The snob quality of keg bitter and lager, 1966

It can be hard to get into the headspace of people in the past but here’s a nugget that reveals attitudes to different types of beer, and different measures, in the mid-1960s.

It’s a let­ter by H.C.G. Sloane to A Month­ly Bul­letin, a brew­ing trade pub­li­ca­tion, pub­lished in June 1966:

In this age of alleged democ­ra­cy and an appar­ent ten­den­cy to throw con­ven­tion to the winds, it is sur­pris­ing to hear that two cus­tomers din­ing in an old hotel restau­rant were refused “two pints of best bit­ter”. Pints of bit­ter were not served because they “low­ered the tone” of the hotel.

So far, so famil­iar – as we cov­ered in Brew Bri­tan­nia, refusal to serve pints has become embed­ded as an indi­ca­tor of an estab­lish­ment that wish­es to set itself apart from, and of course above, the bog stan­dard booz­er. Bris­tol has a cou­ple of such places.

It seems that we must come to terms with the fact that, rather than becom­ing anachro­nisms, pet­ty snob­bery and the sta­tus sym­bol may yet extend and widen the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the absurd.

Well, it’s true that beer has got com­pli­cat­ed with all those tribes and sym­bols and laws of eti­quette.

Beer will, if this hap­pens, prob­a­bly be asso­ci­at­ed only with shab­by tap­rooms, cloth caps, and news­pa­per-wrapped fish and chips. Already one is begin­ning to feel less ple­beian when ask­ing for “keg” rather than “bit­ter”; or a lager instead of a light ale. It sounds nicer, some­how, and more sophis­ti­cat­ed.

This is some­thing we keep com­ing back to – how did lager go from being, in 1966, the classy prod­uct you ordered when you felt a lit­tle fan­cy to, by the late 1980s, riot fuel?

And keg as the upmar­ket choice… That still rings true, sort of, though IPA or ‘craft lager’ are what peo­ple actu­al­ly ask for.

The New Age bar­tender may look askance should one inad­ver­tent­ly demand a glass of mild instead of a beaker of bland.

No, the cor­rect term is “dark ale”.

A “mixed” may in future be called a blend.

Cor­rect.

An igno­rant saloon bar cus­tomer might even ostracised (or banned from using the premis­es) should he refer to his favourite tip­ple as brown ale – once the colour has changed to beige.

Wrong – instead, it’s almost extinct, and two rare sur­vivors are ordered by brand name.

Over­all, Sloane got it right – though nev­er entire­ly as class­less and sim­ple as some roman­tics would have you believe, beer has become increas­ing­ly com­plex, strat­i­fied and laden with mean­ing.

But things have also been pret­ty well swirled about, too.

Is a dim­ple mug of Black Sheep Bit­ter posh, or ple­beian? It depends where you drink it and whether it’s accom­pa­ny­ing a pack­et of scratch­ings or a plate of gnoc­chi.

A peek behind the scenes: why are we sud­den­ly look­ing at A Month­ly Bul­letin again? Because we had a real­ly thor­ough tidy up of what we jok­ing­ly call The Arthur Mil­lard Memo­r­i­al Library – that is, our box­room – and hav­ing got rid of a load of books and organ­ised the rest, we’ve redis­cov­ered lots of stuff that we for­got we had. It’s easy to dip into some­thing before bed or in the morn­ing before work and AMB in par­tic­u­lar is espe­cial­ly dip­pable.

Cornershop beers: supposedly hoppy lager and blackcurrant stout

We used to drink a lot of cornershop beers. Sometimes it was the ticking instinct – how could we resist a dark lager from Latvia or an IPA from Poland? On other occasions, it was about convenience: we wanted a few beers to drink in front of the TV with a film or sporting event.

But these days, post 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub and with mid­dle age upon us, we’ve more or less resolved to drink in the pub or not at all.

Every now and then, though, we pop into the shop near­est our house and mar­vel at the ever-chang­ing selec­tion of obscure beers from East­ern Europe. It’s fun to see unfa­mil­iar names on unfa­mil­iar labels – a kind of alter­nate real­i­ty, a world where Car­ling and Foster’s don’t exist.

Last week, we were star­tled to see three very nice­ly pack­aged beers in unusu­al styles from Vilk­merges of Lithua­nia – a stout, a dark lager and a wit­bier. Vilk­merges is a sub-brand of Kalnapilis, which is in turn owned by Roy­al Uni­brew of Den­mark.

They sat along­side prod­ucts from a craft beer sub-brand of Russ­ian brew­ery Balti­ka, ‘The Brewer’s Col­lec­tion’, one of which, with a strik­ing orange label, all in Eng­lish, is billed as RUSSIAN HOPPY LAGER.

The lat­ter looked gor­geous in the glass – that very pale yel­low that seems almost green and some­how sig­nals refine­ment, per­haps hint­ing at Cham­pagne. It tast­ed dri­er and paler than stan­dard Balti­ka with maybe a touch of flow­er­i­ness but didn’t quite live up to the billing. Per­haps the lor­ry ride across Europe did for the hops? At any rate, it’s at the bet­ter end of bog stan­dard and a fas­ci­nat­ing thing – the begin­ning of the Cam­deni­sa­tion of Russ­ian lager?

The Vilk­merges wit­bier is called Kvei­ti­nis. It was more orange than white with a fast-fad­ing head and not quite enough body. It remind­ed us of a wit­bier we home­brewed with ale malt, not enough wheat, and too much orange peel. It was a bit sick­ly but not awful. Purists, look away now: it would prob­a­bly be nicer with a slice of lemon float­ing on top.

Their stout, Juodųjų Ser­ben­tų, is dosed with BLACKCURRANT JUICE. It smells – brace your­self – like black­cur­rants. It was rud­dy rather than black with an off-white head that didn’t stick around. It tastes sweet – like Ribena said Ray, reach­ing for the obvi­ous; like the med­i­cine they gave me when I got worms as a kid, says Jess, more orig­i­nal­ly. It’s 5.5% but tast­ed basi­cal­ly non-alco­holic. We poured this one.

Tam­su­sis is a dark lager and smelled and looked like a clas­sic Bavar­i­an Dunkel. And, in fact, is con­sid­er­ably bet­ter than most bot­tled Dunkels we’ve come across. Sweet, round, with just a touch of roast… Almost hint­ing at the lus­cious­ness of dou­ble stout, in fact, so per­haps not ‘true to style’. This was the great find in the set and we can imag­ine get­ting a few of these in next time we cook pork knuck­les.

One odd thing, though: beers from East­ern Europe often come in larg­er than usu­al pack­ages, full-pint cans and so on, but these Vilk­merges prod­ucts were in 410 mil­li­l­itre bot­tles and the Balti­ka came in at 440ml. At around £1.80 a pop, they were hard­ly bank-break­ing but, still, it felt like a bit of a con.

Scotland #3: Tennent’s Lager

Tennent’s has been producing lager since the 1880s and Scotland became a lager drinking nation long before England.

We knew we want­ed to drink at least one pint of Ten­nen­t’s on our trip to Scot­land but did­n’t expect to like it quite as much as we did.

Despite the ubiq­ui­ty of Ten­nen­t’s brand­ing around Glas­gow – big red Ts jut out from pub fas­cias all over the place –it actu­al­ly took us a lit­tle while to find the oppor­tu­ni­ty: either the pubs we found our­selves in had some­thing else we want­ed to try, or they had no Ten­nen­t’s tap at all, replac­ing it with some­thing more upmar­ket from brew­eries such as Innis & Gunn or Williams Bros.

We had our first taste at The Pot Still in cen­tral Glas­gow, served in tall, brand­ed glass­ware with a whip of shav­ing-cream foam, and bub­bling furi­ous­ly.

What were our expec­ta­tions? Low, if we’re hon­est. We’d noticed a cou­ple of oth­er fussy bug­gers express­ing affec­tion for it but won­dered how much that might be down to con­trari­ness or sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty.

But we liked it.

Now, we choose our words care­ful­ly: liked, not loved. It’s good, not great. We enjoyed it but it did­n’t make our toes curl with delight.

Isn’t that enough, though? To be able to go into almost any pub and order a pint of 4% lager for a rea­son­able price and enjoy drink­ing it?

We asked our Twit­ter fol­low­ers what they thought and their col­lec­tive judge­ment, though it falls on the wrong side of the mid­dle line to ours, feels fair:

Espe­cial­ly com­pared to Fos­ter’s:

Tast­ing notes feel redun­dant as it’s hard­ly a deep or com­plex beer, but we’ll try: it’s more sweet than bit­ter but in a whole­some way that sug­gests grain, not sug­ar; the high car­bon­a­tion stops it feel­ing sticky; and there’s some­times a wisp of lemon zest about it.

After our ini­tial encounter, we found our­selves order­ing it even when there were oth­er options. After a long day walk­ing in the sun, it was per­fect – gets to your thirst, fast. In a ques­tion­able pub which looked like it need­ed hos­ing down, it was a safe option, and tast­ed just as good. It cer­tain­ly suit­ed watch­ing Scot­land v. Eng­land on a big screen in a pub in Fort William. In Spoons, it beat Carls­berg’s relaunched ‘Dan­ish Pil­sner’ hands down, though the lat­ter was just fine.

Of course this pos­i­tive reac­tion is part­ly down to us tak­ing plea­sure in drink­ing a local prod­uct on hol­i­day but, look, you know us by now – these days, we don’t force our­selves to drink things that aren’t actu­al­ly giv­ing us plea­sure.

And Ten­nen­t’s Lager did.

The post-Camden world

A recent in-depth listicle from Pellicle made us reflect on how Camden Hells was a turning point, though we didn’t recognise the turn while it was taking place.

Back in around 2012, it was easy to over­look: sharp brand­ing aside, it was just anoth­er ‘craft lager’, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Zero Degrees, Mean­time and Free­dom.

We didn’t think it tast­ed espe­cial­ly excit­ing – per­haps a touch more appeal­ing than some main­stream draught lagers.

The com­pa­ny had its fans, but also its detrac­tors, not least those in the indus­try irri­tat­ed by a sense that it was out­right buy­ing cov­er­age, or was over-hyped, or was fail­ing to be trans­par­ent with con­sumers.

What we should have paid more atten­tion to was that our friends who weren’t espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in beer – who would turn pale if you accused them of being beer geeks – seemed to like Hells a lot. They were switch­ing from Fos­ter’s, Stel­la, Per­oni, and (per­haps cru­cial­ly) drink­ing Hells just as they’d drunk those oth­er beers: by the pint, pint after pint.

With hind­sight, it’s easy to see why they’d make the switch. Hells was light-tast­ing, rea­son­ably strong, clean and clear; usu­al­ly came in smart but chunky glass­ware; and the brand­ing was nice – bold, con­tem­po­rary, declar­ing itself a Lon­don­er.

To reit­er­ate, Hells cer­tain­ly was­n’t the first British craft lager, but it might yet turn out to be the most influ­en­tial.

It prob­a­bly prompt­ed Fuller’s Fron­tier (2013), Adnams Dry Hopped (2013), and Guin­ness Hop House 13 (2015), to name but three exam­ples.

And we’re cer­tain it’s why brew­eries like Moor have been unable to resist giv­ing lager a go in recent years, even though that’s not some­thing that seemed on the agen­da for them a decade ago.

The recent launch of Carls­berg Dan­ish Pil­sner must also sure­ly be a reac­tion to Hells, or at least indi­rect­ly, via Hop House 13 and the oth­ers.

News, nuggets and longreads 18 May 2019: ratings, lager, and lager ratings

Here’s everything that struck as particularly interesting in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from Carlsberg to Cambridge.

First, some news: those Red­church rum­blings from the oth­er week are now con­firmed – the brew­ery went into admin­is­tra­tion and is now under new own­er­ship. This has prompt­ed an inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion about crowd­fund­ing:


More news: it’s intrigu­ing to hear that Curi­ous is expand­ing. It’s a brew­ery you don’t hear talked about much by geeks like us – in fact, we’re not sure we’ve ever tried the beer – but it does turn up in a sur­pris­ing num­ber of pubs and restau­rants.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, nuggets and lon­greads 18 May 2019: rat­ings, lager, and lager rat­ings”