The Ram Rampant

The Young's brewery ram mascot on a London pub window.

Great beers can sometimes burn brightly before passing into memory. Young’s Ordinary Bitter, unlikely as it might sound, was one such beer – beloved by ale drinkers, legendary in its brilliance, until the light went out.

When we interviewed Michael Hardman, one of the founders of the Campaign for Real Ale, his eyes blazed as he talked about Young’s Ordinary. ‘It used to have an intense bitterness that was almost too much for some people,’ he said. A good beer tasting note will trigger a surge of desire and Mr Hardman’s brief comment, delivered with such passion, and as straightforward as the beer it described, did just that.

We can’t say he didn’t warn us, though, that in 2012 Young’s Ordinary had become a shadow of its 1970s self. Having worked for the brewery as a PR executive for 30 years Hardman watched with sadness as, first, the brand lost its great champion, the company’s eccentric chairman John Young, who died in 2006 and then as, in 2007, the historic Wandsworth facility ceased brewing and moved production to Charles Wells at Bedford.

For London ale drinkers this was a ravens departing the Tower moment, leaving London with a mere handful of breweries and only Fuller’s as an independent of any size. There were reassurances that extensive testing had been carried out to assure continuity and even rumours that the last batches of Wandsworth-brewed Ordinary were being blended with the new version to ease the transition. But Wells could point at specification sheets and test results all they liked: the beer changed and people who drank it regularly knew it.

Bedford-brewed Ordinary wasn’t terrible – we drank plenty and enjoyed it – but veteran drinkers would push it away, shaking their heads at its sheer… ordinariness. Wells & Youngs, as they were then known, could brew something like Young’s Ordinary but could not breathe into the essential spark of life.

At the same time, Young’s London pubs, for so long a kind of defensive line against modernity, were also sold off and became a separate company. They generally continued to serve Young’s branded beers, however, so that, superficially at least, not much changed beyond a general ‘smartening up’. On trips to London we would invariably end up in one or another, either out of convenience or nostalgia, and check in on Ordinary. This was a sad, fruitless habit until the summer of 2014 when, suddenly, the beer seemed to jolt out of its coma – paler, drier, and more vigorous than we’d ever known it. But we doubted ourselves – perhaps it was a one-off? Or wishful thinking?

Young's Ordinary.

But, no: since then, the beer seems to have got better every time we’ve encountered it. It knocked our socks off at the Prince Alfred in Maida Vale earlier this year and now, after making a point of trying it in multiple pubs in four corners of London, and also in Exeter and Bristol, we want to underline this point: the sickness has gone and Young’s Ordinary is once again A Great Beer.

On our most recent trip to London at the Flask in Hampstead — a gorgeous Victorian pub whose discreet partitions and ornate details will frankly make any beer taste a little more interesting — we drank luminous, comically foaming pints of it that are among the best beers we’ve enjoyed this year, full stop.

It isn’t one of those 2017 beers perfumed with pine, citrus, mango or green onion. There’s barely a flavour note to latch on to, in fact, beyond a suggestion of minerals and lemon peel. But it has the austere structural elegance of a Victorian railway terminus, with a snatch of tame funkiness for seasoning.

We’ve been telling people the good news, and now we’re telling you. After all, with Charles Wells selling up to Marston’s, this resurgence might not last.

So Low You Can’t Get Under It

The Big Project has been great for making us visit pubs we might not otherwise have got to, such as The Prince Alfred in West London.

With a couple of hours to kill between hotel check-out and westbound train last Friday we searched for pubs nearby rather than rely on our old favourite, The Mad Bishop & Bear. Google turned up The Prince Alfred which immediately rang a bell for Boak: ‘It’s in Geoff Brandwood’s book – it’s got rare surviving snob screens. We have to go.’

We wandered through Little Venice, up one street after another of white stucco and genteel dustiness, until we found the pub sparkling with Victorian cut-glass glamour.

Fired tiles at the Prince Alfred, a Victorian pub.

Challenge one: finding a way in. The obvious door led to the dining room and lounge – rather bland, hovered over by a smiling waitress. There was a Hobbit-sized door under the partition leading to the cosier spaces around the central island bar but they surely couldn’t expect us to duck under, could they? Health and safety and all that. No no no.

Continue reading “So Low You Can’t Get Under It”

Comfort Beers: Fuller’s, Young’s, Sam Smith’s

We were in London last week to pick up an award, see friends, work in the library, and look at pub architecture. That didn’t leave much time to drink beer.

When we passed the Red Lion on Duke of York Street at 6 pm it had burst its seams, spilling suited drinkers all over the pavement and road. We returned at 9 by which time it was quieter and we slipped into the coveted back room. It’s an amazing pub, the Red Lion — really beautiful, full of cut glass and mirrors and warm light. There’s a reason Ian Nairn gives it a whole page of soupy swooning in Nairn’s London. The woman behind the bar pulled the first pint, paused, and said, ‘I’m not serving you that. It doesn’t look right.’ She turned the clip round and suggested something else. Impressive. Oliver’s Island, pale and brewed with orange peel, continues to be decent enough without igniting any great passion on our part. ESB, on the other hand, seems to get better every time we have it — richer, more bitter, ever juicier. Same again, please. It gave us hangovers but it was 100 per cent worth it.

Continue reading “Comfort Beers: Fuller’s, Young’s, Sam Smith’s”

The Ram Brewery, London

A short film by the 1000 Londoners project: “John Hatch is a passionate connoisseur of beer and brewing. From a very young age he worked for the award-winning Young’s which brewed its beer at The Ram, the oldest brewery in the country, with records going back to 1533.”

WARNING: Contains scenes of pewter tankard use which some viewers may find disturbing.

One Man Museum of Beer

Tisbury Brewery share certificate, 1982.

This weekend, we met a friend’s father for the first time, and he said: ‘You’re writing a book about beer, aren’t you? Have you ever heard of Becky’s Dive Bar?’

He told us about drinking at Becky’s, where he was dragged by a colleague who was a member of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood to drink Ruddle’s from a barrel on the counter-top.

When we mentioned Starkey, Knight & Ford, he disappeared into a store room and returned with a green bottle bearing the brewery’s name, an early version of their prancing horse trademark, the intertwined SK&F logo, and the name of a nearby town, Paignton. ‘I found it in a hedgerow,’ he said.

He served us beer in Young & Co. half pint glasses with the slogan ‘Real Draught Beer‘, picked up at Young’s shareholder meetings. ‘The AGM was the biggest piss-up in town for the price of a single share,’ he told us. ‘John Young would ask who wanted to hear a long speech and we’d all shout NO! Then he’d ask who wanted some beer and we’d shout YES! You had to take the afternoon and the next day off work.’

The he wondered whether we might be interested in seeing his share certificate from the Tisbury Brewery? Readers, we were interested. It took him a while to find: ‘I keep it hidden away. I can’t stand to look at it because I lost a lot of money. I keep it as a reminder not to make stupid investments.’

It’s good to meet someone who has lived what we’ve only read about.

How to Snare a Beer Geek

Real Draught Beer and Where to Find It

Fact: a geek will try to collect every item on any list he or she is given, and absolutely will not stop, ever, until it is ticked.

Since we spoke to CAMRA-founder Michael Hardman last year, we’ve been keen to get our hands on a copy of an influential publication he told us about — Young’s Brewery’s Real Draught Beer and Where to Find it. First published in the mid-sixties, it represents, we think, the first use of the term ‘real’ in connection to beer in this way, and perhaps begot ‘real ale’. Now, thanks to John Green, CAMRA’s first employee, we have a photocopy of the 1971 edition.

Green was discovered by CAMRA after he was featured in the local paper in St Albans after becoming a member of the 135 Association by drinking at every pub listed in the pamphlet. Graham Lees, another founder member of the Campaign, happened to be working on the paper in question and gave him a call. Like many such relics, it’s interesting not only in itself, but also because it’s covered in annotations — in this case, A to Z map references and crosses against the name of each pub.

This kind of thing is great PR, and a tactic still in use: only last week, we noted that the Post Office Vaults in Birmingham were offering a ‘beer passport’ for £2, listing 200 of their bottled beers. On drinking one bottle of each, and getting a stamp, the holder is entitled to a case of beer. (Sadly, there is no embroidered tie.) There were two students earnestly working their way through the Schlenkerla Rauchbiers on our visit.

The Original Brewery Fanboys

Detail from the Young's 135 Association official tie.

Our list of British beer clubs and associations continues to grow with two more having come to our attention in the last week. First up, the original ‘Equity for Punks’ — the Young’s 135 Association.

Back before Young’s was a mere sub-brand managed (carelessly) by Charles Wells in Bedford, it was a South London brewery with a stubborn Chairman, John Young, who refused to give up on cask conditioned ale when even breweries such as nearby Fuller’s were on the brink of doing so. As such, Young’s had quite a cult following.

In the mid-60s (we’re still trying to pin down dates) they published a small pamphlet listing every one of their pubs. Later editions were called Real Draught Beer and How Where to Find It and, if that first edition bore the same name, it’s a candidate for the first usage of ‘real… beer’ in this sense (as in ‘real ale’).

The thing is, the minute you print a list, it triggers the Gotta Catch ’em All impulse in some geeks and so, in 1967, quite unexpectedly, someone wrote to the brewery to announce that he’d visited all 135 pubs. He’d also had his pamphlet signed by the publicans or bar managers to prove it. John Young was impressed and delighted an invited him in for a VIP tour of the Ram Brewery, a slap-up feed, as much beer as he could drink in the sample room, and a pin of beer to take home.

In the years that followed, many others made the same pilgrimage. Eventually, the slap-up feed was dropped, but each of these fan boys still got to meet the boss and, in 1972, John Young presented a specially embroidered tie and pin to a Mr Peter Harris, the 29th person to visit all 135 pubs (Morning Advertiser, 24 October 1972). A loose association of ‘135ers’ was founded at the Buckingham Arms in Westminster, and met at various Young’s pubs thereafter with twelve members gathering as recently as 1999.

We’d love to find out more. If you were a member, know a member, or can point us towards any more information, please comment below.

Most of the information above came from our conversation with CAMRA-founder Michael Hardman who worked for Young’s for many years after leaving the Campaign.

UPDATE 04/11/2014: A member of the 135 Association, Colin Price, got in touch with some more information. We won’t reproduce it all, but these are two key passages:

I was a member of the 135 Association. Rather than ‘a loose association’ the 135 Association was a proper organisation with constitution, committee membership fee and quarterly newsletter… The Association had no official connection with Young’s and was completely independent of them although when people were sent their ties they were sent an application form. No doubt some people did the tour and got the tie but didn’t join the association.

By the late 1990’s interest was declining. The wider availability of real ale meant that Young’s had lost some of its cachet so fewer people were doing the tour and coming forward to replace members who were dropping out due to old age or moving away from London. Also some of the more traditional members were unhappy with the direction Young’s were taking… In the early 2000s the Association was formally wound up. The remaining funds were used to pay for a farewell social and the balance left donated to a charity John Young was a trustee of.

A Lightplater while waiting for a train

Young's Light Ale

With our train due in an hour,we wandered out of the station in a small inland Cornish town in search of a pub. The first we came across was busy and smart enough; on entering, a cheery-looking landlady greeted us and engaged in a little light banter. She then served us two pints and a half of the warmest, dullest bitter we’ve had in a while.

This seemed a perfect time for a little experiment. “Is that Young’s Light Ale in the fridge?” we asked, spotting the label from several metres away. It was, so we bought some, and used it to (a) reduce the temperature of our pints from lukewarm to cool; (b) put some fizz in them; and (c) lift the bitterness. They weren’t great pints thereafter, but were at least pleasant enough to finish.

All of this reminded us of (sorry) yet another passage from Richard Boston’s Beer and Skittles (1976) in which he lists various ‘traditional’ beer mixes:

  • Lightplater — bitter and light ale.
  • Mother-in-law — old and bitter. (Oh dear. Bernard Manning much?)
  • Granny — old and mild.
  • Boilermaker — brown and mild.
  • Blacksmith –stout and barley wine.
  • Half-and-half — bitter and stout, or bitter and mild.

If you’re compelled to mix beers in an emergency as we were, or just fancy a change, these all sound like they might create something drinkable.

Bailey’s dad, of course, never complains about bad beer. If it can’t be rendered passable with the addition of a bottle of Mann’s Brown Ale, then it’s time to move on.

Naughty adverts

Tandleman and Pete Brown have both written about the fact that the Advertising Standards Authority have upheld complaints against this advert for Courage bitter:


But I can’t help but be reminded of the kerfuffle around this advert, from the same parent company, three years ago:


Given how clear the rules are about linking alcohol with increased attractiveness or confidence, these can’t be mistakes. I’ve seen the Courage ad more in the news today than I have in paid for advertising slots anywhere in the last few weeks. Contrived controversy = free publicity.

Young's Chocolate Stout: now with added smoke

Has anyone else had a bottle of Young’s Chocolate Stout recently? We just tried one at a Young’s pub in London and were astounded to discover that (a) it’s got better and (b) it no longer tastes of chocolate, but rather intensely of smoke and roasted barley. The ingredient list includes oats and “natural chocolate flavouring”.

Any insight much from those in the know would be much appreciated.