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.
The image above comes from the Sainsbury’s supermarket in-house magazine for November 1991 and is a great reminder that interesting beer didn’t arrive in Britain in 2010.
Here’s the text that accompanied the product shot under the groansome headline THE BEER WORTH GUARDING:
The new Sainsbury’s Biere de Garde derives its name from the traditional brewing metiiods used at tlie brewery in Benifontaine, in the Nord-pas de Calais region of France. This strong beer, which is made with seven malts, spends six weeks ‘kept’ in special chilled tanks in a locked Garde room while top fermentation takes place. Hence Biere de Garde – ‘kept’ beer.
The design of the bottle, and the label, is a striking blend of the modern and traditional, and the amber beer is, in the words of the buyer: ‘robust, delivering a rich bouquet and an intense full, rounded flavour.’
Biere de Garde is available in 123 stores at £1.79.
You can read the whole issue as a PDF via the JS Journal Online pages at the Sainsbury’s Archive, and there’s more on the arrival of ‘world beer’ in Britain in Brew Britannia, especially on pages 106 to 111.
In the Daily Mirror on 27 January 1995, Nick Kent wrote:
THE coolest beers in America are hitting Britain – and some of them are OK when they’re warm! Microbrewery beers are fashionable in the US but may become an endangered species as hype and big business start to get a hold… Pete’s Wicked Lager is a fine example; hops predominate and it has a clean, sharp, dry taste even though it is on the strong side (4.8 per cent alcohol).
Then, on 21 July the same year, Kent announced an exciting competition:
HE’S loud, proud, thirsty-something, and he could be heading your way… American Pete Slosberg, founder of Pete’s Brewing Company, is coming to the British Beer Festival, and he wants a brace of Mirror readers to go with him… So prepare to be sloshed with Slosberg. It will be a swill party… Modest, quiet, polite, a tasteful dresser — Pete is none of these, as the two competition winners will soon discover… They will accompany Pete as he pint-ificates his way around the festival at London’s Olympia, on Thursday, August 3… Dispensing views on other people’s wares, he will be looking out for any beer daring to rival Pete’s Wicked Lager and Pete’s Wicked Ale for taste… Pete will also take his Mirror guests for a taste of the Belgian beer and food at Belgo Centraal… This top restaurant is the trendiest thing to come out of Belgium since Tintin.
By 1996, Pete’s beers were in Majestic, Waitrose, Tesco, Morrison’s and Oddbins (Independent on Sunday, 17 November).
This is one of the easier American breweries to get hold of in the UK… The beer is ruby-coloured with a thick, reasonably tenacious head. The nose is quite light, but with noticeable sugary malt notes and a little background hoppiness (aroma hops only). On the tongue, it is quite fizzy and fairly malty, but not as sweet as you might expect from the aroma – in fact it is much drier than many brown ales. There is burnt caramel in the back of the throat, becoming more pronounced towards the finish. The aftertaste is more hoppy, but also with bitter, burnt sugar flavours. This is a pleasant example of a brown ale, with a pleasing dryness not often encountered in the genre.
It doesn’t sound terribly exciting — as Jeff Alworth put it in 2011, ‘In the 1990s, lots and lots of people drank and enjoyed brown ales… I mean really, brown ales. What the … ?’ — but it had a whiff of the exotic about it, and was cleverly marketed with a big personality front-and-centre, e.g.
In the UK, it seems to have occupied a similar space to Newquay Steam Beer, come to think of it — a bit outside the narrative of the ‘craft beer revolution’ (unless we’re mistaken, the last 20 years hasn’t seen a ton of Pete’s Wicked clones among UK brewers, unlike, say, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale) and different without being too different.
Back in 2013, we emailed Andrea Gillies, who edited two editions of the Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide in the early 1990s, but she wasn’t especially keen to talk about her time at CAMRA. Now we think we know why.
After a period of apparently reasonably friendly relations with her former employer during which she wrote a challenging guest column about bottled beer (WB, November 1993), in December 1993, this happened:
Though Mr Evans’s response was fairly diplomatic it’s hard not to suspect that some persistent resentment in St Albans influenced this review of Ms Gillies’ own book released in 1995:
We weren’t there, and we don’t know the people involved, so it wouldn’t be right for us to pick sides. It was pretty forward-thinking of CAMRA to appoint Ms Gillies in 1988, though, and it’s a shame it all got so nasty.
“Welcome to the most exotic bar in the whole festival… This year’s star feature has to be the USA. Thanks to months of work by Jonathan Tuttle… Rick’s American Bar has probably the widest selection of beer and beer styles ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean from West to East.”