News, Nuggets and Longreads 12 January 2019: Bitterness, Brüpond, Burlesque

Here’s everything we thought bookmark-worthy in the past week, from beer with bite to Double Diamond.

First, a quick stop at the BBC, where the recent ONS report on pub closures continues to generate stories: we know some areas have suffered particularly badly, but where are pubs opening? Where have the numbers risen? The Highlands of Scotland, it turns out, is one such region:

Since 2008, almost a quarter of pubs in the UK have shut according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysis… But the study shows that in the Highlands there are 14% more pubs than there were 10 years ago… Paul Waterson, of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, said a major factor behind the growth was that the pubs had done well catering for tourists.

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In Which We Fall into a Brown Study

This month’s Session hosted by Joe Tindall at The Fatal Glass of Beer is wonderfully opened ended: write about brown beer.

Some people will tell you brown isn’t a flavour, but it is. It’s why you sear meat, and about 50 per cent of the meaning of toast.  (N.B. black is also a flavour.)

Brown beer isn’t necessarily boring but a hell of a lot of boring beers seem to be brown. Adrian Tierney-Jones has, on more than one occasion, referred to beers as being the same brown as an old sideboard and it’s true: brown is the colour of corduroy trousers, garden fences, Austin Ambassadors, sensible shoes and your grandma’s coffee table. It’s a kind of camouflage.

You know what else is often brown? Pubs. We like brown pubs, too, but in a brown town drinking brown beer in a brown pub with a brown dog on the brown lino, browned off, until you drop down brown bread from a total eclipse of the heart. You can see why some people might be down on brown.

Back in the 1990s Sean Franklin of Rooster’s ditched brown in favour of pale because he wanted a blank canvas on which hops could shine. If pale is blank, is brown noise? Or texture? Texture can be good. Noise too. There’s a reason people put dirty old Polaroid filters on their iPhone photos.

Let’s do some word association. Is there someone else in the room with you right now? Ask them to tell you, without over-thinking, what colour beer is. We knew it — you owe us 50p!

We’ll be surprised if there isn’t at least one Session post this time round with the title Fifty Shades of Brown. St Austell HSD is a sort of burnt umber, in the language of Crayola crayons. The same brewery’s Cornish Best is what Crayola would call ‘beaver’. (Stop sniggering.) And their Tribute, which we have heard described as a ‘boring brown bitter’ by people who have clearly been spoiled, is a similar shade of amber to Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. And that’s just one brewery. Stare into the brown abyss long enough and you’ll begin to see stars.

Lager used to be brown, and some of it still is. Do you reckon Britain would have gone crazy for it like it has in the last 40 years if it wasn’t sunny, bubbly yellow? Gold is a much easier sell: ‘I hold here, in my mortal hand, a nugget of purest brown!’

Black + gold = brown. Last week at BrewDog Bristol, where brown is frowned upon, we ended up with a free half of Born to Die (a big IPA) which, on its own, was too harsh and boozy. So, we mixed it, 3 parts to 1, with BrewDog’s Guinness-challenging stout. The end result was like a stronger, shoutier cousin of Fuller’s ESB. You need never be without a brown beer if you’ve got a half of stout at hand. (Sadly for all you brownophobes there is no similar trick for turning ESB into double IPA.)

We probably won’t want to say or type the word brown for a week or two after this. But we don’t half want a pint of bitter.

Q&A: Which Are the Best New Wave Takes on Brown Bitter?

Detail from an old beer mat: BITTER!

‘Which new wave micros make what could be considered a quality brown bitter, possibly with just a slight modern twist, that could compare favourably to Harvey’s Sussex Best or Adnams’s Southwold Bitter?’ Paul, Ealing (@AleingPaul)

This question was prompted by our previous Q&A post on ‘Traddies’ and came with an example of the kind of beer Paul has in mind: Brass Castle’s Loco Stock.

We’ve been repeating a standard line for a few years now: one possible very broad indicator of a brewery’s ‘craft’ status (def. 2) is that its best-known or flagship beer will be an American-style pale ale or IPA rather than, as with Fuller’s or Wadworth, one of its brown bitters. What this acknowledges is that many post-2005 new wave British breweries do still brew a bitter, even if it’s an also-ran in their line-up.

For example Thornbridge (disclosure: various) still make a version of Lord Marples (PDF), the cask bitter they brewed before Jaipur was invented, which was designed to appeal to traditional Sheffield drinkers. We’ve not tasted it for a while but we recall it being notably deep brown and distinctly bitter. It uses only English and/or European hops and contains crystal malt — indicators of its old-school identity.

But Paul’s question is quite specific: which of these new wave brewery bitters are as good as the best examples from the trad-regional-family brewers? Lord Marples is one of the best of the new breed but, being totally honest, faced with choosing between it and Sussex Best for one pint, all else being equal, we’d choose the latter every time. (As, we suspect, would most so-called ‘crafties’ these days.)

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Eight alternatives to 'boring'

Pint of ordinary bitter in an English pub.

1. Well-mannered, polite
Ron Pattinson prefers polite beers to arrogant ones. Is a polite beer one which, although it doesn’t seem the life of the party, perhaps impresses you over time with its integrity and good qualities?

2. Bland
Nowadays, bland is a pejorative term absolutely synonymous with boring, but it hasn’t always been. Somerset cheese used to be advertised as bland and digestible; a woman in the nineteenth century might have been described as bland if she was pretty. It derives from a latin word meaning soft or smooth.

3. Vanilla
There’s bad vanilla ice-cream — bright yellow, basically whipped margarine, with artificial flavourings — and there’s the good stuff, where a flavour we take for granted is made once again the star of the show. Is that beer boring or does it make a virtue of good old English hops, instead of easier-to-spot varieties?

4. Standard
Almost every British brewery makes a standard brown bitter, which conforms to punters’ expectation of this type of beer, being within a certain range of colour and strength. Not brewing a standard bitter would be commercial suicide in many cases: these beers are the foundations on which breweries are built.

5. Straightforward
Yes, you can buy a pair of jeans with green stitching and butterflies embroidered on the knees, but maybe you just want a pair of bloody trousers. By the same token, aren’t all these bells and whistles on big beers a little pretentious? Don’t you sometimes just want a beer which quenches your thirst, bites at the back of your throat, and knocks the edges off a bad day? Does every beer have to be profound and eye-opening?

6. Clean
Precision engineered lagers are sometimes put together with the intention of making the experience of drinking them only slightly removed from that of drinking sparkling water. Let’s not sneer: these beers can be refreshing, and they’re technically marvellous.

7. Classical
Having regard to established principles of form and composition in the pursuit of harmony and balance, rather than seeking to innovate. Disciplined and respectful of tradition.

8. Subtle
After two pints, you start to notice flavours which are hard to pin down, and even harder to describe. This beer makes you work for your tasting notes and doesn’t pander to your lazy, hop-shocked palate. Perhaps you’re not up to it? Perhaps you need something brasher and simpler?