Gold or Pale or Mancunian?

Thornbridge Made North.

We’ve been thinking again about how different three pints of ostensible similar yellow beer at c.3.7% can taste depending on which sub-species they belong to.

First, there’s what we think of as ‘honeyish’ golden ales. Exmoor Gold, reckoned by some to be the first golden ale of the modern era, is one example; Timothy Taylor Golden Best might be considered another. Ah-hah, but, you say, that’s really a light mild. And you’re on to something there, because mild is a much better word than bland, which we used to dismiss this group a few years ago. These beers might look light but they have a fair bit of body and some residual sweetness, ending up almost syrupy. ‘Gold’ really works, suggesting as it does richness and a certain weight.

Then there’s the pale-n-hoppies. These descend from Hopback Summer Lightning, of which more in a moment, and are defined by their extreme pallor and high perfume. They’re usually light-bodied, too — spritzy. Oakham Citra is a good example, or Hawkshead Windermere. A decade ago we used to find this kind of beer hard work, all quinine and air freshener, but tastes change.

Finally, there’s an extinct sub-style which has been revived in recent years: the austerely bitter Manchester pale ale which has Boddington’s as its sole ancestor. Ray came back from his trip to Sheffield last weekend all abuzz about Thornbridge Made North; Northern Monk’s (defunct?) True North was another excellent example. English or other restrained European hops, used primarily to create bitterness, are a defining feature, as is a certain dryness, and evident wholemeal maltiness.

So where does Summer Lightning sit? We reckon these days it’s got more in common with the Manchester sub-style (German hops, not hugely aromatic, but by no means honeyish) than the pale-n-hoppy revolution it inspired, via Rooster’s Yankee. Young’s Bitter AKA Ordinary, depending on which month you catch it, might almost belong in that group too. Certainly when those northern lads who founded CAMRA ended up in London, it was Young’s to which they turned in the absence of their beloved Boddies.

The problem is for the consumer is that these beers all look more or less alike, and as we know people less obsessed with beer than us lot often buy based on some combination of colour and ABV. If you like Golden Best and end up with Oakham Citra  because it’s the right strength and shade, or vice versa, you might feel disappointed. And without knowing the context it would be easy to taste one of the Manchester/North ales and think, huh, this pale-n-hoppy from a noted producer of aromatic beers is a bit dull.

Perhaps what we’re hoping for is some sort of convention in naming and labelling. It’s already half there, to be fair: honeyish beers are often called Something Gold or Golden Something, and Boddington’s clones seem invariably to have ‘Manchester’ or ‘North’ in their names. And that middle lot… They always specify which hops are used on the pump-clip, don’t they?

If a lesson in hops, malt and yeast is Module One in learning about beer, then perhaps tasting these three sub-styles could be one branch to follow for Module Two.

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.

Patreon’s Choice #2: Bottled Hophead

Hophead label.

This is a quick entry in our series of notes on beers suggested by our Patreon subscribers. This time it’s the bottled version of Dark Star Hophead as suggested by @AleingPaul who has never tried it himself.

We bought this from Beer Ritz at £2.78 per 500ml bottle and, like the cask version, it has an ABV of 3.8%.

A note, first, on that cask beer — a classic we think it’s fair to say, or at least a standard. Here’s a bit on the history of the beer from an article we wrote for All About Beer a couple of years ago:

Another cult favourite is Hophead from Dark Star, a brewery in Brighton, a fashionable coastal resort an hour’s train ride south of London. Mark Tranter… worked at Dark Star from the 1990s until 2013. He recalls that, at some time after 1996, one of the owners of the Evening Star pub where the brewery was then based went to California and came back with Cascade hop pellets. These, along with other U.S. hops available in small quantities via hop merchants Charles Faram, formed the basis of ‘The Hophead Club’, conceived by Dark Star founder Rob Jones. At each meeting of the club members would taste a different single-hopped beer. ‘Cascade was the customers’ and brewers’ favourite, so it was not long until that became the staple,’ recalls Tranter. When he took on more responsibility in the brewery, Tranter tweaked the recipe, reducing its bitterness, and, in 2001, dropping its strength from 4% to 3.8%. Today, with the brewery under new ownership and with a different team in the brew-house, the beer remains single-minded and popular, giving absolute priority to bright aromas of grapefruit and elderflower.

Cask Hophead might have had a wobble a few years ago, or it might just have been that we had a run of bad luck, but on the whole it’s been a beer we cannot help but drink when it’s on offer. Its relatively low strength means we can take a decent amount without getting in a whirl or suffering the next day; its light body makes it swiggable and easygoing; but it is far from bland, even by the hop-saturated standards of 2017.

Perhaps our fondness is partly down to the fact that we’re of the Cascade generation and developed our love of beer when that hop variety was the coolest thing in town. Whatever the reason, fond we are.

So, how is the bottle? Does it capture the magic? Can you get that Hophead buzz in the comfort of your front room, dressed in your jim-jams?

Apparently not.

The bottled beer is utterly dull — a pan-and-scan VHS, K-Tel edit, plastic imitation.

It’s not horrid — there’s enough hop character there to spark a little pleasure — but it feels heavy, tastes as if it’s been microwaved, and has nothing to set it apart from any number of golden ales from less beloved breweries available in every supermarket in the land.

It’s weird to feel so irritated by a mediocre beer, but it must be because it’s a mediocre incarnation of a great beer.

We won’t be going out of our way to buy it again but will perhaps enjoy our next encounter with cask Hophead all the more.

That Type of Cask Ale…. You Know the One

You know, the type that’s very pale but still has a bit of body… It’s not just about hops… But it’s definitely got hops. Yeah, you could call it balanced, but there’s a problem with that…

On our recent trip up North, without really trying, we stumbled upon a few examples of this which might, we’re beginning to think, be our favourite very specific, hard-to-pin-down type of beer.

Manchester Bitter in a pint glass at the Marble Arch.

Marble’s Manchester Bitter — currently tasting good in both bottle and on cask, by the way — is a pretty good example. It’s not like a bunch of flowers being shoved in your face but nor is it a miserable old bowl of soggy cornflakes. It’s somewhere in between. It tastes zesty, fruity, fresh and very bitter, but it’s not ‘Like drinking bloody grapefruit juice.’ Which leaves space for the actual flavour of malt — the bread-nuts-cracker chewiness that isn’t just a backdrop or a base but a pleasure in its own right.

So, that’s actually balanced, right, in a positive sense? The constituent ingredients are each allowed to express themselves fully, with none overpowering the rest.

We did a bad doodle that might or might not help:

Golden Ales, 1: extravagantly hoppy, 2: boring and flaccid, 3: balanced, shining bright.

Number 1 is your grapefruit beer — a delight in its own way but ultimately one-dimensional. Number 2 is what we think of when we read ‘golden ale’ these days — it might be yellow but only in a sense of the absence of brown; it’s sweet, bland, balanced like an empty see-saw. And number 3 is what we’re into right now — a nice bit of engineering, but nothing flamboyant.

In Liverpool, we had Okell’s IPA (4.5% ABV) which we’d put into this category, though we suspect they think it’s a Number 1 – ‘Said to be hoppier than a hopping mad hopi’. And, in Manchester, at the Piccadilly Tap, Northern Monk Brew Co’s True North (3.7%) struck us as another example, as satisfying as a fresh roll ten minutes out of the oven. Down in Cornwall, Penzance Brewing Co Potion No. 9 fits the bill. (St Austell Proper Job, while hardly over-the-top, is biased towards hops over malt.)

We’re not arguing that this is a distinct style that needs a name or anything but it’s a thing we know when we encounter it.

Any others spring to mind?

Pale but… not so interesting

At some point between when we started taking an interest in beer and now, the niche ‘golden ales’ had found in the market got taken over ‘pale and hoppy’ ones.

A few weeks ago, we had a bottle of Summer Lightning for the first time in a while and, although we enjoyed it, we were taken aback at how sweet and yeasty it tasted. It was one of our first loves and, in our minds, was a super-hoppy, crisp, clean beer. Not so. The same day, Neil Chantrell of Coach House Brewing, said almost exactly the same thing on Twitter.

Exmoor Gold was even more of a shock when we drank it at the George Inn at Middlezoy a fortnight ago: like golden syrup and, sadly, not that enjoyable. We dumped it: “It’s not you, it’s us; we’ve moved on, but you’ve stayed the same.”

We don’t think either beer has changed, though. It’s just that we’ve come to expect a certain lightness and much more bitterness from yellow-golden ales. At the George, our second pint, Glastonbury Ales Mystery Tor, hit the spot: tropical fruit and almost-but-not-quite puckering bitterness were present and correct.

Where does this leave the previous generation of golden ales? Should they change to keep up? And will the same fate befall the current crop of pale and hoppy beers in ten years time?