Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Mid-Atlantic drinking

There’s an interesting article in the current issue of Opening Times – the Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA newsletter – by Gazza Prescott on the rise of pale, highly-hopped “mid-Atlantic” pale ales. There’s an extended version on Gazza’s website here.

Now Gazza is well known for his trenchant opinions, but this is an enthusiastic and readable survey of the development of this particular beer style. I have praised the likes of Oakham JHB and Thornbridge Jaipur on here before. It’s a bit much to say “Pale’n’hoppy beers are slowly taking over the beer culture of the UK”, although he does acknowledge that it is a phenomenon largely confined to specialist beer pubs. There isn’t much sign of these beers “going mainstream”. Realistically it is just adding another colour to the palette of British beer styles – I can’t really see them replacing the traditional balanced bitters in the general run of pubs.

It’s probably also fair to say that these beers are the beer world’s equivalent of highly-peated malt whiskies such as Laphroiag and Talisker – very well-respected, but too much biased towards one extreme end of the flavour spectrum to appeal to many people as a regular tipple. You might well enjoy one or two during an evening’s sampling of a variety of beers, but few would want to drink them all night.

It should be said that there is a marked difference between the kind of intensely hoppy beers Gazza is talking about and those “gold” beers with an insipid, floral hoppiness than can so easily become wishy-washy, which is what I was complaining about here.

6 comments:

  1. I agree; some of the regionals have jumped on the gold ale bandwagon, and merely produced an insipid lookalike.

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  2. What I find fascinating is the continual cross-pollination of brewing globally. The Brits influenced the first wave of American craft brewers in the late 70s/early 80s, and now they are influencing the UK beer scene. For me, mid-Atlantic pale ale is an instantly recognisable description - it's a similar thing to what I meant by calling IPA "international pale ale"

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  3. I'm always amazed at my enjoyment of "the likes of Oakham JHB and Thornbridge Jaipur " - I don't like bitter beers but I love this style of marmalade bitterness - does that make sense?

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  4. An interesting thought is that in the late 70s/early 80s there were two beers in this style brewed in the North-West - Boddingtons Bitter and Yates & Jackson Bitter. Both very pale and very - at times shockingly - bitter. One is now hopelessly emasculated, the other long gone.

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  5. I think the "Mid-Atlantic" label is a long way out. I've sent this letter to Opening Times:

    I came to Manchester in my early twenties, in 1982. In the previous few years I'd drunk and enjoyed beer in London, East Anglia, Cumbria, Scotland and Wales. Those beers were very different - you'd never mistake Buckley's for Young's, or Dryburgh's for Tolly Cobbold - but two things they all had in common: they were brown and they were malty.

    In Manchester things were different. The pride of the city was the yellow, hoppy Boddington's Best; my local served the yellow, hoppy Hyde's Anvil. I tried seeking out Robinson's pubs, I tried switching to mild, but I soon realised I was fighting a losing battle: I was going to have to learn to like the Manchester pale style.

    It's taken a while, but I've just about managed it. So I agree with Gazza Prescott (July OT) on two things: there are a lot of these beers around at the moment, and some of them are very good. But I don't believe this style is anywhere near as new as Gazza suggests, and I don't believe it's "taking over the beer culture of the UK". Without looking particularly far afield, I've drunk big malty ales in 2010 from Allgates, Conwy, Dunham Massey, Moorhouse, Robinson's, Rooster, Titanic... the list goes on. And surely this is how it should be - the strength of British beer is its diversity.

    Gazza's "Mid-Atlantic" (I prefer "Manchester Pale") isn't a "golden revolution"; it's just one style among many, one that happens to be popular this year. Done well (Pictish) it's very nice indeed; pushed to extremes (Marble) it's interesting at worst, stunning at best; done badly (no names) it's bland as Budweiser. Hops have their place, but so does malt; brewers who forget this fact, in pursuit of the taste of 2010, could end up taking British beer up a flowery, lemony, smoky dead end.
    [ends]

    I wrote that before reading the full (online) version of Gazza's piece, in which he says

    The malt is here to give body, alcohol and a suggestion of flavour and not to balance the hops; if you have balance then there’s something wrong!

    which I think lets the cat out of the bag: the sense that the different flavours are in balance is precisely what I like in a beer, & I think almost all great beers have it, from Old Peculier to Summer Lightning. Not so much a "golden revolution" as a Hopheads' Manifesto, I think.

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  6. Good letter, Phil, and one I largely agree with.

    In this context, I rather liked these comments by Jeff Pickthall about the proudly malty Croglin Vampire:

    But the mouthfeel and flavour! What a treat! The phrase that sprung to mind was "a symphony of malt". Layer upon layer of nuanced malt loveliness revealed themselves with a sumptuous velvety mouthfeel. Very special.

    In a beer world in which shouty hop-bombs hog the limelight, malt complexity is frequently sidelined. Crog Vamp is a perfect reminder of the delights of malt.

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