As luck would have it, quite a few key sites in the story of ‘the strange rebirth of British beer’ happen to be clustered together in the Southwark area of London, making for a perfect history walk with added boozing.
UPDATE 20/09/2014: It hadn’t occured to us back in December last year, but undertaking this crawl while reading Brew Britannia would be a good way to spend an afternoon. We’ve added notes on which chapters in the book reference which pubs.
The walking route we have suggested below will take you past the following locations:
1. Ye Olde Watling — City of London headquarters of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood, now a cosy Nicholson’s chain pub. (Chapter 1)
2. The Rake — the first really notable ‘craft beer’ bar in London, and still a great place to find good, or at least interesting, beer. (Chapter 12)
The cask ale we’ve enjoyed the most this year was probably Oakham Citra (4.2% ABV) at the Wellington in Birmingham, which we could still taste all the way back to Penzance. But the cask beers we’ve enjoyed most often have to be St Austell Proper Job, St Austell Tribute, Spingo Middle, Penzance Brewing Co. Potion 9 and — brace yourselves — Bass Pale Ale. Let’s warm up by making sense of that:
On his blog, he has tended to accentuate the positive rather than dishing out savage criticism (the Michael Jackson approach) and this small press book continues in the same manner, declaring itself as wholly celebratory — an expression of regional pride. Fortunately, with more than a hundred Yorkshire breweries to choose from, Linley has no trouble picking a handful which he can endorse with a clear conscience.
Let’s get one substantial ‘point for improvement’ out of the way: the book would have benefited from tighter editing. There are several instances of close repetition (the phrase ‘our fair county’ appears twice in as many pages); too many exclamation marks (screamers) for our taste; and a variation on the dreaded ‘cannot be underestimated’ makes an appearance in the foreword.
Those superficial points aside, what surprised us on this second, closer reading (the first time was on a long train journey without a notebook at hand) was that, though pitched as a lightweight local interest book, Great Yorkshire Beer also functions as something of a ‘microhistory’. By focusing so closely on one region and one particular generation of brewers — those who have entered the industry in the last decade or so — trends in the wider market are highlighted.
For example, an interview with Pete Roberts of Sheffield’s The Brew Company reveals a shift in tastes in the last few years: a beer released in 2008, Frontier IPA, was shelved because it was considered too bitter by local drinkers. In 2013, however, it has returned with exactly the same recipe to general acclaim, suggesting that drinkers’ palates have evolved in the post-Thornbridge, post-Brewdog era.
In allowing brewers to tell their stories in full, subtly different approaches between ostensibly similar businesses are illuminated. Mallinson’s refusal to have a ‘core range’ vs. Leeds Brewery’s reluctance to dabble in ‘one offs’, and Ilkley’s eye on the national market vs. Kirkstall’s determination to remain a Leeds speciality, act as useful case studies for anyone thinking of going into brewing.
A second small point for improvement, though: a couple of the interviews occasionally stray into ‘sales pitch’ territory, and it would be nice to see a little more challenge if next year should see the publication of More Great Yorkshire Beers.
With our interest in the development of ‘alternative beer’ from the 1960s onward, we were also fascinated to read that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale — named by one contemporary brewer after another as a key influence — found its way to British beer festivals, and on to supermarket shelves c.2003, thanks to the efforts of Leeds-based importer Steve Holt and his company Vertical Drinks. There are many other such interesting details throughout.
Though brewery profiles make up the bulk of the book, it also has recipes (Linley is a keen advocate of food and beer pairing), suggested pub crawls, and nuggets of Yorkshire beer trivia. Perfect, in short, for dipping in to on train journeys or solo pub visits. Any tourist visiting Yorkshire for the beer would be daft not to take a copy with them, and it would make a great Christmas gift for the Yorkophile in your life.
Disclosure: we paid for our copy of the book, but when we met Leigh for a pint in Leeds and he gave us three bottles of beer and some second-hand books as a gift. We’ve also known him (virtually, anyway) for quite a few years and think he’s a nice bloke, so can’t claim to be entirely objective.
Not long after Geoff Larson dumped the thirteenth batch of what would eventually be the first brand Alaskan Brewing sold he poured out the fourteenth. Then the fifteenth, and the sixteenth… [read more at Appellation Beer]
As a beer geek it’s not uncommon to feel like the intruder at the party… My intention is not to mock but instead to point out that the ways of the devoted beer hunter can often seem quite foreign to virtually everyone else on the planet. [Read more at Beer Battered…][/ezcol_2third_end]
Alongside Mild, Bitter is the beer style that probably troubles people the most; the definition is broad, somewhat cumbersome and with no ‘sexy’ aspects to it. Yet Bitter defines a UK region like no other…. [Read more at The Good Stuff][/ezcol_2third_end]
In 1987, a pub-owning entrepreneur looked at British brewing and decided it wasn’t working.
Stylishly packaged ranges of bottled beers trumpeting their purity and quality are easy to find these days. Back in 1987, though, bottled beer meant, in most cases, brown or light ale gathering dust on shelves behind the bar in pubs, with labels that appeared to have been designed before World War II. If you wanted to know their ingredients, or their alcoholic strength, tough luck, because the breweries didn’t want to tell you.
A cult beer from Cornwall would play a major role in changing that scene.
We also found something extremely appealing about the idea of an off-the-shelf educational tasting session. Like a chemistry set for grown-ups, it encourages the setting aside of a couple of hours, the clearing of a tabletop, and the taking of notes. This is not drinking, but thinking. With drink.
Beer #1: fermented with Pilsen lager yeast
This is a yeast we know reasonably well from our own home brewing experiments but we struggled, at first, to discern its influence in this case. That might be because we have been conditioned to expect that yeast character in weaker, paler beers, and needed to overcome our programming.
Eventually, we did begin to pick out the familiar sulphurous note; something lemony; and then a faint reminder of Parma Violets.
Though they didn’t deliver a huge aroma, we did find that the use of decent amounts of American hops clashed with the yeast, knocking it out of focus.
What we learned: Pilsner Yeast does not seem, as they say, to allow citrusy hops ‘to sing’.
Beer #2: Bavarian weizen yeast
On the odd occasion we have run tasting sessions, German wheat beer has been our go-to to demonstrate the impact of yeast. Its famous banana-clove-bubblegum character is easy to spot and striking. And that is what we expected here.
In fact, we found a grainy, slightly smoky character, with a whack of harsh hoochy alcohol. It wasn’t very pleasant, frankly, and probably wouldn’t help a would-be beer geek to spot this yeast in action in another beer.
What we learned: wheat beer yeast is not much at home in a strong pale ale; and it needs handling properly to make with the bananas.
Beer #3: American ale yeast
This is where we expected Brewdog to shine, and for a brief break from the educational misery. It smelled fantastic, a big leafy fug of Stoned Love rising above the glass.
It tasted, unfortunately, less exciting — plasticky and gritty, like their big Hardcore IPA let down with water.
Three beers in, we were starting to notice a common off-flavour, and wondered if there was a fundamental problem with the base beer.
What we learned: were there actually more hops in this beer than in the others? If not, then it’s easy to see why yeasts like this one are popular with hophead brewers seeking to maximise their impact.
Beer #4: Belgian Trappist yeast
Cor! Though the common dodgy flavour is still just about evident, this was by far the best beer as beer. The yeast is so strident that it stamps all over the hops, pumping out spicy esters and turning the base beer into baked-apples-with-raisins delight.
Well, delight might be a bit strong: it’s not the best Belgian-style beer we’ve had by a long chalk, but really was both a demonstration of what Belgian yeasts do as well as being tasty.
What we learned: ‘Belgian’ is definitely a flavour.
We hope Brewdog do this again but, next time, the base beer needs to be better and, more importantly, plainer. Legendary British brewer Sean ‘Rooster’s’ Franklin has often spoken of pale’n’hoppy beers brewed without dark malts as providing a ‘blank canvas’ for other ingredients, and that’s what was probably needed here.
We also think there’s something jarring about the application of the Brewdog branding to this product. The beers are not exciting or awesome, even though one is very nice, and the Rock Horns rhetoric is misplaced. We’d suggest that, next year, they call the pack Understanding Yeast: practical exercises for the classroom (J. Watt & M. Dickie) and package it in textbook white.
We bought our four-pack as part of an online order from Brewdog’s own store. It cost £9.50 + delivery (around £2.35 per bottle).