter Warmer in though.

That’s the problem with unofficial brand slang. In some pubs, they’d look at you like you were mad if you didn’t ask for ‘ordinary’. As in, they almost wouldn’t seem to understand an order for ‘bitter’.

In 2001 I started a job in central London. On Wednesday after work we would decamp to the Royal Oak in Regency Street. On the first occasion I was carefully tutored by my colleague Keith how to ask for a round of Ordinary or ‘ordinaire’ as he would call it in his increasingly intoxicated fake French accent as the evening wore on. It became part of our routine and my life and as such had importance. I left the job in 2011 and last saw Keith in 2014. When, last year, I heard of his death one of the first things I thought about was Young’s Ordinary. I worry about the small individual things, that make up the fabric of our lives being gradually diminished but I imagine that has been going on for a long time.

Thanks for sharing this story, Pete. “Ordinaire” is both slightly obnoxious and quite charming. A proper dad-uncle joke.

I successfully ordered a pint of Ordinary in the Morpeth Arms on Millbank the other week. Didn’t try Light and Bitter, but suspect they may have known what that was as well.

We were wondering if it might be different in *hardcore* Young’s Pubs vs. second tier ones.

I remember Brakspear’s bitter being known as Ordinary in their pubs too. I think the closest London successor to Young’s Ordinary is Redemption Pale Ale – a wonderful session bitter.

I wondered about this too – I’d always assumed ‘pint of ordinary’ vs ‘pint of best’ was at least common enough to be understood most places, even if not the usual order. Guess it relies on breweries still brewing a session and a best bitter?

This post has sparked memories – along with the dawning realisation that they’re now a good couple of decades old…

I’ve not had a pint of Young’s in ages, but it was one of the beers I imprinted on. As a real-ale-drinking student in London in the early noughties, our local pubs were either Young’s or Fuller’s. My department’s engineering workshops were being refurbished, so for a term I had to get the bus to Wandsworth once a week to spend the day at South Thames Technical College for our metalworking experience. The silver lining was the ability to have a swift half and a sandwich in the brewery tap at lunchtime, and a pint of Winter Warmer after we’d finished for the day.

I don’t think I ever had a Ram’n’Spesh, though – might have to make the effort to finally try one the next time I’m in the smoke.

John Hatch tells a story (of course he does) of John Young *hating* it being called Ordinary because of its connotations.
Personally, I’m more exercised by “London” Original being brewed in Burton (Tadcaster? Who bloody knows these days…)

Ordinary, and occasionally Special, and Ramrod and Ordinary, have all been occasional pints since junior school days in Hampstead …… and one occasion in the modern era was at the Alexandra in Wimbledon, my father’s favourite / regular local in his last years living not far away in supported housing in Haydons Road. Indeed, I think it was he who first introduced me to the Alex in the mid ’80s.

Friday’s balmy evening in the Alex, with a small group of friends, was a hubbub both indoors and out ….. and a pint of all three beers on, starting with Dorking Brewery’s Pilcrow Pale through Ordinary to Special, all helped for a very mellow end to a busy week.

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