Sunday, 15 August 2010

Fear of flavour

My local Hydes pub recently had Marble Manchester Bitter on as a guest beer, and it’s no exaggeration to say it was possibly the best pint of beer I’ve drunk this year. I’ve expressed scepticism before as to whether wall-to-wall hops are necessarily a good thing, but this was a superb example of a pale and uncompromisingly hoppy beer that at the same time had an underlying malt balance. It’s often said that brewers of widely-available beers have to some extent dumb them down so that they don’t shock drinkers’ palates, but is that really true? Would Manchester Bitter fall flat on its face if presented as the staple “ordinary bitter” in a tied estate of 500 pubs? Actually, I don’t think so – rather I suspect offering such a distinctive, high-quality brew would enhance the owning brewery’s reputation.

It tends to be put down as an inevitable consequence of growing older and more cynical, but I genuinely believe that most widely-available cask beers have become blander over the past thirty years. In particular, back in those days, the North-West bitters produced by Boddingtons, Holts and Yates & Jackson were often genuinely, uncompromisingly bitter in a way only a few micro beers are today. Yet those were the staple beers in pubs frequented by ordinary folk, not beer buffs. Yates & Jackson is now only a memory, Boddingtons a pale, transplanted shadow of its former self and Holts, while still an excellent beer when on form, falls much more into the category of having a good balance of malt and hops. In an age when the default pint of choice has become cooking lager, might it actually help brewers’ sales if they introduced more individuality into their regular cask beers?


  1. I think you're absolutely right and I'd add the late lamented Walkers Bitter to your list.

    I see a lot of beers such as Black Sheep or Theakstons Best as guests and they are just so unappealing. There's not much wrong with them but neither is there much right.

    I suppose Ind Coope Burton Ale might be proof of your point. That was a well-hopped beer that became popular very quickly but then suffered the twin ills of going into pubs that couldn't be bothered to keep it properly and being produced by a company that had no idea what to do with it.

  2. You are absolutely right - I think too many (most, all?) of the family brewers consistently under-estimate what people will drink if they are given the opportunity. As we both know may of these firms (or at least their brewers) are too concerned with "balance" which too often comes across as dull or bland.

    You will have seen the article and editorial in the July edition of "Opening Times".

  3. To paraphrase someone rather nasty, "when I hear the word "balance" I reach for my revolver.

  4. Hydes best,cant fault it,would'nt
    mind sinking a jug or eight in a
    nice traditional lively tavern
    within staggering distance of
    Oldham South.Lively I said,I
    wont hold my breath.

    The Grim Drinker

  5. There's a fine balance between making something for a mass audience and retaining individuality. Sadly, not many widely-available beers are a bit uninteresting (although, when caught in perfect condition they can be fantastic).

    Manchester Bitter is excellent and I'd love it to be more widely available but at the same time the fact that I only drink a couple of times a year adds something to the overall impression of it - a rariety, an excitement at finding it.

    I've had a blog in draft for months about things needing to be inoffensive in Britain to succeed, whether it's beer, music or food. If brewers were more individual then they may be compromising their regular drinkers who may then look elsewhere, alternatively they may turn drinkers around to something different... Fine line stuff.

  6. I too can remember how good (and distinct) Boddingtons and Holts Bitters were in their heyday, and Yates & Jackson for that matter.

    In this neck of the woods, Sheps once fitted into this category as well, but these days it's dull and boring and a pale shadow of the uncompromisingly bitter beer it once was. We are fortunate though, to still have Harveys in this area; a beer that whilst undoubtedly malty in character, still doesn't skimp on the hops.

  7. Yes, I remember when Sheps', while not to everyone's taste, did have a very pronounced hop character. It still does to some extent.

    I've sung the praises of Harveys before and would say that nowadays it is a strong contender for being the leading example of the classic English bitter.

    I'm not advocating that every beer should be a hop-bomb, but that mainstream beers could be more distinctive.

  8. went into an old local of mine as a new landlady took over the pub this week.gobsmacked to find Summer Marble on tap and bottled Manchester bitter.her dad is mates with the owner of the brewery.Marble comes to London.i love it.

  9. There's a nice symmetry between your post and that of Matt Gorecki, manager of Leeds' North Bar.

  10. At the risk of provoking Tandleman, I think balance is a necessity (even if some brewers use 'balance' as a codeword for 'play it safe'). An out-of-balance beer is a novelty at best, undrinkable at worst. The brewers at the Marble have actually told me they aim to strike a balance between malt and hops (although I think their idea of balance is closer to my idea of 'drown out the malt' - but then, I like Black Sheep).

    I thought that Gazza Prescott OT article was incredibly tendentious, as well as missing out a lot of the history that you guys have just filled in. Further thoughts on it here.

  11. "I genuinely believe that most widely-available cask beers have become blander over the past thirty years"

    It's also a biological fact that your senses of smell and taste decline in sensitivity as you get older; that may be the explanation.

  12. Brian - I'm well aware of that, which is why I hedged my statement. But, on the other hand, some beers do still come across to me as highly distinctive, whereas others don't. For example, JW Lees Bitter, while no "extreme beer", when well kept still has a very individual and recognisable flavour.


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