Six Of The Best ?
Some Classic British Ales Revisited
"What two ideas are more inseperable than beer and Britannia?" - Sydney Smith
British Beer. Brown, warm and flat. This was apparently once the view of our American cousins, possibly due to the ice-cold fizziness of their adjunct laden pseudo-pilsners. Now however, both countries are producing wonderful, diverse and boundary-pushing brews. You only have to read some of my blog entries and particularly those of those on my 'Blog List' to the right hand side of the page to see that this is indeed correct.
It's a fascinating and exciting time to be drinking beer. New breweries, pubs and bars are opening all the time offering more choice and varieties than any of us can remember in our lifetimes. Twitter, facebook and various smartphone applications enable us to find out when and where new beers are released, and improved distribution means that some of the best are obtainable by more of us.
It doesn't seem that long ago that discovering such beers as Nethergate Old Growler and Hopback Summer Lightning were things that were shared excitedly amongst my beer-loving friends.
With so much choice it's sometimes easy to bypass some beers that were once favourites. Christmas at work means 'Secret Santa' and even though I may be the easiest person to buy for; "It's beer again. Fantastic!" , I have been given the opportunity, via the medium of a classic ales gift box from the Martson's stable, to revisit some beers that I haven't had for some time.
Enough of the nostalgia, lets get drinking those beers.
Brakspear Brewing Company - Brakspear Bitter 3.4%
It pours an amber-brown colour with a thin off-white head. The aroma has lots of yeast bread dough and is rather inviting. The initial bitterness on the tongue is replaced with a wash of caramel and maybe the merest hint of butterscotch, however the bitterness crashes back in quickly bringing a touch of raisin and some meatiness too. The finish is bitter and dry with a little fruity caramel in there for good measure.
This beer is refreshingly bitter, you may have picked up on that from the description, and lightly sweet. It's not bold or brash but that's the point, it's not trying to be however there's enough flavour here to keep you happy to the bottom of the glass. It's a satisfactory session bitter, and sometimes that's just what you need.
Marston's Brewery - E P A English Pale Ale 3.6%
Marston's PLC is in control of five 'traditional' breweries. If you don't know which they are then it's this one (its own in Burton On Trent) and beweries all the beers here which encompass this box are brewed. Its most famous beer is of course Pedigree, slightly sulphurous, fruity and malty, brewed in the 'Burton Union' oak casks. I fondly remember the 'Head Brewers Choice' range of ales from the nineties where a new and interesting beer was introduced seemingly each month, totalling forty-four different beers in all.
It is with these memories of Marston's beers that I take the bottle out of the box to find to my horror that it's in clear class. Not the best start, however as it has been kept in the dark I surmise, then it shouldn't affect the flavour. It pours a medium amber with a light, fluffy white head and there's not much of an aroma here, possibly some malty citrus but it's very slight. This is confirmed with a wash of watery malty citrus, followed up by ... well nothing really. The dry bitter finish reminds me of nothing better than a flat bitter shandy. The abv might be slightly higher than the previous beer but most of its flavour appears to have gone AWOL. More of an English Pale Imitation than an English Pale Ale sadly.
Banks's - Banks's Bitter 3.8%
Brewed at the Park Brewery in Wolverhampton, Banks & Co. started as a firm of maltsters in 1840, before moving into brewing in 1874. The bitter is billed as an 'easy drinking beer' although I've yet to see the session beer that claims to be difficult and challenging (although I'm sure Brewdog are working on it). It's quite a while since I've drunk this so I'm anxious for a sip.
It pours a very inviting darker gold/copper with a 'proper' bitter maliness, bold and bready, this is exactly as I remember it. The taste has a raisin and caramel bitterness, dry and cutting, scrubbing the tongue clean. The yeasty malt loaf comes through next leaving pleasingly lightly burnt toast finish.
Of the three beers I've had so far, this is probably the closest to being called a classic, if only for it's flavour. This is the taste I associate with an English Bitter and is a good example of the style.
Jennings - Cocker Hoop 4.2%
Founded in the village of Lorton on the edge of the Lake District in 1828, the brewery moved to Cockermouth in 1874. Acquired by Marston's PLC in 2005 the brewery claims that pure Lakeland water is still used for brewing, possibly in the same way that Coors uses pure Rocky Mountain spring water.
Cockerhoop is brewed using Styrian Golding hops, and derives the name from both its location on the banks of the River Cocker and Cock-a-Hoop the 'old custom' (their words) of removing the cock (or spigot) from a barrel and resting it on the hoop of a cask before a 'drinking bout'. No mention of the cockerel shown on the bottle but I suppose that imagery was too good to resist.
Pouring a light copper colour, not quite the golden suggested on the bottle, it has fluffy off-white head with a fruity cookie-dough aroma. A hint of bramble comes through which has a slightly metallic edge, but that isn't enough to kill the fruitiness. This is a beer that rewards a big gulp as some honey notes are revealed. The finish is dry and a little sweet, and I'm actually enjoying this more than I expected. It may not be the greatest beer in the world but it's very drinkable and possibly my favourite Jennings beer.
Ringwood Brewery - Fortyniner 4.9%
I first encountered Ringwood Brewery beers in the cathedral city of Winchester visiting my good friend and future best man, Mike Ratcliffe during his employment at King Alfreds College. There was a certain hotel bar, whose name escapes me, opposite the bus station that carried beers from Ringwood and Flowerpots, and rather good they were too, as were the kebabs nearby from what I recall. Good times.
A relatively new brewery, founded in 1978, with Fortyniner being one of its first brews. It was purchsed by Marstons in 2007 for £19.2 million, but production and the beer range so far remains unchanged.
It pours a dark amber with a thin white head and has a delicious malty toffee apple aroma. There's some caramel, fudge and toffee apple here too, although they're quite lightly accentuated in this pale beer. The finish is sweet and more-ish, and as delightful to drink as any in their range.
This is a genuinely good beer and it's nice to see it included here.
Wychwood Brewery - Hobgoblin 5.2%
This is the last beer in the box, and the highest in alcohol. It's also a beer that has some fond memories for me. When I first started seeing my future wife she was studying to be a teacher in Bath, and this meant frequent trips to the ex-county of Avon. One of the pubs we visted regularly, partly on account of its locality to her accomodation and partly as it kept its beer well and had decent guest beers, was the Hobgoblin.
Brewed with chocolate and crystal malt, and Styrian, Goldings and Fuggles hops, this is Wychwoods flagship beer. Sadly reduced in strength to 4.5% in the cask from the beer I used to drink in Bath, the bottle still packs a healthy 5.2% punch.
Pouring a deep ruby red with a medium beige head, there's some pleasing muddy toffee and vine fruit notes in the aroma. Coffee, raisin, toffee caramel and perhaps the mention of a little cabernet grape in the taste. The finish is fruity and rich, it's certainly not a beer you'd drink a lot of but it really is rather good.
I've rather enjoyed my diversion into the ghost of beers past. Of course, some or most of the beers in this selection don't really compare to the big flavoursome monsters that are being produced all over the country and all over the world right now, but what they do provide is, to me anyway, just as essential. The memories that they evoke of a time when cask beer in the UK was the only real alternative to bland fizzy lager are absolutely priceless. I formed many friendships over good, tasty beer many of which I still have, and was one of the things that my wife and I found we had in common at the pubs we both drank at. I'd like to thank my 'Secret Santa' (LJ) for buying me these beers. Cheers.