Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Emperor’s new beer

I’ve argued before that bottled ales of sub-5% strength gain nothing in practice from bottle-conditioning, and that the quality control of those produced by micro-breweries is so inconsistent that buying them is an unacceptable lottery. This was certainly the recent experience reported by Paul Bailey here. A couple of years ago I won a bottle of Marble Lagonda IPA at a CAMRA raffle which hadn’t cleared after two weeks’ storage and ended up being poured down the sink, which rather illustrates the problem.

To put this to the test, I recently bought three bottle-conditioned beers from local micro-breweries for sampling. I thought I should give the Lagonda IPA (5.0% ABV) another chance, and also went for Bollington Best and Wincle Sir Philip (both 4.2%).

Now, it must be said that none of these proved to be a disaster – they didn’t fob uncontrollably, and I was able to pour all three and get the beer in the glass either crystal clear or with only a slight haze. However, none exhibited the lively natural carbonation that I would expect if a beer had actually conditioned in the bottle, and all had a somewhat yeasty flavour that I find offputting in a beer. Although the haziest of the three, the Lagonda IPA was the best, with a strong hop flavour trying to get out as well, whereas the Sir Philip was very lacklustre and forgettable.

So personally, the idea of getting a bottle of flattish, slightly murky beer with a yeasty flavour that I have to be very careful pouring doesn’t really appeal, and so to me such beers are actually inferior to the better brewery-conditioned ones. This reinforces my view that, in seeking to promote bottle-conditioning as a superior option for everyday drinking beers, CAMRA is very much barking up the wrong tree. Even to the discerning customer, it’s just not worthwhile. It’s a case of the Emperor’s new clothes. It does, though, work better for stronger special beers over 5%.

In comparison, I recently had a bottle of Worthington White Shield which, while still a bit sweeter than I would like, had the yeast stay stuck to the bottom of the bottle and demonstrated good carbonation and a dense, rocky head. The same was true of the two from Wells & Youngs that I tried last year, although regrettably I’ve not seen the Special London Ale in local outlets recently.


  1. Borrowed from here, though. I hope he doesn't mind. Looks a bit cloudy in the picture.

  2. No, he doesn't mind at all ;)
    It wasn't that cloudy, poor lighting more like, tasted great though i thought.

  3. I agree. some bottle-conditioned beers just don't seem to work. I always struggle with Burton Bridge's beers - lovely beer, but the conditioning always ends up ruining them. I've just enjoyed a couple of Durham's beers, which were conditioned perfectly; but who knows next time? It's a strange beast.

  4. I haven't tried Worthingtom White Shield recently, but after reading your comments Curmudgeon, would be willing to give it a go, especially as you say the yeast stays stuck to the bottom of the bottle.

    Fuller's 1845 is one of the few other BCA's I would now buy.

  5. The Young's Special London Ale was also very good, I thought. Their London Gold looked good, and was well-conditioned, but was disappointingly bland. I've also found Shepherd Neame 1698 pretty good, though I know you're not a Sheps' fan, Paul.

  6. someone commented on my review of a Durham beer that they seem to be a brewery that have got BC beers always just right, and i certainly haven't had a bad one yet from them.

  7. I totally agree that much standard strength bottle conditioned beer is dross.
    I'd single out Coniston Bluebird as a exception. I've often found it better than the cask version. As others have stated Durham make great bottles beers. Their stronger ales are as good as the best Belgian abbey beers. Fuller's have become experts at bottle conditioning and I drank a superb Pitfield 1837 IPA last week.

  8. May have been me, Arn. And if it wasn't I wholeheartedly agree with them! Fullers, too, but there aren't many BCAs that I will buy more than once. I've never had a problem with Marble ones, though.

  9. What on earth do you do with your bottles to make them play up like this? Admittedly I have a nive cold damp cellar to keep them in but I hardy ever have these problems - Marble in particliar are usually spectacular performers in bottle. Hard some Hardknott Infra Red and Dark Matter the other week and they were spot on, too. Also recently tried was Hornbeam Lemon Blossom (which is decidedly sesion strength) and again absolutley bang on.

    My guess is you are storing these badly and then blaming the product when the fault lies elsewhere.

  10. "My guess is you are storing these badly and then blaming the product when the fault lies elsewhere."

    Aha, it can't be the product, it must be you. Your car keeps breaking down, Sir, you must be driving it wrong.

    I think not, when numerous other people have reported the same issue of "BCA roulette".

    Admittedly, these bottles had only been stored between 30 and 50 hours, but if you're meant to wait a week before sampling them it's not exactly going to encourage people to try the category. And, as I said, I have not had the same problem with some BCAs (generally from the more established brewers) so I would say the problem undoubtedly lies with the product.

  11. Hmm, I think they could have done with a bit more storage - and where idd you keep them exactly? I also find that half an hour or so's frdge chilling prevents most volcanic activity from thos ebeers that are prone to it (Giradin Oude Gueuze (Black Label, natuurlijk) is notorious for its eruptions if not sufficiently chilled down)

    By the way - while I certainly don't share your generally poor experience of BCAs I do wholeheartedly agree that CAMRA has become far too fixated on this and I still fail entirely to see the point with a, say, 3.4% mild subjected to bottle conditioning. As I psoted on a CAMRA forum "bottled beer doesn't need bits in to be any good" - although many of them are.

  12. I agree with John Clarke, you are all clearly members of Dickie's ignorami. It is people like you lot that mean Dickie cannot get a BCA on a train journey. Chemical Fizz, the lot of it!

  13. @John: They were stored upright in a cool, dark cupboard that is significantly below room temperature. And condition, not clarity, was the chief problem. I think many British brewers of BCAs try to replicate the cask beer experience rather than setting out to produce something with the typical condition of a Belgian one, and just end up producing beer that is, well, flat. A bottle-conditioned beer is actually meant to condition in the bottle; it isn't meant to be just a very lightly carbonated brewery-conditioned beer with some gunge in the bottom.

    Most people will buy bottled beers for consumption within 72 hours, if not immediately, not for laying down, and so if you are suggesting that BCAs really need to be stored for at least a week before drinking them that is a massive deterrent for the category. (And that's never going to be achievable on a train)

    I'm quite willing to give it another go, so if you would like to obtain three British BCAs of your choosing (for which I will obviously reimburse you) then I will store them for at least a week and then give you my verdict.

  14. I don't buy bottled conditioned ales very often (so I'm no expert), but I've never had much of a problem. And I expect them to be drinkable as soon as they're clear in the unopened bottle. I don't want to be waiting for 3 days.

  15. To be honest, the crap ones I've had have very often been ones won in CAMRA raffles :-|

  16. Had a lot of trouble with BC beers.

    Good tasting non-BC's are always better company of an evening, due to their more acutely refined table manners, and it also turns out that very few of my top rated beers are served up in this way.

    Many bottle conditioned beers are excellent, just like many beers which are not bottle conditioned are excellent.

    There are always greater forces at work in a good ale.

  17. Personally, I don't much get the fuss about clarity. It's just one thing that suggests a beer may be drinkable - and is plausibly the thing that has led to extremely clear rubbish taking over the beer market. Probably aka cheap lager. There are some gorgeous cloudy beers, does abit of murk and haze matter ???

  18. @Anon - the liking for clear beer goes back well before the large scale introduction of lager in the UK. I make no apology for taking the view that I want my beer to appeal to the eyes as well as the taste buds, and therefore I expect beers that are not deliberately brewed to be in a cloudy style to be crystal clear.

    9 times out of 10, cloudiness in British bitters and pale ales indicates there is something seriously wrong.

    Not to mention the "spending all day on the bog" factor if consuming the yeast. Some of the old boys who used to drink White Shield would deliberately tip the sediment into the glass because of its laxative properties ;-)

  19. Our local supermarket has been stocking Bengal Lancer, Special London and Brakspear Triple for a while how. Three perfect BCAs. No reason to chose anything else down the ale aisle.


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