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”