Imagined Richness

A half of mild ale.

Why is it that our mouths water at the mention of a XXX mild from 1959 even when it is accompanied by notes underlining its sweet, watery weakness?

What power of nostalgia is it that makes us imagine a beer from 60 years ago will taste more exciting than the same kind of beers today?

We suppose it’s because, being unattainable, it stands in for every pint of mild in history, or rather the ideal pint of mild, in ideal condition, served in the ideal pub, in ideal company.

The imagination tends towards perfection, constructing composites from only happy memories.

In reality, if we had the wherewithal to travel back to Suffolk at the dawn of the 1960s, there’s every chance we’d find ourselves confronted with mediocre pints, or even a nasty ones.

And, underwhelmed, we’d yearn for the good old days.

The Great Porter Flood of 2017

At some point in the last year a memo must have gone round all the traditional-regional-family brewers: let’s brew porter!

So far this year we’ve noticed new ones from:

And that’s before we get into debatable cases such as the revived Truman’s which has a vanilla porter in development.

Have we missed any others?

We’d guess this has been enabled by the trend for small pilot plants which enable large breweries, otherwise equipped to turn out tankerloads of one or two flagship beers, to produce styles with less mainstream appeal on the side. For a long time this was often cited as the reason for the lack of dark beers — they don’t sell enough to warrant a full brew — so this might also bode well for other marginal styles such as mild.

We’re also firmly of the view that porter is a more dignified way of meeting the current demand for novelty and variety than disappointing cod-American IPAs, or beers that are supposed to taste of Tequila.

Whatever the reasons and motives we’d be quite happy if October-December became a sort of semi-official porter season across the country. Imagine knowing that you could walk into almost any halfway decent pub and find porter on draught — imagine!

Q&A: What Was the First Kegged Craft Beer?

‘What was the first kegged “craft”? Freehouses had keg lines – something must have been number one.’ Paul, Edinburgh (@CanIgetaP)

Bailey has recently been reading What Was the First Rock’N’Roll Record? by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes. Rather than declare an answer it puts forward a list of 50 candidates from 1944 to 1956 and explains the claim each has to the title. We’re going to steal that approach.

Watney's Red Barrel (detail from beer mat).

1. Watney’s Red Barrel, London, 1931.
Wait, bear with us! It was the first keg bitter, full stop, and when it first emerged was a well-regarded export quality beer. We’ve tasted a clone of a 1960s version and it was better than some keg red or amber ales currently being put out by larger breweries through their craft sub-brands.

1970s photograph of two men in horn-rimmed glasses inspecting beer.
Tommy Marling takes the temperature of draught Guinness watched by Mr Bill Steggle, licensee of the Cock at Headley near Epsom. SOURCE: Guinness Time.

2. Draught Guinness, 1958.
Please continue to bear with us. In the mid-20th Century draught Guinness was a super-hip beer and apparently very tasty, but hard to find. Technicians at the brewery worked out a way to reliably dispense it from one vessel with a creamy head and it went on to take over the world. It was brewed in both Dublin and London. CAMRA veteran Barrie Pepper is once reported to have said that if all keg beer had been as good as draught Guinness CAMRA would never have got off the ground.

a. German and Belgian beers began to appear more frequently in Britain at the end of the 1970s, usually  bottled, but occasionally on draught. In the mid-1980s Sean Franklin at Rooster’s and Peter Austin at Ringwood considered kegging their beers but neither bit the bullet.

Continue reading “Q&A: What Was the First Kegged Craft Beer?”

Ian Nairn on Beer in the 1970s Pt 2: Richard Boston and Country Pubs

Ian Nairn leans on a wall.
Adapted from ‘Nairn Across Britain’, 1972, via BBC Iplayer.

There probably isn’t enough of Ian Nairn on beer to warrant the publication of Nairn on Beer, but it’s not far off — his interest did border on obsessive.

These are highlights from a couple of pieces he wrote for the Sunday Times in the 1970s in addition to his most famous essay on the subject, ‘The Best Beers of our Lives’, published in 1974.

First, there’s a review from 1976: when Richard Boston’s book Beer & Skittles came out that year, who was better placed to assess it for the Sunday Times than Nairn?

Beer and Skittles by Richard Boston.One of the first bits of paid beer writing we did was a shared profile of Nairn and Boston for the Campaign for Real Ale’s BEER magazine back in 2013, as part of the regular ‘Real Ale Heroes’ strand. Both men played their part in the rise of CAMRA and had similarly large brains though Boston was a hippyish left-winger and Nairn an ‘anarcho-Tory’. As founder member of CAMRA Michael Hardman put it, ‘It was perfect. Boston appealed to the socialists, Nairn to the capitalists.’

Political differences aside, Nairn’s review of Boston’s ‘delightful book’ appeared on 8 August 1976 and, with only brief sideswipe about mixed metaphors, was blazingly positive:

I know enough about beer and pubs to recognise just how much information has been ingested, digested and then distilled. Easy, easy, in the football chant. Just you try it. I am at the moment reading some of P.G. Wodehouse for the n’th time; the style is quite different, but the process is the same. Limpid simplicity meets hard work… In other words this is a literary masterpiece.

Continue reading “Ian Nairn on Beer in the 1970s Pt 2: Richard Boston and Country Pubs”

A Surprise Infatuation

We didn’t expect to like this beer but, blimey, we really do.

We found it on our local Wetherspoon, The Tremenheere, where we go a couple of times a month in search of something a bit interesting. Quite often we end up turning round and walking out, unexcited by the choice of Abbot, Doom Bar or Ruddles. We nearly did that this time but something told us to stop and give Jenning’s Sneck Lifter a try.

They’re not a cool brewery, Jenning’s, not least because they’re part of the Marston’s empire these days. We’ve always found their bottled beers a bit dull and the cask — most often Cumberland Ale — fine without being thrilling.

Perhaps it was the fact that we felt sorry for them having been flooded but more likely it was the realisation that, despite having it mentally filed under ‘usual suspects’, we couldn’t remember actually having tried Sneck Lifter from cask. We’ve heard the name, of course, and we think we’ve had it in bottles, when it barely registered, but, no, we’re pretty sure never cask-conditioned.

It’s hard to say, really, why it excited us. Something about it suggested those Fuller’s Past Masters beers so, to a certain extent, it’s that it tastes antique — like a pint of mild that’s made it across the gulf of time from before World War I. (The brewery pitches it as a ‘winter warmer’ but it could just as easily be branded ‘strong mild’.)

More specific tasting notes feel a bit redundant because, really — it’s just a satisfying beer — but we’ll try.

It’s strong by British standards at 5.1% ABV, and fairly dark — so red it’s almost black, from certain angles. It’s easy-going but rich, in the same territory as Adnam’s Broadside. That is to say, plummy, raisiny and rich without being full-on luxurious. It’s sweet in a way that feels nourishing but before it has chance to become sickly, a countering dry bitterness starts to build up in the mouth: it is balanced in the sense of having flavours tugging two ways rather than as a synonym for bland.

What we’re saying, we suppose, is that if you see Sneck Lifter on cask, you should give it a go, even if you’re a Jenning’s/Marston’s sceptic.

Saison Season Pt 2: The Herbalist

When we announced our plans to taste a bunch of UK-brewed saisons, several people told us we had to try The Herbalist, a collaboration between Magic Rock and Adnams, and so Adnams sent us some (10 litres!) in mini-casks.

We’re not sure it really fits this project — it’s a one-off seasonal, so there’s not much point in us recommending it (more on this general issue in a future post); and it’s a draught rather than bottled beer. But of course we were keen to try it and, as it happens, it did prompt some relevant thoughts.

Continue reading “Saison Season Pt 2: The Herbalist”

Welcome to Adnamsland

Introduction

We’d been wanting to go to Southwold for almost a decade but, when we lived in London, could never quite find the occasion – it was inconvenient for a weekend jaunt, but too close for a full-on holiday. There’s a perverse logic in the fact that we finally made the trip to Suffolk, England’s most easterly county, only after coming to live within ten miles of Land’s End in the far west.

We were prompted to act, first, by my family history: having learned that many of my ancestors in the 19th century spent their lives in and around a handful of towns and villages in the county, I felt a powerful urge to retrace their steps.

Continue reading “Welcome to Adnamsland”

The Early Days of ‘Craft Keg’

In October 2007, in an article in the Financial Times (13/10, p5), journalist Andrew Jefford considered an exciting new development in British beer: ‘craft keg’.

OK, so he didn’t use that exact phrase, but he did say this:

Spindrift keg font.Anyone who has ever sat and sipped the day away in a craft brewery in the US will have tasted the answer [to poorly kept ale]. Breweries such as Sierra Nevada… produce great ale in keg rather than cask-conditioned format… Keg ales have a tatty reputation in Britain. Why? They have usually been the work of big brewers who have produced timid, bland recipes using cheap ingredients.. The visionary Alastair Hook of the Meantime Brewing Company in London’s Greenwich is the only serious British small brewer to specialise in beers of this sort…

Jefford’s article wasn’t about Meantime, however, but a new beer from the rather conservative and revered Adnams’ of Southwold in Suffolk.

Adnams’ Spindrift hit the market when this blog was about six months old (we don’t recall ever tasting it) and when BrewDog, in operation for less than a year, was still producing ‘real ale’ and bottled beer.

It was trumpeted as a clean-tasting ale for those who preferred lager, with 28 bitterness units, First Gold and Boadicea hops, and pale and wheat malts. It was unpasteurised but sterile-filtered, with 1.8 volumes of CO2 — more than most cask ales, but less than most lagers. Its ABV was 5%, and it sold at £3.50 a pint. (About £4.20 in today’s money.)

Mr Jefford concluded as follows:

I think it could be one of the most significant British beer launches of the new millennium… So bring on the Spindrift. And bring on more competitors, too.

Spindrift did not, in the end, have a huge impact. It almost certainly suffered because, in Jefford’s words, ‘its heretical keg nature means that Spindrift is off the radar for cask-ale fundamentalists’, while the nascent ‘crafterati’ probably found it too timid — more Fuller’s Discovery than Anchor Liberty.

In around 2010 Adnams’ yanked Spindrift from their keg lines and reinvented as a bottled beer in distinctive blue glass, but there are now plenty of ‘posh keg’ beers from all kinds of British breweries, including Adnams’ themselves.

UPDATE: Spindrift is apparently still available on keg but now at 4%.

Guest Post: Stono’s Favourite Suffolk Pubs

The Nutshell, Bury St Edmunds, by David (Brokentaco) on Flickr, under Creative Commons.
The Nutshell, Bury St Edmunds, by David (Brokentaco) on Flickr, under Creative Commons.

To help fill a gap in our collection of local pub guides, reader Clive Stonebridge (@stonojr) has given us a list of his favourite Suffolk drinking holes.

* * *

I like traditional English session ales and Adnams’ Bitter. I’m a big fan of coffee stouts such as Dark Star Espresso, and not-overly-hopped beers with ‘new world hops’, e.g. Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold.  I’m from Suffolk and live locally, and have been a CAMRA member for 10 years. I’m also an occasional home-brewer and frustrated blogger/writer.

1. The Fat Cat, Ipswich
An Ipswich institution for nearly 20 years and three-time local CAMRA branch pub of the year, the Fat Cat was the town’s first new freehouse pub. Providing a traditional homely pub setting that has no television, fruit machines or music to disturb the hum of pub chatter, it is based about a 20 min walk from the town centre.

It serves a wide selection of continually changing cask ales (15+ on average) from its well stocked tap room, often including beers from its Norwich-based sister brewery, also called Fat Cat. There is also a good selection of European lagers, ‘real’ ciders, an assortment of Belgian beers in bottles, and a variety of wines.

Food comes in the shape of lunchtime rolls, or the shot-put sized home made scotch eggs (absolutely worth trying). From Sunday to Thursday, plates & cutlery and cutlery are also procided to patrons who want to bring food from local takeaways — a very popular choice all year round in the evenings.

During the summer, the well-kept beer garden provides additional seating space and occasional bank holiday weekend barbecues.

2. Dove Street Inn, Ipswich
A multi-award-winning cask ale pub for ten years, the Dove was most recently named Great British Pub Awards Cask Ale Pub of the Year 2013. It serves a wide range of ever-changing cask ales including some from its own range brewed in the micro-brewery opposite, along with a selection of draught foreign beers, ‘real’ cider and wine.

There are regular beer festivals  featuring 60+ beers in the beer tent, which is modelled on a German beer garden or cellar and provides a pleasant outdoor seating area in summer.

Landlady Karen’s home cooking and occasional weekend barbecues provide great food, with vegetarian options, and weary visitors can even book into the adjoining bed and breakfast which sits above the homebrew shop. The pub also runs its own loyalty card scheme.

3. Lord Nelson, Southwold
Adnams is synonymous with Southwold and Suffolk, and the Lord Nelson is where the locals go to drink. A three bar pub near the seafront, it serves the best pint of Adnams’ you’ll find anywhere in the county, and also does the best fish and chips too, with the fish in Broadside batter. During the winter, a roaring open fire keeps the worst of the North Sea coast’s wind and bleakness at bay while in the summer, the hidden beer garden expands the capacity of this very popular pub.

4. The Beerhouse, Bury St Edmunds
While Adnams is synonymous with Southwould, Bury St Edmunds is home to Suffolk’s other major brewer, Greene King, but The Beerhouse is one of the few pubs in the town where you’ll be unlikely ever to find their beer. Eight hand pumps provide a varied selection of cask ales alongside four ciders. Among the beer selection are often beers from the pub’s own brewery, the Brewshed. There are simple pub snacks and the pub has a nice outdoor seating arrangement which softens what is essentially a former car park, and where spring and winter beer festivals are held.

5. Butt & Oyster, Pin Mill
Featured in frequent visitor Arthur Ransome’s book We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, the Butt & Oyster is a Grade II listed building and features in CAMRA’s national inventory of historic pub interiors, retaining many of its original features from the 17th to 19th centuries.

The pub is situated on the edge of the western shore of the Orwell and, at high water, the river laps round the base of the building, and it is said yachtsmen could once be served aboard their boats by leaning in through the pub windows. These days, the windows merely provide picturesque, panoramic views across the Orwell Estuary, which attract many artists and visitors.

Primarily supplied by Adnams, beer is sold from four casks on show behind the bar, and the menu, as befits its location, is built largely around the local seafood. It gets incredibly busy and popular in the summer months so booking a table is essential.

6. The Triangle Tavern, Lowestoft
Billed as the most easterly real ale pub in the whole of the UK, and situated on Triangle Market near the town centre, the Tavern is the spiritual home to the Green Jack Brewing Co. It offers a minimum of six Green Jack ales every day with as many as four further guest ales and two real ciders at any one time across two bars, front and back.

The front bar has a more relaxed traditional look and feel with an open fire, and is where occasional live music is played on Friday nights. The back bar is more modern with games machines, pool table, and jukebox, and is where the world-renowned annual professional world thumb wrestling championship is hosted. Beer festivals are held throughout the year.

7. The Cherry Tree, Woodbridge
The building dates from the 17th century, though the tree itself no longer remains. With its traditional oak beams and sloping ceilings, the pub has a character that’s hard to fake in a town with plenty of history to shout about. The pub offers a selection of eight well-kept cask ales, the majority from Adnams, though several guest ales are usually on offer. Traditional food made with locally-sourced ingredients and a warm, family-friendly atmosphere makes this a popular local destination, with regular quiz nights and an annual beer festival. Accommodation is also provided in a converted outdoor barn.

8. The Nutshell, Bury St Edmunds
Listed by Guinness World Records as the smallest pub in Britain, it is Nutshell by name and nature. Though it might sound a tight fit,  this one bar pub, at 15ft x 7ft, has enough room to seat ten people and half as many again standing quite comfortably, though the record is claimed to be 102. The ceiling is covered in currency from around the world highlighting its status as a tourist attraction. Among many other novelties is a mummified cat found by builders carrying out renovations. This being a Greene King pub, the two cask ale hand pumps serve only their beer, usually IPA and Abbott Ale, but it is kept well, making this one of the best places to sample it in its home county.

Failing at the Beer Mile

The Anchor Tap, Tower Bridge.

We headed for London’s Tower Bridge fully intending to tackle the now famous Bermondsey Beer Mile but got distracted by pubs on the way.

Boak had previously visited the Draft House on Tower Bridge Road on her own a few weeks ago and, despite lacklustre cask ale, appreciated an atmosphere where she didn’t feel uncomfortable or get bothered by circling creeps. This time, visiting together, we winced at the prices (anything interesting seemed to start at a fiver a pint) and scratched our heads at the selection — why have both Stiegl and Budvar lagers on offer? To cater to both Austrian and Czech tourists? The house lager at a tempting £3.95 a pint caught our eye and we asked who brews it: ‘Shepherd Neame. It’s Oranjeboom.’ At that, as they say, ‘we made our excuses and left’.

But then we noticed, a few doors up, an enticing sight — an Adnams’ pub. Because we don’t drive, Southwold might as well be on Mars, and we certainly don’t see much of their beer in Cornwall, so we couldn’t resist. The Bridge House Bar is clearly designed for tourists, though we stop short of calling it a ‘trap’. It has a pleasingly nautical atmosphere only enhanced by the aroma of lemon squeezed over hot fried fish. The range of beer was temptingly comprehensive and we got our ticking hats on. A pint of Jack Brand Mosaic Pale Ale (cask) cost the wrong side of £4 and, though it tasted fine, was rather lifeless. Ghost Ship, however, was on stunning form — a poster boy for both cask ale and the ‘pale and hoppy’ style in particular. Quite comfortable, we considered making a session of it, but tasters of Dry Hopped Lager and Fat Sprat did their job, i.e. prevented us wasting the best part of a tenner. Ticking hats came off and on we went.

Eager for a round that wouldn’t sting too much, we decided to visit the Anchor Tap, a Sam Smith’s pub in the shadow of the former Courage brewery at Horselydown. Stepping inside was like entering a cathedral — dust motes on the air, beams of light, and plenty of polished wood. In the end, though, we just didn’t fancy Old Brewery Bitter and so, taking bottled India Ale (£5.50) and Pure Brewed Lager (£4+ a pint), ended up with another expensive round. The former was excellent, once an initial flavour of 2p coins had passed, though PBL seemed distinctly bog-standard. We didn’t care — we were in love with the pub which seemed right out of Mass Observation, with piano, status symbol pot plants in the saloon, and a lounge that seemed too good for the likes of us. That and the discovery of Imperial Stout (£5.75 a bottle) served in branded snifter glasses convinced us to stay a little longer.

Finally, feeling distinctly rosy-cheeked, and with the sense that the issues of the day had yet to be quite fully explored, we left the gloom of the Anchor for the bright whitewash of the nearby Dean Swift. The stand-out beer here was Redwell Indian Pale Ale (keg, 6% ABV), which we found juicy, fresh-tasting and clean. The cask ale was in good condition (though our notes and memories fail us on the specifics), and the expensive scotch egg that accompanied it was so good (well-seasoned, slightly runny) that it almost seemed worth the money. Bar staff who smiled and made conversation rather than offering teenage shrugs and grunts were the icing on the cake.

The Beer Mile will have to wait until another time, when we’ll try to approach it from an angle which takes us past fewer invitingly ajar pub doors.