The Cream of Manchester: the decline and fall of Boddingtons cask bitter 1974–2012

This is a guest post by John Robin­son who joined CAMRA c.1973 and was inspired by our writ­ing about the decline of Bod­ding­ton’s Bit­ter to under­take some research of his own. He asked us to share this post on his behalf. We’ve under­tak­en some light edit­ing for read­abil­i­ty and house style but oth­er­wise this is John’s own work.

* * *

Recently, on social media, there has been nostalgic discussion about Boddington’s Bitter – how good it was, what colour it was, how bitter it was and crucially, when it started to decline in quality. Focus in the debate has been, so far, largely subjective. What follows is a more objective analysis.

There has been renewed inter­est in the Bod­ding­ton’s cask-con­di­tioned bit­ter that was pro­duced in the 1960s to the 1980s. It was wide­ly regard­ed as one of the finest exam­ples of its genre in Britain. In 2012 it ceased to exist com­plete­ly in cask form although there appear to be two ver­sions still avail­able in keg/can form. Much of the dis­cus­sion that has occurred cen­tres around when the decline in qual­i­ty occurred, with a vari­ety of dates being men­tioned, span­ning the 1970s/80s. The aim of this research is to try and make an objec­tive judge­ment about the decline and pin­point when it com­menced via Bod­ding­ton’s tied house post­ings in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide (GBG).

My approach was to col­late GBG entries for Bod­ding­ton’s tied hous­es for the peri­od 1974–1994, with Bod­ding­ton’s tied hous­es are defined as the 256 list­ed in the guide­book Bod­ding­ton’s pub­lished c.1973. Analy­sis of the results iden­ti­fies four peri­ods in the life of Bod­ding­tons’ tied hous­es in the GBG.

Boddington's tied houses graph.
SOURCE: John Robinson/CAMRA Good Beer Guides 1974–1994.
Period 1: 1974–1983

The first Good Beer Guide, 1974, is fair­ly wide­ly acknowl­edged, not least by its edi­tor, as an imper­fect doc­u­ment. There were few branch­es in exis­tence dur­ing the pre­vi­ous 18 months when the Guide was put togeth­er. It was not, then, unsur­pris­ing that only a small num­ber of Bod­ding­ton’s Pubs were rep­re­sent­ed. This num­ber grew rapid­ly over the next three years to 79, the height of Bod­ding­ton’s pop­u­lar­i­ty, with 31 per cent of their tied house estate rep­re­sent­ed. There was a fall to 66 by 1979 and down to 53 by 1983. This can be seen to be the peri­od where Bod­ding­ton’s was at its peak.

Period 2: 1984–1990

Pubs list­ed fell from 53 in 1983 to 33 in 1984. There are gen­er­al­ly acknowl­edged to be three rea­sons why a pub is delet­ed from the GBG: when a tenant/manager changes; when a pub clos­es; and when the beer qual­i­ty is per­ceived to have fall­en. Pubs are not delet­ed from the GBG light­ly and the deci­sion often involves pas­sion­ate debate at Branch Meet­ings. This 37 per cent fall is, I feel, sig­nif­i­cant and does accord with what some felt to be a decline in qual­i­ty dur­ing that peri­od. The GBGs over the whole peri­od do not com­ment adverse­ly regard­ing the Bit­ter so it can­not be said that GBG com­ments were lead­ing the deci­sions. Bod­ding­ton’s did take over Old­ham Brew­ery in 1982 but kept the brew­ery open for some years and there does not seem to be a geo­graph­i­cal pat­tern to the dele­tions. For exam­ple, in Pre­ston and north of same, 7 pubs were delet­ed from a total of 18 (39 per cent) by com­par­i­son with 37 per cent over the whole area of the GBG. At least three dif­fer­ent CAMRA branch­es were involved (Black­pool, Fylde & Wire; Lunes­dale; and Cen­tral Lan­cashire) in the post­ing of Bod­ding­ton’s pubs in this area.

Period 3: 1991–1994

A peri­od when the num­ber of Bod­ding­tons’ pubs in the GBG var­ied between 27 and 35 end­ing the peri­od 2 high­er than at the begin­ning. Per­haps there was no dis­cernible fur­ther decline in qual­i­ty but only 35 from 255 pubs is a pret­ty mis­er­able pro­por­tion – less than 14 per cent.

Period 4: 1991–1994

Endgame. There were 14 pubs list­ed in 1991; 8 pubs list­ed in 1993; and no pubs list­ed in 1994. Per­haps most inter­est­ing is how 14 pubs man­aged to remain list­ed for so long.

On the basis of this research qual­i­ty prob­a­bly declined at two points: 1983 and again in 1990.

Sources

boakandbailey.com
Bod­ding­ton’s, c.1973, J.Burrow & Co. Ltd
CAMRA Good Beer Guide, var­i­ous edi­tions 1974–1994
Local Brew, Mike Dunn, 1986 (referred to at boakandbailey.com)

Tony’s Pre-1970 Boddington’s Clone Recipe

Tony Leach is a home brewer based in Stockport and got in touch with us a while back for input on his attempts to clone Golden Age Boddington’s.

He had alread hashed it out pret­ty thor­ough­ly on the Jim’s Beer Kit mes­sage­board, includ­ing com­ments from Ron Pat­tin­son, before we exchanged a few emails debat­ing hop vari­eties, whether it was nec­es­sary to use any brew­ing sug­ars, and so on. He also spoke to some­one who used to work at the brew­ery (on the phone, hav­ing been put through by the pub land­lord) who advised him to use Not­ting­ham dried yeast rather than the liq­uid strain that is sup­pos­ed­ly the Bod­ding­ton’s strain.

Boddington's clone just before fermenting.
A sam­ple of Tony’s clone after cool­ing, before fer­ment­ing. SOURCE: Tony Leach.

Here’s the recipe Tony even­tu­al­ly came up with:

Old Boddies Pre-1970
English Pale Ale

Recipe Specs
------------

Batch Size (litres): 23
Total Grain (kg): 3.425
Total Hops (g): 54
Original Gravity: 1.036
Final Gravity: 1.006
Alcohol by Volume: 3.93%
Colour (SRM/EBC): 6.6/13
Bitterness (IBU): 28.7
Efficiency: 75%
Boil Time: 75 mins

Grain
-----
2.5 kg Maris Otter Malt (73%)
0.5 kg Pilsner Malt (14.6%)
0.2 kg Golden Syrup (5.8%)
80g Carapils (Dextrine) (2.3%)
80g Torrefied Wheat (2.3%)
60g Flaked Corn (1.9%)

Hops
----
24g Northern Brewer (7.8% Alpha) @ 75 mins
24g Goldings (5.5% Alpha) @ 15 mins
6g Goldings (5.5% Alpha) for dry hop

Misc
----
Single-step infusion mash at 65°C for 90 mins; mash PH adjusted to 5.3.
Fermented at 18°C with Danstar Nottingham dried yeast
Water: 'Stockport corporation pop dechlorinated with a crushy.'

This is his inter­pre­ta­tion of the infor­ma­tion at hand with some tweaks to suit mod­ern mate­ri­als and meth­ods, with the pri­ma­ry suc­cess cri­te­ri­on being not com­plete his­tor­i­cal verisimil­i­tude but some­thing more prac­ti­cal: the approval of some local drinkers who remem­bered Bod­ding­ton’s at its best.

He brewed batch­es aim­ing for 28 and 30 IBUs but says:

Had the 28 IBU brew on at my local last night. For some rea­son it was only around 98% bright but that did not put peo­ple off hav­ing a go. Gen­er­al­ly, it went down very well and brought some mem­o­ries back for a few of the old­er boys. It’s dry – very dry, leaves you thirsty. Twen­ty-eight IBU is per­fect, I would not go more. The dry­ness gets you and the bit­ter­ness hits the throat just right.

He’s keen for oth­ers to give his recipe a go; we will cer­tain­ly be doing so lat­er in the year.

Boddington’s Bitter: 1968 v. 1982

We’re fascinated by beers that Aren’t What They Used to Be. How much of that is down to contrast with what else is around, or jaded palates?

We’ve just writ­ten a piece for All About Beer con­sid­er­ing Guin­ness from this angle but also had the chance to return to an old obses­sion: Bod­ding­ton’s Bit­ter.

We wrote a #Beery­Lon­greads piece on it which is worth a look but, in brief, 1970s real ale cam­paign­ers and afi­ciona­dos loved Bod­ding­ton’s Bit­ter because it was pale, dry and very bit­ter. Some­where along the line, it lost its spark.

The oth­er week we got a look at some orig­i­nal brew­ing logs from Bod­ding­ton’s and tried to answer a sim­ple ques­tion: what changed between the 1960s and the 1980s?

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Boddington’s Bit­ter: 1968 v. 1982”

Boddington’s Pump Clips, 1963

Macro shot of Boddington's logo on old paper.

Here’s a little detail that caught our eye in the Boddington’s Brewery board minute books, from August 1963: an order for pump clips.

Adver­tis­ing – Pump Clips.

It was decid­ed to place an order with Nightin­gale Signs Ltd for 5000 Pump Clips, yel­low bar­rel design, at 3 and 4 each, to be appor­tioned as fol­lows:-

2500 Bit­ter Beer
1250 Best Mild
1250 Mild

We did­n’t notice any ear­li­er ref­er­ence to pump clips in these doc­u­ments, but that does­n’t mean there weren’t any – we had half a day to read the lot and might have just missed them. And even if this is the first men­tion of pump clips, it might just be that no-one both­ered to write it down before this point.

But, still, our gut feel­ing is that this was record­ed pre­cise­ly because it was the first time – it was some­thing new for Bod­ding­ton’s, and lit­er­al­ly remark­able.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Boddington’s Pump Clips, 1963”

Where the Boddies is Buried

In its heyday, Boddington’s Bitter was among the most highly-regarded of British beers, and the pride of its home city of Manchester. These days, it is rather unloved and rootless. Where did it all go wrong?

Michael Hard­man, one of the founders of CAMRA, men­tioned it, along­side Young’s Ordi­nary, as typ­i­fy­ing the ‘intense bit­ter­ness’ that, as a young man, he sought in a pint of ale: it was what those ear­ly cam­paign­ers were fight­ing for.

Beer writer and CAMRA stal­wart Roger Protz has sim­i­lar­ly rosy mem­o­ries: “The first time I drank it, in a pub in Hyde, Cheshire, I thought I had died and gone to heav­en: I could­n’t believe beer could taste that good.”

John Keel­ing, head brew­er at Fuller’s and a native Man­cun­ian, named it as his num­ber one ‘desert island beer’: “In 1974 at the start of my brew­ing career there was no bet­ter drink­ing beer than Bod­ding­ton’s.”

And the blo­goshire’s very own Tan­dle­man told us in an email:

It was a very dry beer, yet intense­ly bit­ter through­out, though not great­ly hop­py. I’m guess­ing ear­ly hop addi­tions to give that inten­si­ty of bit­ter­ness through­out. Good mouth­feel too – not thin at all.

But it isn’t just a mat­ter of nos­tal­gia. Con­tem­po­rary sources note, albeit with­out wax­ing lyri­cal, that Bod­ding­ton’s was ‘well hopped’ (Frank Bail­lie’s Beer Drinker’s Com­pan­ion, 1973), ‘One of the best’ (the first edi­tion of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, 1974) and ‘excep­tion­al­ly bit­ter’ (GBG 1977).

A high­ly evoca­tive descrip­tion of how Bod­ding­ton’s tast­ed in its prime comes from a let­ter to What’s Brew­ing from Mike Field of Bat­ley, pub­lished in May 1984: “[It had a] bit­ter­ness that clawed at the back of the throat and took you back to the bar for anoth­er one.”

It owed some part of its rep­u­ta­tion to what the 1978 Good Beer Guide called its ‘dis­tinc­tive straw colour’, and Ewart Bod­ding­ton, brew­ery chair­man from 1970 to 1989, is said (by Mr Field) to have put the beer’s pop­u­lar­i­ty down to the fact that it ‘looked like lager’.

Boddington's bee logo c.1979.Some­where along the line, how­ev­er, even as Britain was in the midst of the late-1970s ‘real ale craze’, Bod­ding­ton’s edge began to grow blunt. The sto­ry is told by the brief entries in suc­ces­sive edi­tions of the Good Beer Guide: by 1983, it had ceased to be ‘excep­tion­al­ly bit­ter’ and had become, instead, ‘A pop­u­lar light quaffing bit­ter’, and the 1984 edi­tion not­ed that ‘locals are con­cerned that the bit­ter has lost some of its dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter’.

While it is pos­si­ble that pol­i­tics might have coloured local per­cep­tions to an extent– when Bod­ding­ton’s took over the near­by Old­ham Brew­ery in 1982, it caused a seri­ous falling-out with CAMRA – there are many accounts like this one from blog­ger Paul Bai­ley (no rela­tion):

[As] far back as the late 1970s, when I was still liv­ing in Man­ches­ter, rumours abound­ed that Boddington’s had reduced the hop­ping rate of their most famous prod­uct to make it less aggres­sive­ly bit­ter (bland­er), so as to increase its appeal to a wider audi­ence. This was con­firmed by some­one we knew who worked at the brew­ery, although the com­pa­ny stren­u­ous­ly denied it  (they would, wouldn’t they?). We end­ed up vot­ing with our feet and switched to drink­ing in Holts’ pubs, where the bit­ter still tast­ed like bit­ter, and was also quite a bit cheap­er as well!

Mike Field­’s let­ter to What’s Brew­ing quot­ed above, along with com­plaints at the 1984 AGM, prompt­ed the brew­ery liai­son offi­cer, micro­bi­ol­o­gist Kevin Buck­ley, to look into the mat­ter. In a report in the April 1984 edi­tion of What’s Brew­ing, he con­clud­ed as fol­lows:

The tra­di­tion­al bit­ter was fer­ment­ed to a very low final grav­i­ty – around 1000 – remov­ing all fer­mentable sug­ars. Now fer­men­ta­tion is allowed to stop at an ear­li­er stage… This affects the palate of the beer, increas­ing the ‘palate full­ness’ or ‘body’ of the beer, so the light, slight­ly thin palate becomes smoother… In com­bi­na­tion with the reduc­tion in ‘bit­ter­ness’ and the use of less fra­grant hop, the net effect is to pro­duce a beer with a ‘smoother mouth­feel’, less after-palate, less alco­hol and less hop-aro­ma.… The colour of the beer has also appar­ent­ly increased – to mim­ic the more com­mon­ly accept­ed ‘nation­al’ bit­ters.

And it worked, even­tu­al­ly: ‘bland­ed out’, Bod­ding­ton’s did indeed become a nation­al brand in the 1990s, after the brew­ery was sold to Whit­bread. Launched in cans in 1990, it was the best sell­ing canned bit­ter for almost a decade, sup­port­ed by glossy but self-mock­ing adverts cap­i­tal­is­ing on its Man­cun­ian roots in the era of the Hap­py Mon­days and Oasis.

But it was­n’t real­ly Bod­ding­ton’s – it was an impos­tor, espe­cial­ly when, after 2004, new own­ers Inter­brew moved pro­duc­tion out of the City. Some Man­cu­ni­ans con­tin­ued to drink it out of habit or nos­tal­gia, while CAMRA mem­bers and oth­er beer geeks would­n’t be seen dead with a pint of its ‘smooth’ keg incar­na­tion.

They weren’t inter­est­ed in ‘creami­ness’ – instead, they yearned for that dry, gold­en, tru­ly bit­ter beer of 30 years before.

Filling a Boddington’s-Shaped Hole

Marble Manchester Bitter.The first brew­ery to attempt to plug the gap was Mar­ble who launched ‘Man­ches­ter Bit­ter’ in (we think) around 2001. Nev­er intend­ed as a clone, MMB start­ed from the idea that Bod­ding­ton’s Bit­ter in its prime was actu­al­ly a sin­gle expres­sion of a localised style. In 2011, head brew­er James Camp­bell was quot­ed by jour­nal­ist Will Hawkes: “It’s a pale, mid-strength, hop­py bit­ter beer, as was drunk in Man­ches­ter 30 years ago. That’s the tra­di­tion here.”

Clone or not, how close does it come to its inspi­ra­tion? Tan­dle­man:

It does reflect… the dry­ness and colour of the orig­i­nal Bod­ding­ton’s Bit­ter, but not the strength – it is much stronger.

When we drank it at the gor­geous­ly tiled Mar­ble Arch pub last week, we found it hard to dis­tin­guish from any num­ber of oth­er ‘pale’n’hop­py’ beers from the north of Eng­land, though per­haps less flow­ery or per­fumed than some exam­ples. If we could arrange for a pint of 1970s Bod­ding­ton’s Bit­ter to be trans­port­ed through time and space, would it strike us the same way? We sus­pect so.

Lees MPA poster, Manchester.

In 2013, anoth­er Man­ches­ter brew­ery released a beer inspired, at least to some degree, by Bod­ding­ton’s. J.W. Lees is a large fam­i­ly con­cern found­ed in 1828, with a rather con­ser­v­a­tive image. Their Man­ches­ter Pale Ale (MPA) at 3.7% on cask is an attempt to do some­thing that, by their stan­dards, is a bit ‘out there’, i.e. not brown. MPA is the name of this par­tic­u­lar beer, but, again, seems to imply that there might once have been an entire set of beers in this style – gold­en, dry, and ‘ses­sion­able’.

Per­haps part­ly because we’re suck­ers for con­text and cues pro­vid­ed by pack­ag­ing and brand­ing, we fell hard for MPA as con­sumed in a Man­ches­ter pub. While its bit­ter­ness did­n’t claw at the back of our throats, it did trig­ger that pleas­ant chain reac­tion: pint-thirsty-pint-thirsty-pint… The crusty-bread char­ac­ter we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly not­ed in the same brew­ery’s bit­ter is present and cor­rect, but com­ple­ment­ed with more and brighter hops. It won’t excite green-nos­triled lupulin addicts fran­ti­cal­ly seek­ing their next fix, but as a beer to set­tle on for a few hours, it would be hard to beat.

Our own con­tri­bu­tion to this nascent sub-style was a set of notes emailed to Matt Lovatt at Kirk­stall Brew­ery who pro­duced a beer under the name Revi­tal­i­sa­tion! for our appear­ance at North Bar in Leeds. We ref­er­enced this recipe from Ron Pat­tin­son and Kris­ten Eng­land to sug­gest all pale malt and a bit of sug­ar, and then lots of Gold­ings hops to achieve dry bit­ter­ness with­out much aro­ma.

Matt put a lot of thought into inter­pret­ing our sug­ges­tions and came up with a beer that, as a beer inspired by Michael Hard­man’s mem­o­ries of Bod­ding­ton’s or Young’s, was prob­a­bly not quite right. It was, how­ev­er, very clean, pleas­ing­ly aus­tere, and extreme­ly drink­able – we would have stayed on it all night if we’d been allowed.

The Cream of Manchester

We could­n’t leave the north with­out drink­ing at least one pint of the real thing – or at least, the beer that bears the brand of the real thing these days. We found ‘smooth’ keg Bod­ding­ton’s Bit­ter on offer at a pub in cen­tral Man­ches­ter along­side a ‘super cold’ vari­ant, though the stan­dard ver­sion makes your teeth chat­ter. It came with an inch of shav­ing foam on top – weird-look­ing even in a part of the world where a ‘tight creamy head’ is the norm – and bub­bles clus­tered on the inside of the appar­ent­ly slight­ly grub­by glass. It tast­ed… well, not bad, real­ly. Extreme­ly bland, of course, with a touch of sweet­corn, and rem­i­nis­cent of, say, Estrel­la Damm, but not ter­ri­ble.

None of the beers men­tioned above are the best or most excit­ing you will find in Man­ches­ter – it is a city crammed with great bars and pubs – but we think they do tell you some­thing about its cul­ture and his­to­ry, and drink­ing three beers that aren’t Bod­ding­ton’s can help you dis­cern its out­line.

A final tip from Tan­dle­man: “If you want a beer that tastes pret­ty much as I recall the orig­i­nal Bod­ding­ton’s Bit­ter, I’d sug­gest Lin­fit Gold Medal from the Sair Inn near Hud­der­s­field.  It is a near as I’ve ever had.  Quite a lot stronger though at 4.2%.”

We’re sure we read some­thing some­where at some point about the Bod­ding­ton’s yeast strain being ‘cleaned up’ in the 1980s – if you can think where, let us know in the com­ments below.

UPDATE 02/09/2015: Anoth­er pos­si­ble expla­na­tion for the decline of Bod­ding­ton’s Bit­ter in the 1980s has come to light through the April 1993 edi­tion of CAM­RA’s What’s Brew­ing. When quizzed by Roger Protz, Bod­ding­ton’s brew­ing man­ag­er Peter Laws and gen­er­al man­age Ian Kendal sug­gest­ed that the change might be the result of a change in prim­ing sug­ars: ‘The brew­ery had used a blend of of cane sug­ar and a vari­ety called Ambrose… When [Tate & Lyle] phased it out Bod­ding­ton’s switched to anoth­er blend from the same com­pa­ny called DAS… Kendel and Laws think that stands for “dark ale syrup”, a sin­gu­lar­ly inap­pro­pri­ate name for Bod­ding­ton’s Bit­ter.’