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?