Categories
Beer styles breweries bristol

West Country Weizen

Bristol is good at German-style wheat beer, it turns out – we’ve had three this year that might be beer-of-the-year contenders.

It makes sense, we suppose. When we think of the defining Bristol style, what pops into our heads is slightly hazy, soft-edged, fruity, barely-bitter pale ale.

From there to Weizen is only a short hop.

The first one that grabbed our attention earlier this year was Bristol Beer Factory’s Lost in Munich. You might regard it as a step between the two styles, in fact, being an open homage to Schneider’s Hopfenweisse – Weizen with IPA hopping.

BBF’s version, available in 440ml cans, actually pours stubbornly clear, or at least only faintly hazy. It has vanilla in the aroma and, of course, a bunch of banana. At 5%, it’s not as strong as the Schneider original – or, indeed, as most standard German wheat beers.

We liked it so much we bought a box of 12 to drink at home. Perhaps others don’t share our enthusiasm, though, because it was discounted to £25.60 – about £2 per tin. At present, they don’t have any in stock.

A bigger surprise, perhaps, was Left Handed Giant’s take. We say it’s a surprise because we don’t always click with LHG beers, which often sound and look better than they taste.

LHG Hefeweizen is another 5%-er and, we gather, is regularly available at their colossal, rather impressive brewpub-taproom at Finzel’s Reach, on the site of the old Courage brewery.

We found it on draught at The Swan With Two Necks and Ray (the bigger wheat beer fan of the two of us anyway) loved it so much he stuck on it for the entire session.

Our notes say ‘pretty convincing… less banana, more strawberry’. The point is, though, that it isn’t a ‘twist’ on the style; it doesn’t have fruit, or unusual hops, or breakfast cereal. It’s a straight-up, honest beer.

The same might be said for Good Chemistry’s punningly-named Weiss City, also with an ABV of 5% (was there a memo?), and on draught at their taproom the last couple of times we’ve been.

To underline the point we made at the start of this post, here’s how it looks alongside their session IPA, Kokomo Weekday, which is at the back:

Two similar looking beers, both hazy and golden.

We’re not sure we’d know it wasn’t an authentic German product if we were served it blind, in appropriate glassware.

That is a problem, of course: all the examples above were served in standard UK pint glasses, with little room for the customary meringue-whip head.

Perhaps at some point we’ll re-run the wheat beer taste-off we did a few years ago from which we concluded…

German wheat beer is more subtle than we had realised — an end-of-level-boss technical challenge for brewers. Too much of those characteristic aromas and flavours and it tips over into caricature, or just becomes sickly. Despite looking dirty, it actually needs to be really clean to work: acidity knocks it right off course, and there’s no room for funk or earthiness. The carbonation has to be exactly calibrated, too, or the beer simply flops: bubbles are body.

It feels as if perhaps things have moved along since then. But until we drink these Bristol beers alongside, say, Franziskaner (bang at the centre of the style in our minds) then it’s hard to say for sure.

Categories
Beer styles Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Gaps and opportunities: how trends in beer styles work

It’s obvious, really: you can’t have a revival until the thing you’re reviving has actually died. And mild needed to die to have its apparent comeback this year.

Mild has been dying for decades – from about 40% of the UK beer market in the early 1960s to 4% by 1990 to 0.3% by 2017.

CAMRA has fought to preserve it but with little success because, ultimately, the market dictates the fortunes of beer styles.

One by one, larger breweries have reduced their output of mild, made mild seasonal or stopped making it altogether.

Think of Fuller’s and St Austell, for example, whose milds have expired since this blog began in 2007.

Even those that limp on have invariably been renamed ‘dark ale’ or similar.

There’s not much of a market for mild but, as big players step away, as it slips into the rearview mirror of history, a little space is created.

Smaller breweries have a chance to offer something the nationals and multinationals, with their large minimum production volumes, can’t or won’t.

In other words, mild has become an exotic boutique rarity like Schwarzbier, Rauchbier or Vienna lager.

Well, not exotic. Mild can’t be exotic. Not unless it’s missed the point of its own existence. But you catch our drift.

On the flipside, as bigger breweries move in on hoppy, fruity pale ales and IPAs, that space in the market gets crowded.

Smaller breweries might struggle to compete with Beavertown (Heineken) or Camden (AB-InBev) and so of course they’ll start looking for styles they can own.

For a year or so, that might be mild, until the big operators catch-up and spoil the fun.

This also answers the question about why craft breweries are less likely to brew straightforward bitter or lager: though the market for those is large, it’s also pretty well sewn up.

Whatever happens, if there are a few more milds around, in a few more pubs, for a few more years, we’ll be quite happy.

Categories
Beer styles

Call it anything but bitter

Young’s London Original. Fuller’s London Pride – an outstanding amber ale. And, of course, Boddington’s Pub Ale. All these are ways of talking about bitter without saying bitter.

‘Pub ale’ is a new one to us and cropped up in a recent conversation on Twitter, with reference to the US market:

At least we thought it was new until we remembered that Boddington’s had been using that tag in the American market for decades.

This struck us as especially interesting, though – evidence of why marketing people come up with these tortured and/or twee alternatives:

Some people aren’t happy about all this, though.

Why?

Partly resistance to change, of course, especially when it is driven by, as we suppose they see it, pandering.

But that resistance is also partly down to nostalgia: the word ‘bitter’ speaks of pubs and dads and granddads – of the receding 20th century to which so many of us are clinging with whitened fingertips. Bittersweet memory, as it were.

The funny thing is, it’s not as if ‘bitter’ is exactly an age-old traditional term. In a piece we wrote for Beer Advocate years ago we said:

A widely reprinted 1855 parody of aristocratic politician Charles Greville’s controversial memoirs has Queen Victoria serving the Duke of Wellington “a foaming jug of bitter” and this form, without modifiers, became common in the 20th century. By the 1930s, advertisements for Yorkshire brewery Tetley headlined two types of beer, Mild and Bitter.

So, it’s about as old as ‘wireless’ or ‘cinema’.

If you really want to keep it trad, Dad, then ‘pale ale’ is the phrase you’re after.

In itself, though, the word ‘bitter’ does have a certain appeal.

It is plain and unpretentious to the point of self-deprecation. Two simple syllables you can mutter with only a slight, discreet movement of the mouth. No need to show off or make a fuss.

And, thinking about it, isn’t ‘pub ale’ (still US only, everyone – relax!) close to ‘real ale’, another relatively new term that speaks of good, honest beer?

The good news is, whatever labels breweries apply, there’s nothing to stop us talking about bitter, or writing about it, in as much detail as we like.

And, for that matter, there’s nothing to stop you ordering it in the pub. It’s going to be a long time yet before someone working behind a bar is going to pretend they don’t know what you mean when you ask for a pint of bitter.

Categories
beer reviews Beer styles

In search of ESB – bitter and fruity

The latest coronavirus restrictions now prevent pubs from selling takeaway alcohol, subject to clarifications or U-turns like those that came along under pressure from lobbyists last time, so that looks like an end to our Drapers Arms takeaways for the foreseeable. But at least our final pint was a fantastic ESB.

Severn Brewing Extra Special Bitter just straight-up delighted us: it was dark, fruity and, above all, bitter.

Discussing it, we decided that often when we have a beer describing itself as ESB, it just isn’t bitter enough and it ends up tasting like mild or porter.

Just based on the name, ESB really should be a turbo-charged version of bitter, with some of the dials turned up. In practice, we suppose that means the hopping has to go up to balance the increase in maltiness.

Of course, having had that conversation we looked up our notes from last time we tried Severn’s take – a helpful side effect of maintaining a record of our favourite beers for Patreon round-ups – and found that on that occasion, we did describe it as like a sweet, fruity best mild.

We enjoyed it, but definitely noticed an absence of bitterness.

And, in fact, there were some even earlier notes, from right at the start of 2020, which can probably be summarised as “How DARE they bestow upon this merely adequate brown soup the mighty name of ESB!?”

This made us wonder if freshness might be a factor – that if the beer is a few days or weeks older, it might have dried out and matured.

We thought about the differences in Fullers’ ESB, the template for them all, and perhaps we’ve observed the same thing. Sometimes there’s noticeably more depth of flavour and a richer mouthfeel and, at its worst, it can taste distinctly muddy.

Is ESB fundamentally more of a diva than ordinary bitter? Or maybe the fact that it’s strong (Severn’s is 5.2%) means it tends to hang around a little longer and is more likely to change and evolve at point of sale? 

If only we could test this theory out in some pubs across the country over the next couple of months. We’d be well up for seeing out winter with a focus on this barely-a-style.

In fact, we can still do that: if anyone has got any good suggestions for ESBs that we can order online, do please let us know.

Categories
Beer styles

Bitter on Twitter: which is the quintessential example?

Which are the quintessential cask bitters – those that spring to mind when people think of the style? Our hypothesis: almost always those from established family brewers.

We were promoted to think about this by a question from @casketbeer:

The interesting word there is ‘newer’ and we responded with a lukewarm recommendation for Five Points Best.

To cut a long story short, many Tweets later, we found ourselves suggesting Harvey’s Sussex Best as an example of how older breweries tend to do bitter better.

Are new breweries capable of producing good bitter? Of course they are, especially if you take ‘new’ to mean anything post-CAMRA and the 1970s real ale boom.

But our suspicion is that, if pushed to name one bitter as a perfect example, most people would name a 19th century family brewery beer. So we pushed them:

This question wasn’t worded carelessly.

We specified a three-hour window to avoid people responding with 20-Tweet threads @-ing in every brewery in the UK.

And it being our hypothetical drinker’s one and only pint of bitter would, we hoped, focus minds on suggesting the very best, or at least the very most representative.

We got quite a few responses (if for some reason ‘engagement’ is a key metric for you, try asking people to name a beer they like) and have done our best to tot them up.

There were lots of beers and breweries that got named once. There were quite a few nominations for beers that don’t, in our view, really count as bitter, e.g. St Austell Proper Job.

And even multiple nominations for milds because… look, we’re not sure. Sheer excitement, maybe.

Where people named multiple beers, we took the one they mentioned first as their nomination and ignored the rest.

What we’ve done here is list any beer that got nominated more than once and then rank them by the number of votes.

Brewery Beer Votes
Harvey’s Sussex Best 31
Timothy Taylor Landlord 17
Batham’s Bitter 15
n/a Bass 4
St Austell Tribute 3
Fullers London Pride 3
Adnams Bitter 3
Marble Manchester Bitter 2
Timothy Taylor Boltmaker 2
Woodforde’s Wherry 2

There’s an obvious holy trinity of beers that are way out in front.

It’s interesting that Fuller’s (Asahi), Adnams and St Austell are lurking so far behind and that nobody mentioned, say, Wadworth, or Robinson’s. And Young’s (ownership confusing) got nominated only once.

The only ‘new’ breweries represented at this top table were founded in 1981 (Woodforde’s) and 1997 (Marble).

If you tot up all the nominations for new breweries and treat them as a category, you get to about 14. (We don’t know all the beers named and some might not meet our definition of bitter.) That’s still not enough to beat Harvey’s, Landlord or Batham’s.

So, in conclusion…

A handful of respected old breweries and brands own the idea of bitter. And if you’re in the UK on the hunt, there’s your shopping list.

Notes
  • “But Landlord isn’t a bitter, it’s a pale ale!” Historically, there’s no difference between pale ale and bitter. Anyway, Landlord a similar colour to many other bitters, and a similar strength.
  • “Tribute isn’t a bitter, it’s…” We reckon it’s a calculated clone of Landlord so, see above.
  • “Harvey’s is too weird to be the quintessential bitter.” This is a good point, although we also find Adnams’s pretty strange. And Batham’s too, now you mention it. Maybe being distinctive is part of what makes them great?