Monday 29 August 2011

Not so ordinary

Back in the 1970s, most British brewers just produced Mild (at around 1033 OG) and Bitter (at around 1038 OG). Choice, and a contrast in flavours, was achieved by switching between brewers, not within an individual brewer’s range. There were a handful of premium beers, such as Ruddles County, Marstons Pedigree and Wadworths 6X, and these got the recognition as the beers you would go out of your way to sample. Inevitably, these beers gained a reputation and became the standard-bearers of the “real ale revival”. The fact that they had memorable brand names rather than just being “Bloggs’ Bitter” must have helped.

But times change, and recently we have seen a number of brewers reducing the strength of these “premium beers” because they were felt to be too strong for the current climate of sobriety and health obsession.

However, rather than doing this, shouldn’t the brewers be doing more to promote their classic “ordinary bitters” in the 3.5-4.0% ABV strength band? These beers, which manage to extract huge depths of flavour and character from a very modest, quaffable strength, are surely the most distinctive achievement of British brewing, and cover a vast spectrum of colour, flavour and character.

Locally, Robinson’s Unicorn at 4.2% is a bit too strong to qualify, but both Holts and Lees bitters are excellent brews when in good condition. Just considering the family brewers, a selection of Timothy Taylors Bitter, Batemans XB, Adnams Southwold Bitter, Harveys Sussex Best and Hook Norton wouldn’t disgrace any bar. I used to love Brakspear’s when brewed in Henley, but have not had enough of the Wychwood version to be able to judge it.

Incidentally, I was recently surprised to learn that Robinson’s are now selling more of the pale, somewhat hoppy 3.8% Dizzy Blonde than their traditional mainstay, the 4.2% Unicorn. Dizzy Blonde was originally just produced as a seasonal beer but has now become their best seller. Initially it was a bit bland, but more recently it has gained more hop character and is now, when well-kept, an enjoyable beer.


  1. Totally agree. Hobson's Mild at 3% is one of the best beers I've ever tried. Otter Bitter at 3.6% Most of the smaller breweries produce something at 3.5 to 4% which is well worth drinking (just remembered Dark Star Hophead at 3.8%; wonderful)
    Also, these beers give the lie to the oft-quoted "statistic" (ie Daily Mail made-up factoid) that "drinks are getting stronger". In what way is a 3.8% bitter today stronger than a 3.8% bitter 20 years ago?

  2. Martin, Cambridge29 August 2011 at 17:19

    Do try the new Brakspears - in several pubs in the Oxon/Berks borders I've had some wonderful pints recently, tasting well above it's 3.4%. Best lower strength beer I've tasted is still Brewdog Edge (3.2%), though admittedly that was in a couple of exceptional pubs.

  3. I have tried the new Brakspear's and been quite impressed, but you always have an inbuilt suspicion of beers that have been "rehomed" in this way. Obviously a 3.4% Southern-brewed "balanced" bitter is unlikely to be a favourite in the Manchester area free trade, so I don't see it very often.

    Had I gone on to listing beers from new breweries, I could have added Marble Manchester Bitter, Yates's Bitter, Copper Dragon Best Bitter, Butcombe, Woodforde's Wherry and Dark Star Hophead, amongst others.

  4. interesting your comments about Dizzy Blonde changing to ahoppier beer, I just thought that it was in better condition, but come to think of it, I can see you are right. Makes a nice change from Unicorn , which in quamtity now seems to give me a headache next day.


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