Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Aspiring to greatness

My recent post about Samuel Smith’s led to a discussion about where their Old Brewery Bitter should be ranked against its competitors. Some, including me, took the view that, while maybe not “best in class”, it was a good, distinctive beer that easily stood comparison with others in the category, while others didn’t really think it was up to much. But that raises a wider question as to whether an “ordinary bitter” can ever really be judged to be a “great beer”.

I’ve argued in the past that ordinary bitter, as a category, is perhaps the single greatest achievement of British brewing, managing to combine a huge amount of character, flavour and variety into something that, by international standards, is untypically low in strength. But, by definition, it’s intended as an everyday quaffing beer for having a couple of pints at lunchtime without writing off the rest of the day, or an evening session in the pub that still leaves you reasonably clear-headed the following morning. It’s not meant to be an exotic show pony for sniffing, sipping and holding up to the light. So can any examples really be considered amongst the greats of the beer world?

In the past, the original Boddingtons Bitter was widely regarded as the cream of the crop, although that was thirty-five years ago or more, and the beer was dumbed down by Boddingtons well before it was sold to Whitbread. It often seemed that unusually pale bitters gained more attention, possibly because they stood out from the crowd – the late lamented Yates & Jackson Bitter was another in the same category, as was the original Theakston’s. Thirty years ago, Leeds-brewed Tetley bitter was widely respected as a distinctive pint. In the south, Young’s was often seen as the definitive crisp, quaffable, hoppy “ordinary”, while Brakspear’s from Henley-on-Thames was the ideal bittersweet, slightly earthy country bitter.

But all of those are beers that have either disappeared completely or have lost something by being switched to other owners and other plants. Which ordinary bitters stand out amongst those currently available? The one that immediately springs to mind is Harvey’s of Lewes, which many see as a perfect balance of malt and hops, although I have to say when I lived in the South-East in the early 80s it wasn’t really seen as that special, with King & Barnes being more highly regarded. Batham’s is often mentioned the same breath, but at 4.3% it really belongs in the same category as Robinson’s Unicorn as a best bitter sold as an ordinary.

Beyond that, Adnams, Hook Norton, Batemans and Taylor’s Boltmaker all receive many plaudits. The Manchester area has always been regarded as a stronghold of ordinary bitter. Of the current family brewers, Lees are currently enjoying a purple patch, and I have always regarded Robinson’s Unicorn (although really a “best”) as a fine beer. So is its newer stablemate Wizard, although I can imagine some spluttering at the suggestion that it qualified as great. Holt’s, while still a decent pint when well-kept, never really comes close to the wonderfully bitter brew of thirty years ago, while Hydes has always been a bit second-division, along with the Burtonwoods and Everard’s Beacons of this world. And I like OBB, although others don’t so much.

Many of the new-wave breweries made their name through producing premium ales, but beers such as Butcombe Bitter and Woodforde’s Wherry established strong local reputations, and more recently Leeds Pale has become almost ubiquitous in the bars of its home city. Beers such as Marble Pint and Dark Star Hophead represent distinctly modern hop-forward interpetations of the style, and across the country a popular “ordinary” from a local micro has often replaced the big brewers’ offerings in its own area. A good example of this is Stonehouse Station Bitter, which is widely found in North-West Shropshire and across the border into Wales. And there are many others from both established and new breweries that there isn’t space to mention.

It’s worth pointing out that the ubiquitous Doom Bar, while presented as a premium ale, is only 4.0% on draught and so really should be considered as an “ordinary”. And, while Golden Ales are often presented as an entirely new category, what are they doing that Stones Bitter didn’t in the 70s? If they fall within the appropriate strength range, they’re ordinary bitters, regardless of what it says on the pumpclip.

While its market share has been eroded in recent years by the rise of widely-distributed premium best bitters such as London Pride, Bombardier and Wainwright, ordinary bitter (defined broadly as any beers between 3.4% and 4.0% ABV in the gold-amber-copper colour spectrum) probably still accounts for half of all cask beer drunk in the UK, and undoubtedly more if you extend the definition to include keg ales too. But it still tends to be regarded as something of a poor relation against more fashionable, stronger and more heavily-promoted beers.

So can any beers in this category truly be regarded as great, or are they all well, just a bit “ordinary”?

33 comments:

  1. I tend to agree with you about ordinary bitter, although sadly there are far more mediocre examples available than high quality examples, which rather dispels from the impression.

    I prefer the paler, hoppier class of ordinary bitters myself - although excellent examples of a the more variable malty style also exist. Stonehouse Station bitter is a good example.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I don't even think OBB is great judged within the parameters of its style. (We've already established that we disagree about this, though...) Chiswick Bitter is a great bitter and, I think, a great beer -- it's got more obvious leafy English hop character (without being citrusy) which sets it above the competition. I do struggle to think of others off the top of my head, though, because so many have lost the distinctive yeast character which made them different, or have become less bitter. I enjoy Bass but I'd enjoy it a lot more if it was just given a *slight* buff and polish.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We had a keg of Chiswick Bitter at one of my local pubs over here in VA last year, I had a single pint and it was watery, flaccid, and made me wish I hadn't bothered. I am fairly sure that the combination of being colder than penguins' feet and not cask conditioned was a major driver in my reaction, but presenting great beers like Chiswick in this way really does nothing to make people think that ordinary bitter can be fantastic.

      Delete
    2. And Fullers have now stopped brewing Chiswick as a permanent beer :-(

      Bass isn't remotely an "ordinary bitter", of course.

      How about St Austell Trelawney?

      Delete
    3. IMHO Trelawney is not a patch on Tinners, the 3.7 bitter which it replaced. I may be biased because I have find memories of Tinners from my youth, but even in its last days it was still a very good pint at pubs like the Yacht and Dolphin in Penzance; typically it would be my first pint when visiting home.
      Skinners beers are not to everyone's taste but Betty Stogs to me is a more interesting ordinary bitter than either Trelawney or Doom Bar.

      Delete
    4. Trelawney never really did it for me but, anyway, it's either gone or on the outs, usurped by Cornish Best which is much more Tinners-y. I quite like that but it is just brown and bitter, rather like Butcombe, and there's not a lot a else there to grab the attention.

      Delete
    5. Cornish is only 3.5 and is pretty thin to me. They still brew both brands but I agree there's no room for both, especially with Tribute, ProperJob and HSD all also available in cask.
      Interestingly on their website St Austell describe both Cornish and Trelawney as "best bitters " which seems a bit of a liberal definition.
      In my youth Tinners was augmented by BB (boys'bitter or bosun's bitter depending on who you listened to) at about 3.2, I think.

      Delete
  3. When I was home in the summer I was thrilled to find Young's Bitter on draft in Inverness, and well kept at that, so it was a magnificent few pints sheltering from a rain shower kind of beer. An 'ordinary' bitter that would probably never go by that name but meets most of the style markers, perhaps except the use of New World hops, is Cromarty Brewing's Atlantic Drift, a simply glorious beer.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'd say the sign of a great beer is that you immediately want another pint - something ordinaries and bests do better than most.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ordinary bitters never do well in homebrew competitions either, probably for similar reasons. It's almost taken as read that you'll never win anything with one. The attitude seems to be that they're inherently boring, and if there is something interesting about them then it's not to style.

    ReplyDelete
  6. CAMRA should campaign to bring back the term "bitter" and do away will all these piss poor names "ale" is given nowadays.

    Lets go back to asking for pints of best bitter and seeing pumpclips with best bitter on them.

    ReplyDelete
  7. As you say, Batham's Best Bitter is too strong to qualify. But I'd also go out of my way for it's near neighbour - Holden's Black Country Bitter (3.9%).

    ReplyDelete
  8. 4% is a bit of an arbitrary limit anyway - if you wanted to distinguish between everyday session beers and something a bit stronger (that you might steer clear of if driving home, for example), I would put it at 4.5% myself.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's all academic, HairyPie, cask ale won't exist in 5 years. Let them faff with drawing lines between different ABVs of brown swill, whilst craft keg takes over the world.

      Delete
    2. That's satire/sarcasm, right?

      Because a lot of drinkers are now realising that many craft kegs (not all) are basically alcopops for people who don't like beer.

      Delete
    3. @py - 4.5% is the upper limit of 'session' beer in the US, much to the chagrin of some. If it were 4% there would be practically nothing to drink!

      Delete
  9. My opinion is the English bitter is one of the greatest of beer styles. Especially on cask. Subtle and well balanced. Only the lagers in Bamberg and the best of the Belgians rate as highly for me. To describe them as boring completely misses their strengths.

    ReplyDelete
  10. A few more unfashionable-but-good examples: Jennings, McMullens Country, Hobson's Best.

    ReplyDelete
  11. My cask beer of choice is Northumbrian Blonde from Mordue. It's more hoppy and golden than most established bitters but has a good malt balance and some sweentness. It's brewed by a man in a white coat who went to university to learn how to brew and who understands drinkability and moreishness. I've heard beard club people criticise it for being a bit ordinary but I'd say that's the whole point. It flies off the bar either way.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Personally, I think Hawkshead's Bitter and Wye Valley Bitter are great modern brewery examples of ordinary (session) bitter. Neither are my favourite beer within their ranges, but there is still plenty of time in our lives for a good everyday brown bitter and it will be a sad day when breweries phase these out. They are, as mentioned above, very difficult to get right consistently and all the more reason to appreciate them

    ReplyDelete
  13. As the landlord in Hoyland's Furnace said "There’s nowt such thing as bad beer, it’s just they that keep it that spoil it". I've had what I'd judge great examples (NBSS 4.5 if you like) of all the beers you mention (except the Yates & J) at least once, and could tell you where and when (Fullers Chiswick in Holly Bush, Potters Crouch '97). More often they come across as OK to good. Last year I had an OK pint of the Harveys in Lewes and a great pint of it in Hailsham on the same day. I can't remember a great pint of Wherry ever.

    Martin Taylor

    ReplyDelete
  14. Acorn Barnsley Bitter from over the Pennines fits the bill, when you can get it!

    Robbies, Holts, Hydes and Lees can't be beaten for "ordinary" beer in my opinion. Tetley was great in its day as was Boddies, Thwaites used to be a real treat but it isn't now!

    ReplyDelete
  15. You can’t beat Harvey’s Sussex Best; although at 4.0% does it qualify as an ordinary bitter?

    You mention King & Barnes, Mudge, and refer to their bitter as being highly regarded. I disagree with this description; especially after the company expanded too quickly. They spent a significant amount of cash in enlarging their town-centre brewery in Horsham, which was to the detriment of their formerly excellent ordinary bitter.

    For reasons best known to themselves, the company messed around with the make-up of the bitter, altering its colour and its balance. When I first drank the beer, it was known as Horsham PA, and was a superb example of an “ordinary” quaffing southern bitter. It was significantly paler in colour, and much hoppier, than its later incarnation as “Sussex Bitter”.

    It might sound sacrilege to many, but I was overly concerned when it disappeared.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. King and Barnes were bought out by Hall and Woodhouse of Badger Beer fame, who changed the recipes to make them fit in with their own line- i.e brewed from mud, sticks and river water. They then phased the King and Barnes beers out, but presume they kept the tied pubs.

      Delete
    2. It was reported that King & Barnes were in financial difficulties at the time, and more or less invited a takeover. The beers had gone downhill IMO, before the takeover.

      Apart from First Gold, I don’t rate Hall & Woodhouse beers at all. You are correct that they carried on brewing K&B beers for a while, but how can you have a beer called Sussex Bitter which is brewed in Dorset?

      Delete
    3. My comments on King & Barnes refer to the early 80s, when I was a member of Surrey/Hants Borders CAMRA. Certainly we *did* rate K&B highly back then, as we did Gales, until they had the yeast infection in 1984. And Youngs was better regarded than Fullers. Harveys was just another small second-division family brewer on a par with the likes of Elgoods, and definitely not seen as the classic that it now is.

      Hall & Woodhouse now don't supply their cask beers outside their own tied estate so I never get to try them. I do have fond memories of drinking cask Tanglefoot, though.

      Delete
  16. A great bitter (whether ordinary or best) is as grand and valid a beer drinking experience as a great gueuze/hop-bomb IPA/weizenbock/whatever. It's a subtler pleasure of course but savouring a lovely glass of Marble Pint in a cosy pub with a book can be a transcendental experience. Through in a roaring fire and a lazy old pub cat/dog and you're approaching a berry Nirvana. Most beer geeks, craft or otherwise, would agree.

    Fact is though, there is undeniably (as has been discussed ad nauseam recently) a surfeit of crap cask bitter out there giving the style a bad name. Hence the perceived snobbishness toward the style as a whole from craft nerds like me.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Branscombe Branoc, Palmers Copper Ale, Elgoods Cambridge Bitter, Black Sheep Bitter deserve a mention too. Banks's Bitter can be very good on home turf. Coah & Horses, Denton used to serve a stunning pint of Marston's Burton Bitter, but I have found it disappointing elsewhere.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Sam Smiths OBB, one of The best session beers I've ever had!, when well kept, and I do know how to keep it!!, otherwise I wouldn't have received a handwritten letter from Mr Humphrey Smith praising my cellarmanship"I tried a glass of your wooden cask old brewery bitter, it tasted quite excellent, the best I have ever had it" HRW Smith , September 2009.
    Kind of proves the point that it's mostly down to poor cellar practice where a 'duff' pint's concerned .

    ReplyDelete
  19. By sheer coincidence, our branch meeting was at the Whipping Stocks in Over Peover. Lovely pub and chance to try OBB. It started off fine but ultimately disappointed. Bollington Best is a far better bitter IMO. Maybe gone a little too far with the cheap price of £1.90. However, as this is the first time in a SS pub in a good while, I was intrigued by the other non-cask offerings esp. the bottled stuff. Their business model still amuses me.

    ReplyDelete
  20. That was probably the busiest the Whipping Stocks has been for years. I used to drive past it several times a week and it seldom had more than 2or 3 cars in the car park. A draughty soulless pub and a series of disinterested landlords.

    ReplyDelete
  21. @Rob Nicholson
    The Sam's fruit beers are an interesting oddity (base beer is brewed in a small steam brewery near ?Huntingdon? then go up the A1 for the fruit). The cherry is very marzipanny, I don't like marzipan but if you like cherry Bakewell then you'll like it; the apricot is not very apricotty but well balanced, good for summer; surprisingly the strawberry was probably my favourite - surprisingly dry and more alpine strawberries-y than the usual jammy mess.

    I'm not really into fruit beers but if you want a beer that tastes of fruit (as opposed to things like Plum Porter where it's just part of the mix) and/or you need beer for a teenage girl, then it's one of the better British ones I've encountered. Say up there with Coach House Blueberry, if not quite as good as Titanic Raspberry Wheat.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Sam's fruit beers are brewed at their place in Stamford Lincolnshire

      Delete

Comments, especially on older posts, may be subject to prior approval. Bear with me – I may be in the pub.

Please be polite and remember to play the ball, not the man.

Any obvious trolling, offensive or blatantly off-topic comments will be deleted.

See this post for some thoughts on my approach to blog comments.