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.