Crunching the Numbers on British Beer Styles

Rather than relying on interpretations of tasting notes and faulty memories, wouldn’t it be good to know for sure if and how British beer has changed in the past 20 years? Well, there is a way.

In the November/December issue of UK brew­ing indus­try mag­a­zine The Grist Kei­th Thomas pro­vid­ed a tech­ni­cal break­down of the typ­i­cal strength, colour and bit­ter­ness of British beer styles. It is full of fas­ci­nat­ing jew­els of infor­ma­tion but the most inter­est­ing parts are this graph…

A graph showing beers clustered around the same bitterness and colour.

… and this table which shows the mea­sured colour (EBC) and bit­ter­ness (EBU) of a hun­dred beers with the num­bers pre­scribed by CAM­RA’s style guide­lines beneath in brack­ets:

Style No. Brands Colour Min-Max Bit­ter­ness Min-Max
Light Mild 5 43
Dark Mild 12 117
Bit­ter 27 25
Best Bit­ter 19 28
Strong Bit­ter 16 33
Porter 6 150
Old Ale 4 64

These offer a fair­ly pre­cise snap­shot of the real­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion in 1995–96 and that is some­what inter­est­ing in its own right, but it becomes a lot more so when you dis­cov­er that Dr Thomas and his col­leagues at BrewLab in Sun­der­land have been check­ing in on these stats ever since.

They pub­lished a detailed report in 2006, sad­ly locked away behind pay­walls (British Food Jour­nal, Vol. 108, in case any­one has access) and have an update in the works. In the mean­time, though, they have released a sort of trail­er in the form of a press release, which states (our empha­sis)…

[The] fea­tures of many styles remained sim­i­lar to the para­me­ters sum­ma­rized in 2006.  How­ev­er, when con­sid­ered over­all some dif­fer­ences are evi­dent.  Aver­age alco­hol lev­els are down by 3% on aver­age.  This did vary by style and was main­ly due to old ales being weak­er.  More exten­sive dif­fer­ences are evi­dent in beer colour and bit­ter­ness.  While bit­ter­ness over­all has increased by 5% colour has decreased by 18%.  This is par­tic­u­lar­ly evi­dent in the dark­er beers – milds, porters and stouts.  In gen­er­al, it appears that beers are becom­ing lighter but more bit­ter.… It was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing to see that stan­dard beers are retain­ing their char­ac­ter but also that dark­er beers appear to be evolv­ing.  The intro­duc­tion of blond and gold­en beers has had an impact on the mar­ket and pos­si­bly influ­enced changes in oth­er styles.

It also comes with a use­ful info­graph­ic (believe it or not such things do exist) from which we’ve snipped these details:

There’s lots of inter­est­ing stuff to chew on there:

  • What’s the dif­fer­ence between porter and stout? Noth­ing, says his­to­ry. About 15 points in colour and 7 points of bit­ter­ness, say these real world obser­va­tions.
  • Dark mild has got more bit­ter since 1995–96… or is it just that the more bit­ter, char­ac­ter­ful exam­ples have proven resilient dur­ing the ongo­ing extinc­tion event?
  • What’s the dif­fer­ence between old ale and bar­ley wine? Not much, says his­to­ry. About 65 points in colour and six or sev­en points of bit­ter­ness, sez this.

Artyfacts from the Nyneties #6: Beers of ’94

Sainsbury's Biere de Garde.
SOURCE: JS Jour­nal Online (PDF).

Yesterday we stumbled upon a 2006 ‘top ten bottled British ales’ listicle by Pete Brown which we shared on Twitter, and which reminded us of something we found during research on Brew Britannia: a list of 101 bottled reviewed by Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson’s for an article in British tabloid the People in 1994.

It appeared in the Sun­day edi­tion for 21 August that year and offers an excel­lent snap­shot of what was then read­i­ly avail­able in British shops.

It’s from just the moment when Pre­mi­um Bot­tled Ales were com­ing into exis­tence in their almost-a-pint bot­tles and at around pub strength, shov­ing aside tra­di­tion­al half-pint brown and light ales.

There are some sur­pris­es but, gen­er­al­ly, we think, it brings home how far things have come.

Jack­son sub­scribed to the view that it was a waste of time to write bad reviews when you could focus on things you’d enjoyed but in this exer­cise was essen­tial­ly forced to give a short note for each beer, some of which were unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly sting­ing.  Carls­berg Spe­cial Brew, for exam­ple, he found “sweet and yucky” and Scor­pi­on Dry prompt­ed him to ask: “Where’s the sting? More like cab­bage water.”

On the whole, though, he remained quite gen­tle, even find­ing diplo­mat­ic words to say about some fair­ly bland lagers such as Rolling Rock with its touch of “new-mown hay”.

The aster­isked beers are those he par­tic­u­lar­ly rec­om­mend­ed – quite a high bar, evi­dent­ly.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Arty­facts from the Nyneties #6: Beers of ’94”

BOOK EXTRACT: The Birth of the Gastropub, 1990

In the summer of 1991 The Times’s food critic, Jonathan Meades, took a break from visiting upmarket restaurants to investigate a new eatery that was generating a strange amount of buzz.

He found it ‘chaot­ic-look­ing and very noisy’ and was luke­warm about the infor­mal set-up: no book­ings, order at the bar, lunge for any avail­able seat before any­one else took it. The cus­tomers around him were young, though, and seemed to like this kind of thing. The food was­n’t refined but it was good val­ue, gen­er­ous­ly por­tioned, very much in line with the ‘rus­tic’ style then in fash­ion. He duly filed a review of the Eagle in Far­ring­don Road, North Lon­don, which was not far from glow­ing. [1] Some­thing inter­est­ing was afoot but, for the moment, the lan­guage lacked a word to describe this col­li­sion of gas­tron­o­my and the pub­lic house.

* * *

The above is a con­densed ver­sion of the open­ing to the chap­ter on gas­trop­ubs from our book 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub which came out last autumn. We’re shar­ing it, along with the extract below, because it was announced today that we’ve made the short­list for best drinks book at the 2018 Fort­num & Mason Food and Drink Awards. The results are announced on 10 May which means we get a month to bask in the glo­ry whether we win or not. The book is avail­able in all the usu­al places at a rec­om­mend­ed retail price of £16.99 and is on a 31-strong streak of 5‑star reviews at Ama­zon, so please do buy a copy if you haven’t already.

The Eagle in 2016.

The founders of what is gen­er­al­ly recog­nised as the first gas­trop­ub were Michael Bel­ben and David Eyre. They had worked togeth­er at sev­er­al restau­rants, most­ly recent­ly Mélange in Covent Gar­den, Eyre as a cook, Bel­ben in man­age­ment. In a por­trait pho­to tak­en in 1990 they look like mem­bers of a synth pop group – slim, moody, Bel­ben in a dark suit, Eyre in cot­ton shirt­sleeves. [2] Bel­ben is old­er, born in 1952, while Eyre, born in 1961, grew up large­ly in Mozam­bique and Rhode­sia (now Zim­bab­we), mov­ing to Britain to attend uni­ver­si­ty. [3]

They were both keen to start out on their own but, in the mean­time, absorbed culi­nary influ­ences, strug­gling to rec­on­cile their taste in fine food with their lim­it­ed funds. Eyre got mar­ried in 1989, but came out of that short-lived rela­tion­ship after 20 months with very lit­tle except an idea, giv­en to him by his ex-wife’s aunt: with a reces­sion immi­nent, open­ing a restau­rant would be fool­ish, she argued, so why not run a pub? She hadn’t meant a pub with food, but it was the spark Eyre and Bel­ben need­ed. Why not open a pub with decent food, cater­ing to peo­ple like them who longed, but couldn’t afford, to eat at places like the then super-hip Riv­er Café?

For­tu­nate­ly for them, a cat­a­stroph­ic change to the British pub own­er­ship mod­el was under­way. In 1989 the UK gov­ern­ment passed a bill which meant that brew­eries own­ing more than 2,000 pubs would be required to dis­pose of half of the excess. This act, known infor­mal­ly as the Beer Orders, meant in the first instance that the largest brew­ers had no choice but to dump a large num­ber of their worst-per­form­ing pubs on to the open mar­ket, or sell them en bloc to oth­er firms. In this respect, as food crit­ic Jay Rayn­er has said, ‘the gas­tro pub move­ment is a pure prod­uct of Thatch­erism’.

The Eagle was an unre­mark­able Vic­to­ri­an cor­ner pub in Far­ring­don, then a rather unfash­ion­able part of Lon­don, and was owned by the aston­ish­ing­ly unfash­ion­able brew­ery Watney’s. For a brief time in the 1980s it was a freak­ish hang­over from the theme pub era – a ‘fun pub’ dec­o­rat­ed with met­al fur­ni­ture, exposed pipes and bare breeze-block­ing so as to resem­ble a nuclear bunker. [4] (Fun indeed.) When it was unloaded by the brew­ery in response to the Beer Orders, Bel­ben and Eyre took it on, describ­ing it as ‘the first and cheap­est dead pub we found… But beneath the sad grime we could see an attrac­tive, if small, room with huge win­dows and maple floor’. [5]

Portrait shot of a man with beard and white shirt.
Michael Bel­ben at The Eagle, 2016.

They paid for it with a com­bi­na­tion of bank loans and mon­ey bor­rowed from fam­i­ly, got the keys on 18 Decem­ber 1990, and under­took ren­o­va­tion work them­selves, scrub­bing it back to an almost bare min­i­mal­ism and let­ting the light flood in. Michael Bel­ben fit­ted it out with, as food writer Diana Hen­ry recalled in 2003, ‘mis­matched chi­na, bat­tered fur­ni­ture, sag­ging sofas and a few lamps with wob­bly shades’. [6] They oper­at­ed at first, from 16 Jan­u­ary 1991, with an 8 by 5 foot kitchen con­tain­ing a microwave, fridge, grill, two burn­ers and a sink, none of pro­fes­sion­al stan­dard. In the flat above the pub, where Eyre also lived, they used an oven to pre­pare one or two share­able dish­es in pots, such as casseroles. Twen­ty years on, Eyre recalled their work­ing rela­tion­ship:

Mad Mike. Mike was prone to be a bit crazed at any time. But you see, he did get it and he was very good at… [pause] I got all the glo­ry, but he was very good at trudg­ing down to the bank and get­ting the float and spend­ing hours and hours in the office… Not the best peo­ple per­son some­times. Infu­ri­at­ing some­times. I mean, we did have some blind­ing argu­ments… But we were good. It was that kind of oppo­sites thing.

Bel­ben and Eyre have always empha­sised their demo­c­ra­t­ic inten­tions, under­lin­ing what to them were key signs that the Eagle was still a pub:

It was impor­tant that a table could be used by peo­ple in mud­dy boots drink­ing lager as much as by peo­ple who’d come to the best place to eat ribol­li­ta. It was very egal­i­tar­i­an – a great lev­eller. You’d have the edi­tor of the Guardian next to a builder, next to a fresh-out-of-school graph­ic design­er. [7]

There were no reser­va­tions for tables, no dress code and, they insist­ed when chal­lenged, cus­tomers could just turn up for a drink – din­ing was not com­pul­so­ry. ‘It was the Anti-Restau­rant Thing that we sort of embraced whole­heart­ed­ly,’ Eyre would recall in a series of record­ings made in 2011 by Niamh Dil­lon for an oral his­to­ry project:

No uni­forms, chefs wore fish­er­man’s smocks… Mis­matched plates, the no starters, the no desserts, the one-course eat­ing, the old fash­ioned por­tions of the food, the fact that there was no ser­vice – if you want­ed to tip a mem­ber of staff you bought them a drink. [8]

The come­di­an and broad­cast­er Gra­ham Nor­ton worked with Eyre and Bel­ben at Mélange and con­sid­ered Bel­ben ‘one of the most het­ero­sex­u­al men I had ever come across’ but ‘impos­si­ble to work for’,411 a friend and a men­tor. He joined the wait­ing staff at the Eagle where, freed from the oblig­a­tion to kiss-up to earn tips, he enjoyed being rude to cus­tomers:

A smile costs noth­ing,’ a cus­tomer who’d been order­ing in dribs and drabs and there­fore irri­tat­ing me would say.

And intel­li­gence can’t be bought,’ I’d retort. Why nobody rab­bit-punched me I don’t know. [9]

From the cus­tomers’ per­spec­tive this kind of thing meant that the Eagle could some­times be faint­ly intim­i­dat­ing, despite its founders’ avowed desire to cre­ate warmth and con­vivi­al­i­ty.

The dark interior of the Eagle.

In the same 2011 record­ing Eyre explained that the Eagle was able to oper­ate with a low­er mark-up on food than restau­rants prop­er – 60 per cent gross prof­it rather than 70 or 75 – because there was no air-con­di­tion­ing, no linen, and the kitchen staff, hav­ing less for­mal train­ing, would work for less. Until 1997 even the most expen­sive items on the menu cost no more than £10 (about £20 in today’s mon­ey) and, Eyre said, stu­dents or younger office work­ers could go to the Eagle and have some­thing sub­stan­tial and well-made for only ‘twice the price of a sand­wich in a sand­wich shop’.

At its best, the atmos­phere was live­ly and, at its worst, when hype brought crowds of would-be din­ers into a venue with no table book­ings, it could be loud and chaot­ic. The back­ground music was direct­ed by Eyre’s old­er broth­er Robert, who worked there for a time and had a large, quirky record col­lec­tion: ‘I real­ly do believe my broth­er was the first per­son to buy Bue­na Vista Social Club.’ There was world music, jazz, blues, but def­i­nite­ly, point­ed­ly, no gui­tar-heavy clas­sic rock.

There was a prob­lem with all this. In a Jan­u­ary 2016 inter­view with Susie Mesure mark­ing the 25th anniver­sary of the Eagle’s open­ing Eyre said: ‘We weren’t real­ly pub-going peo­ple, because pubs didn’t seem to answer our needs’. [10] And there­in per­haps lies the source of much of the irri­ta­tion that gas­trop­ubs would go on to gen­er­ate in the decade that fol­lowed among those who were ded­i­cat­ed ‘pub-going peo­ple’: they were seen by many as mid­dle- class colonis­ers tak­ing over pubs and, in the process, denud­ing them of their essen­tial ‘pub­ness’. In prac­tice, to drinkers, the Eagle looked like an infor­mal restau­rant rather than a pub with food and, even if it was the­o­ret­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble to turn up and just have a drink, the pub soon became so hip it was impos­si­ble to get in the door any­way.

Jay Rayn­er, reflect­ing on gas­trop­ubs in 2001, said, ‘It is hard to over­state the impor­tance of The Eagle… When it launched in the ear­ly 90s, the idea was extra­or­di­nary, if not bizarre.’ He also point­ed out that, though much of what the Eagle did had by then become to seem clichéd, in 1991 it seemed ‘nigh on rev­o­lu­tion­ary’, inspir­ing many imi­ta­tors, often found­ed by peo­ple who had them­selves worked at the Eagle. [11]


[1] ‘Popped in, pigged out’, The Times, 3 August 1991, Sat­ur­day Review sup­ple­ment, p.27.
[2] Repro­duced in the Inde­pen­dent, 9 Jan­u­ary 2016, pp.20–21.
[3] Bio­graph­i­cal details for Mike Bel­ben from Debrett’s, retrieved 26 May 2016; and for David Eyre from 2011 oral his­to­ry record­ings, ‘Eyre, David (1 of 10)’, Niamh Dil­lon, Food: From Source to Sale­s­point, British Library.
[4] Cor­re­spon­dence with vet­er­an pub-goer Ian Wor­den, 14 June 2016.
[5] Big Flavours, Rough Edges, David Eyre, 2001, p.8.
[6] The Gas­tro Pub Cook­book, p.6.
[7] ‘20 Years of the Eagle Inter­view’, Liz Edwards, Clerken­well Post, 2011.
[8] ‘Eyre, David (6 of 10)’, Food: From Source to Sale­s­point, British Library.
[9] So Me, 2004, pp.74–75.
[10] ‘The Eagle: Britain’s first gas­trop­ub cel­e­brates its 25th birth­day’, Susie Mesure, Inde­pen­dent, 9 Jan­u­ary 2016, retrieved 17 March 2016.
[11] ‘Fox Hunt­ing’, Observ­er Mag­a­zine, 22 July 2001, p.49.

Session #123: The Cyber Is Huge

For this edi­tion of the inter­na­tion­al beer blog­ging jam­boree Josh Weik­ert at Beer Sim­ple asks us to con­sid­er whether the inter­net is hurt­ing or help­ing craft beer.

1990s-style animated gif: man drinking beer.
SOURCE: Dodgy ani­mat­ed GIFS web­site. This would have been state of the art stuff in 1999.

Beer geeks got online early in the life of the internet: nerds gonna nerd.

We’ve some­times joked that if you pro­duced a Venn dia­gram of (a) beer geeks, (b) jazz fans, © low­er divi­sion sports obses­sives, (d) Who­vians, (e) IT pro­fes­sion­als, it would be more or less just a sin­gle big cir­cle.

Research­ing Brew Bri­tan­nia some of our best sources were ear­ly online chat rooms archived com­pre­hen­sive­ly, if clunki­ly, by Google. The big one,, was found­ed (as far as we can tell) in July of 1991, long before Ama­zon, or Google itself, or any of our oth­er sin­is­ter tech over­lords. In fact, before the first web­site had ever been cre­at­ed – exist­ed as threads of text. Here’s the char­ter post­ed around the time of its estab­lish­ment by one Dan Brown: was cre­at­ed for the pur­pose of dis­cussing the var­i­ous aspects of
that fine malt­ed bev­er­age gen­er­al­ly referred to as beer. Wel­come here are
dis­cus­sions of rare and inter­est­ing beers, reviews of brew­pubs and
brew­eries, sug­ges­tions about where to shop for beer, and tips for mak­ing
your own.…

Not wel­come are the pletho­ra of tales of drunk­en stu­pid­i­ty that usu­al­ly
go some­thing like, ‘I guzzeled 5 cas­es of X beer, drunk­en­ly made a fool
of myself in front of a large num­ber of peo­ple, of whom I was desparate­ly
try­ing to impress a cer­tain one, and then spent the rest of the night
alter­nate­ly dri­ving a porce­line bus, and look­ing like road kill on the
bath­room floor.’ Almost every­one has heard or expe­ri­enced this, or
some­thing sim­i­lar, at one time or anoth­er.

(Does any­one know Mr Brown? It would be inter­est­ing to, ahem, chat to him.)

The ques­tion we’ve got is, how did appre­ci­at­ing beer ever work with­out the inter­net? To some extent enjoy­ing beer in the 21st Cen­tu­ry is a job of record­ing, cat­a­logu­ing and shar­ing infor­ma­tion, and the inter­net is bet­ter at that than flop­py discs in the post, or let­ters, or CB radio.

We’re not quite dig­i­tal natives – we remem­ber the inter­net arriv­ing and strug­gling to work out what to do with it once we’d looked at the hand­ful of web­sites that exist­ed in the mid-1990s – but by the time we got into beer we were ful­ly immersed in online cul­ture and looked there for advice and guid­ance. We’ve writ­ten before about some ear­ly sources of beer infor­ma­tion that no longer exist, notably the Oxford Bot­tled Beer Data­base (1996‑c.2010). These web­sites – all text, frames, striped back­grounds and under con­struc­tion GIFs – told us which pubs to vis­it in strange towns, which beers to buy from the bewil­der­ing selec­tion at Uto­beer, and (not always accu­rate­ly) explained why cer­tain beers tast­ed the way they did.

The fact is, in 2017, online and offline aren’t dis­tinct spaces – the for­mer is inte­grat­ed into every­day life. When we go to the pub and see a strange beer on offer, we look it up on our smart­phones. We might take a pic­ture and share it on Twit­ter, Face­book or Insta­gram (hint hint) or write it up here. Some­times, we choose a pub based pure­ly on intel we’ve picked up on the inter­net – or, rather, that we’ve sub­con­scious­ly absorbed from the ambi­ent blur of shared infor­ma­tion that acts as back­ground noise in our lives. And often, online rela­tion­ships trans­late into pints shared in per­son with peo­ple we might oth­er­wise nev­er have known exist­ed.

And, for all the prob­lems with online infor­ma­tion – FAKE NEWS! – it’s much hard­er to be a beer bull­shit­ter now than 40 years ago because if you make a ludi­crous claim some­one can just look it up.

Has any­thing been lost? Per­haps inso­far as the inter­net enabled the Glob­al Repub­lic of Crafto­nia at the expense of the con­cept of the Local Scene. Mar­tyn Cor­nell has writ­ten about a time in the 1970s when, hav­ing tried some­thing like 14 dif­fer­ent beers from not only Hert­ford­shire but also sev­er­al oth­er coun­ties, he con­sid­ered him­self quite adven­tur­ous. Back then, the infra­struc­ture of beer appre­ci­a­tion man­i­fest­ed itself in local fes­ti­vals, local newslet­ters, and tips shared in the pub.

But this isn’t just a chal­lenge for the beer world – work­ing out a way to reap the ben­e­fits of glob­al con­nec­tions with­out the loss of region­al cul­tures is a much big­ger human issue.

The Most Important British Craft Beers?

British beer bottle cap.

In response to an article listing ‘The 25 Most Important American Craft Beers’ Michael Lally at Bush Craft Beer has challenged his readers to think about what might be on a Brit-centric version of that list:

I think we can define ‘craft’ rel­a­tive­ly loose­ly and ‘impor­tant’ in a sim­i­lar way to our US col­leagues: It’s one that either changed con­sumer tastes or how brew­eries approach mak­ing beer. There are a few obvi­ous ones: Punk IPA by Brew­dog, Jaipur by Thorn­bridge, ESB by Fullers.

There’s a sur­vey you can respond to includ­ing space to make your own sug­ges­tions but here’s some food for thought from us.

1. Traquair House Ale (1965)

Arguably the very first ‘micro­brew­ery’ was Traquair House which com­menced pro­duc­tion in 1965. It demon­strat­ed that it was pos­si­ble for small brew­eries to be opened despite pre­vail­ing indus­try trends, and also that small inde­pen­dent brew­eries could often do more inter­est­ing things than their bit­ter- and lager-focused Big Six peers – this beer was (and is) at a hefty ABV and very rich.

2. Litchborough Bitter (1974)

Anoth­er brew­ery with a strong claim to being the first micro­brew­ery was Bill Urquhart’s Litch­bor­ough based in the vil­lage of that name near Northamp­ton. The beer itself does­n’t seem to have been espe­cial­ly excit­ing but the busi­ness mod­el, and Mr Urquhart’s mentoring/consultancy, direct­ly inspired the micro­brew­ery boom that fol­lowed.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “The Most Impor­tant British Craft Beers?”