Beers of the 20th Century Pub, Part 1: 1900–1959 – The Rise of Mild

While it has generally been well received one thing a couple of people have told us they’d have liked more of in 20th Century Pub (please buy a copy) is beer.

It’s absence was the result of hav­ing only 80,000 words to play with, and hav­ing already writ­ten an entire book focus­ing on beer and brew­ing cov­er­ing a big chunk of the same peri­od.

Also, we rather defer to Mar­tyn Cor­nell and Ron Pat­tin­son in this ter­ri­to­ry. Why read us on beer before World War II when you can read both or either of them? (We’d be sur­prised if one or both of them don’t pop up with cor­rec­tions in the com­ments below.)

Still, there’s some­thing fun about the idea of map­ping one project against the oth­er, espe­cial­ly if it’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to try some­thing cre­ative.

At this point we’d like to thank  Patre­on sup­port­ers like Owain Ainsworth and Jonathan Tuck­er for giv­ing us the impe­tus to spend rather more of our spare time than was entire­ly sen­si­ble work­ing on this post and its sequel. Thanks, gang!

This piece gen­er­alis­es by neces­si­ty: of course there were region­al vari­a­tions, and indi­vid­ual pubs which did­n’t fol­low the pat­tern, and brew­eries that bucked trends. Hav­ing said that, by the turn of the cen­tu­ry, region­al dif­fer­ences were in the process of being smoothed out with the rise of stan­dard-set­ting nation­al brands such as Bass and Guin­ness, Ter­ry Gourvish and Richard Wil­son have argued, so gen­er­al­is­ing about this peri­od isn’t entire­ly inap­pro­pri­ate.

So, here it is: a time­line of beer in Eng­lish pubs from 1900 to 1959, with lots of quo­ta­tions, facts and num­bers along the way.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Beers of the 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub, Part 1: 1900–1959 – The Rise of Mild”

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.

Passing Thoughts on Yorkshire Beer

Collage: Yorkshire Beer.

We spent a few days in Yorkshire last week (Leeds-Harrogate-York) and reached a couple of tentative conclusions.

1. Tim­o­thy Tay­lor Land­lord, like Bass, and prob­a­bly like many oth­er beers, can be so dif­fer­ent as to be unrecog­nis­able from one pub to the next. We’re not say­ing it’s an incon­sis­tent prod­uct but that it has a lot of poten­tial for change depend­ing on how it’s han­dled by pubs. We had pints that were bone dry and stony, and oth­ers that were sweet and nec­tar-like – old­er and younger respec­tive­ly we assume. We almost always enjoy it but there seems to be a real sweet spot where it becomes a lit­tle less cloy­ing and gains a sort of peach-like flavour with­out com­plete­ly dry­ing out. Expert opin­ion wel­come below, of course. In the mean­time, we’ll keep test­ing our find­ings when we can.

2. We might have final­ly zeroed in on the essence of York­shire bit­ter. Tet­ley*, Black Sheep and Tay­lor’s Bolt­mak­er, as well as look­ing more alike in the glass than we recall, all had the same chal­leng­ing, hot, rub­ber-band tang. We’ve noticed it before in Bolt­mak­er but hon­est­ly just thought it was on the turn. But there it was again in mul­ti­ple pints of Bolt­mak­er, in dif­fer­ent pubs, even in dif­fer­ent cities, and in mul­ti­ple pints of the oth­ers, too. It’s most pro­nounced in Bolt­mak­er (Jes­si­ca likes it, Ray finds it too much) and gen­tlest in the cur­rent incar­na­tion of Tet­ley (Ray likes it, Jes­si­ca finds it rather bland) but def­i­nite­ly the same thing. This is where our tech­ni­cal tast­ing skills let us down, unfor­tu­nate­ly. Is this maybe what peo­ple mean by ‘sul­phurous’? Again, expert sug­ges­tions wel­come.

* No longer brewed in York­shire, we know.

3. North­ern pale-n-hop­py beer is more to our taste than Lon­don or Bris­tol takes on the same style, on the whole. We knew this already, real­ly, but this trip con­firmed it. With­out want­i­ng to seem dog­mat­ic about clar­i­ty (we’re not) beers from brew­eries such as North­ern Monk, Roost­er’s and Ossett were per­fect­ly clear with a light­ness and dry­ness that made them impos­si­ble to drink in any­thing less than great hearty gulps. Even with plen­ty of flavour and aro­ma there’s a cer­tain del­i­ca­cy there – per­fect engi­neer­ing. We did find our­selves won­der­ing if per­haps we’ve grown to pre­fer sparklers for this style because (per this post for $2+ Patre­on sub­scribers) the noto­ri­ous wid­get has a capac­i­ty for round­ing off hard edges and smooth­ing out flaws. ‘Don’t @ us’, as the kids say.

The Ram Rampant

The Young's brewery ram mascot on a London pub window.

Great beers can sometimes burn brightly before passing into memory. Young’s Ordinary Bitter, unlikely as it might sound, was one such beer – beloved by ale drinkers, legendary in its brilliance, until the light went out.

When we inter­viewed Michael Hard­man, one of the founders of the Cam­paign for Real Ale, his eyes blazed as he talked about Young’s Ordi­nary. ‘It used to have an intense bit­ter­ness that was almost too much for some peo­ple,’ he said. A good beer tast­ing note will trig­ger a surge of desire and Mr Hardman’s brief com­ment, deliv­ered with such pas­sion, and as straight­for­ward as the beer it described, did just that.

We can’t say he didn’t warn us, though, that in 2012 Young’s Ordi­nary had become a shad­ow of its 1970s self. Hav­ing worked for the brew­ery as a PR exec­u­tive for 30 years Hard­man watched with sad­ness as, first, the brand lost its great cham­pi­on, the company’s eccen­tric chair­man John Young, who died in 2006 and then as, in 2007, the his­toric Wandsworth facil­i­ty ceased brew­ing and moved pro­duc­tion to Charles Wells at Bed­ford.

For Lon­don ale drinkers this was a ravens depart­ing the Tow­er moment, leav­ing Lon­don with a mere hand­ful of brew­eries and only Fuller’s as an inde­pen­dent of any size. There were reas­sur­ances that exten­sive test­ing had been car­ried out to assure con­ti­nu­ity and even rumours that the last batch­es of Wandsworth-brewed Ordi­nary were being blend­ed with the new ver­sion to ease the tran­si­tion. But Wells could point at spec­i­fi­ca­tion sheets and test results all they liked: the beer changed and peo­ple who drank it reg­u­lar­ly knew it.

Bed­ford-brewed Ordi­nary wasn’t ter­ri­ble – we drank plen­ty and enjoyed it – but vet­er­an drinkers would push it away, shak­ing their heads at its sheer… ordi­nar­i­ness. Wells & Youngs, as they were then known, could brew some­thing like Young’s Ordi­nary but could not breathe into the essen­tial spark of life.

At the same time, Young’s Lon­don pubs, for so long a kind of defen­sive line against moder­ni­ty, were also sold off and became a sep­a­rate com­pa­ny. They gen­er­al­ly con­tin­ued to serve Young’s brand­ed beers, how­ev­er, so that, super­fi­cial­ly at least, not much changed beyond a gen­er­al ‘smarten­ing up’. On trips to Lon­don we would invari­ably end up in one or anoth­er, either out of con­ve­nience or nos­tal­gia, and check in on Ordi­nary. This was a sad, fruit­less habit until the sum­mer of 2014 when, sud­den­ly, the beer seemed to jolt out of its coma – paler, dri­er, and more vig­or­ous than we’d ever known it. But we doubt­ed our­selves – per­haps it was a one-off? Or wish­ful think­ing?

Young's Ordinary.

But, no: since then, the beer seems to have got bet­ter every time we’ve encoun­tered it. It knocked our socks off at the Prince Alfred in Mai­da Vale ear­li­er this year and now, after mak­ing a point of try­ing it in mul­ti­ple pubs in four cor­ners of Lon­don, and also in Exeter and Bris­tol, we want to under­line this point: the sick­ness has gone and Young’s Ordi­nary is once again A Great Beer.

On our most recent trip to Lon­don at the Flask in Hamp­stead – a gor­geous Vic­to­ri­an pub whose dis­creet par­ti­tions and ornate details will frankly make any beer taste a lit­tle more inter­est­ing – we drank lumi­nous, com­i­cal­ly foam­ing pints of it that are among the best beers we’ve enjoyed this year, full stop.

It isn’t one of those 2017 beers per­fumed with pine, cit­rus, man­go or green onion. There’s bare­ly a flavour note to latch on to, in fact, beyond a sug­ges­tion of min­er­als and lemon peel. But it has the aus­tere struc­tur­al ele­gance of a Vic­to­ri­an rail­way ter­mi­nus, with a snatch of tame funk­i­ness for sea­son­ing.

We’ve been telling peo­ple the good news, and now we’re telling you. After all, with Charles Wells sell­ing up to Marston’s, this resur­gence might not last.

Mostly Imaginary Beer Nemeses #1: The Sneering Bitter Hater

A lion-headed man who hates bitter, for some reason.

There are no doubt beer enthusiasts out there who hate bitter on a point of principle but surely not so many that they’re worth worrying about.

Now, there are lots of peo­ple (like us) who like to drink things oth­er than bit­ter, in between pints of bit­ter, which they also enjoy very much.

There are also those (again, like us) who think a pub that serves three beers all with­in a hair’s-breadth of the same tech­ni­cal spec­i­fi­ca­tions is miss­ing a trick. But that does­n’t just apply to bit­ter, and it does­n’t mean they think bit­ter, in itself, is fun­da­men­tal­ly ‘bor­ing’.

There are def­i­nite­ly peo­ple who dis­like cer­tain spe­cif­ic brands of bit­ter, hav­ing tast­ed them and made a more or less informed judge­ment.

Detail from an old beer mat: BITTER!

There are even peo­ple who rarely choose to drink bit­ter if there is some­thing else on offer because they pre­fer lager (most of the UK pop­u­la­tion) or, for exam­ple, Amer­i­can-style IPAs. But they prob­a­bly don’t care what you drink; nor do they want bit­ter to dis­ap­pear from the face of the earth.

And there are peo­ple who’ve just nev­er got the taste for bit­ter because it’s, er, too bit­ter. But they’re often also scep­ti­cal about beer in gen­er­al – they’re not snooty hip­ster beer geeks look­ing down on this one style in par­tic­u­lar.

Per­haps you’ll be able to point to a few tagged spec­i­mens in the wild – a blog post here, a Tweet there – but, real­ly, isn’t The Sneer­ing Bit­ter Hater just a rhetor­i­cal device? A com­fort blan­ket for the odd­ly self-loathing bit­ter lover?

Next time on Most­ly Imag­i­nary Beer Neme­ses: Peo­ple Who Think Only Murky Beer Tastes Good and/or is ‘Craft’.