Thursday, 28 March 2019

Whatever Happened To Light and Bitter?


    Whatever Happened To Light and Bitter?    

This might seem like an exercise in nostalgia, and to some extent I guess it is, but sometimes, just sometimes, it's worth pausing and reflecting on where you've come from and what made you who you are.

You might recall that I started this journey around this time last year with this admittedly self-indulgent post on some of the pubs I visited when I was growing up. It's a theme I'll come back to as there are a many more places that I'd like to revisit, some of which I know have changed for the better, and some I suspect for the worse. In more than a quarter of a century (actually it's thirty plus years in some places) it's fairly unlikely that things will be as I remember them, or even if they ever were.

In a way I suppose we're all searching for the familiar and the comforting as much as we're also searching for the new and the exciting, a touchstone, an anchor, that enables us to enjoy new experiences and tastes without venturing too far outside of our comfort zone. We apply this to ourselves in beer all the time: the new beer in a pub you know well; picking a beer from a brewery you know or have heard of; doing some online research prior to going to a new taproom, town, city, or country; asking for advice and recommendations; looking at reviews. These are our comfort blankets, and although the thrill of finding somewhere new or undiscovered, particularly in a different country is undeniable, we know that when we get home we'll still have our safe places, the ones where we know we can relax in comfort.

Back in the late 1980s, certainly between 1986 and 1988, the years of my O-levels and A-levels, that place was the Hinds Head in Dagenham, a mere stumble down the hill from Chadwell Heath station. It's been closed for over ten years now, and I gather it's in the process of being converted into flats, but for around three years this was the place I'd meet up with my friends on a Saturday night to drink light and bitter and play snooker, pool, and occasionally darts.

This was, for all of us I think (we numbered around six to eight most weekends), our first introduction to pubs without our parents. The Hinds Head had been converted into a pub by Whitbread in the early 1950s when it had previously been a social club, and as a consequence had a large games room at the back where we were mainly left alone, all the serious drinking going on in the main bars to the front.

Light and Bitter, that magical drink that meant you always got more than a pint for your money. I wish I could remember exactly why we started drinking it, because I don't think it was for that reason, although we certainly appreciated it, but I have a real feeling it was on the recommendation of the barman, always the same one in the back room, who wanted to keep us in check by making sure we 'watered down' our beer.

  We used to feel quite grown up I recall, not sophisticated though, that was never our intention, although this must seem simply archaic to those who've never experienced this drink as to many of the newer beer drinkers it probably brings to mind black and white images of men in flat caps and tweed jackets nestled around tables carefully nursing a pint with a bottle of light ale perched alongside. Someone's playing a piano in the corner too.

For those unfamiliar with this drink, Light and Bitter is, as you might expect, a half of Bitter (usually a bit more, three quarters wasn't uncommon) served in a pint glass or mug with a bottle of Light Ale as an accompaniment. This was to be mixed as you saw fit, either in measured stages but more usually as half the bottle, taking it almost to the top, and the other half when you were down to the half pint level again.
  This drink is also known as a Light and Ordinary in some parts, particularly in the Young's pub I drank in when I started work in London's East End, the Ordinary being Young's Bitter as opposed to Young's Special. The Light Ale was from Young's as well, although when I was drinking it back in the Hinds Head it was all Whitbread Bitter and, of course, Whitbread Light Ale.

I couldn't remember the last time I saw anybody order or drink a Light and Bitter in any pub I was in for at least ten years, so I put out a request on Twitter to see if anyone still drunk it, anywhere was still serving it, or if anyone had any memories of drinking it.

My first port of call were Boak and Bailey although my question to them was around Light Ale specifically and whether they still saw it on their travels.
They replied:
"Yes, every now and then, especially in Young's pubs. The Titanic in Southampton had it the other week too, Courage branded. No apparent rule as to where it crops up. We'd guess it has to do with nostalgic landlords  and/or a handful of older customers who get through a case every six months or so."

When I put the main question to a wider audience the first to reply was Pub culture vulture who echoed my experiences:
"I still drink it. Introduced to it in the early 90s when I moved to London. It's a 'value' beer, not least because you used to get slightly more than a pint."
Times have changed though, as he went on:
"It was always Young's bitter and either their light ale or Whitbread's. Everywhere seems to pour the bitter into a half pint glass first now, but there are still a few pubs where they don't do that. I used to judge how good a pub was by how much bitter they poured into a pint."

Carsmile Steve:
"I have it when I visit the Shakespeare's Head behind Saddler's Well because: a. They know what one is, and b. There's only so many pints of straight Courage Best I can deal with."

Bacchanalian:
"Old timers were still drinking it in the late nineties / early noughties in the social club I used to work in. Not many though."

Nigel Hillpaul:
"I started drinking it is pubs as it was good value.
I can remember going to a strange pub and asking for one, only to be told: "We don't serve cocktails"."

Rodger Molyneux let me know a few places that he frequents that still sell it, The Leather Bottle in Blackmore, Essex, and not too far from me still serve it , although only two customers still drink it, and Tom Ray  suggested that it's a good way of livening up a tired cask (beer) ... particularly Greene King IPA.

With all this information what I really needed to do was go and find some for myself, to see if it was a drink best left in the past or whether it was actually relevant, particularly to me, in this day and age. I had a few days off work due, so I decided that this was when I would seek it out, reasoning that a Young's pub would probably be my best bet.

My first attempt was at Old Tom's Bar in Leadenhall Market, but this was thwarted by the fact that even though they had plenty of bottles of Light Ale in the fridge they didn't have any suitable Bitter to pair with it. It was probably the only day of the year that they didn't have any Young's Bitter but that was the day I chosen.

Undeterred I knew I had another day out to come and, of course, on this occasion I was finally able to try it again.

The Town of Ramsgate in Wapping was the fourth and final pub to visit on my walk along the Thames River Path, The Grapes, The Grapes, The Prospect of Whitby, and the Captain Kidd being the other three, and I was delighted to find that they had both Young's Bitter on cask and bottles of Light Ale, Young's of course, in the fridge. I was even more delighted by the measure of Bitter I was poured when I first asked for it, and if you want to know why then you only have to look at the first picture in this post.

There were plenty of diners towards the rear of the pub so I made my way to the front where I could be alone with my treasure. I took a tentative sip of the Bitter before adding the Light Ale, its glorious copper colour seemingly glowing in the light streaming through the window. This was my moment, and I took a deep pull on the pint before me. Smooth and refreshing, the bitterness of the Young's Bitter dialed back slightly by the Light Ale. The maltiness comes through and lingers long into the finish, but it's not harsh, reminding me of nothing more than a soft and crumbly golden digestive biscuit. I had drunk nearly half by now, so I took the time to do what it possibly the best thing about this drink; I topped up my pint with more light ale until it was full again, enabling both to savour the taste all over again and transport me back to those nights some thirty-odd years ago in the back room of a pub in Dagenham, listening to the clink of snooker balls striking each other and the distant thud of darts into a dartboard.

11 comments:

  1. When I was a novice drinker, "brown over bitter", i.e. the same only with brown ale, was pretty common in the North-West. Indeed it was the first pint I ever had in a pub. I think the young lads chose it because they saw the older blokes ordering it. However, since the draught beer was usually on meters, you wouldn't get any overmeasure.

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  2. Thank you for this. A strong take on this that I sometimes had in GK houses in Bedfordshire was known as 'Abbot & Eddie" - A half of Abbot Ale in a pint glass with a bottle of St. Edmund's English Ale (sadly no longer brewed I hear)

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  3. Two reasons for the popularity of L&B, or when I was growing up in Cornwall the brown split;
    Good value/ bonus beer as mentioned &
    the dreadful nature of keg bitter or poorly kept (London) cask.
    When a student, in the far off days of characterful Greene King cask, I don't recall anyone asking for it, even amongst impecunious students.

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  4. This reminds me of drinking as a youth in Battersea, while working in community centre. My boss took me to a Youngs pub everynight and as a Lancashire lad I learnt to like Youngs Bitter, but the boss drank half a bitter with a barley wine on top!

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  5. We drank Whitbread light & bitter as young working class lads in pubs &
    social clubs in the late 70's..... By the 80's we had change to Whitbread brewmaster & bitter...Oakly Rd whitebread brewery was on our doorstep in Luton & Dunstable

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  6. I started drinking around 1970 and light and bitter was my tipple,regularly got bottle of light and three quarters of a pint of bitter.

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  7. I was in a pub in Hereford inthe 70s and ordered a light and bitter. The barman gave me a pint of light mild and bitter. When I explained what I actually wanted, he scratched his head and wandered off to speak to the landlord. The landlord came up and asked me if I was from the Smoke. When I said yes, he said I thought so, only people from the smoke drink light and bitter.

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  8. Thanks for that nostalgic article.
    My contribution is that I worked as a young barman in the Baynard Castle in Queen Victoria Street in EC4 back in 1983.
    And "light and Bitter" was our most popular drink (saying that Carling Black label held its own)

    It was customary as you say to get a half of IPA (it was a Bass Charrington pub) and a bottle of Toby light ale, to be added as required.
    There were other variations on the bottle mix as Toby also did a Pale Ale in a green bottle(this was stronger) and you also got the odd request for an Ipa and a bottle of Guinness, the "Black and Tan" as it was called, (this was dying out even then).
    It was a busy pub back then, packed out with City workers during the day and BT engineers and telephone operators at night. On Weekends the Observer newspaper was printed and we were packed every Saturday night with print workers.
    I left London in 1990 and have only been in a Pub a few times since , never realized that Light and Bitter was no longer a popular drink.
    Thanks again for evoking wonderful memories.


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  9. As a yank I was stationed at RAF Lakenheath from 85 to 90. My pub the 5 bells in Newmarket. Dad that it isn't there anymore. I drank light and bitters all the time greene king was my beer of choice. I was told first of all the light took some of the bitterness out of the bitter and it was a better value. So my drink of choice. Some pubs gave you exactly half a pint and well others more bitter. I've been back a few times and have always ordered the same. Sure do miss the beer. It's all garbage in the US one reason I only drink when I'm in the UK.

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  10. I worked briefly in a Young's pub in Greenwich around 2003, the Richard the First. I remember the regulars always called the bitter'ordinary', and many ordered a 'light and ordinary' or if I remember correctly , 'light and special', was popular too. I later moved to Wandsworth shortly before the Ram brewery closed, so never visited it. What a marketing con now that 'London' and 'original' is on the pump labels - no, it's made in Bedford, no, it's not original.

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  11. My dad used to drink “light and bitter”, so it brings back distant memories. My understanding is the drink was popular in the 60s because the quality of draft beer wasn’t great, and often seemed ‘flat’, so the bottle of light ale would ‘liven up’ the drink. Plus some people preferred the combination being a less strong drink. With the ‘bonus’ of often getting your money’s worth with more than half a pint of bitter in a pint glass would result in more than a pint when adding the bottle ale. I believe another popular combination was “mild and brown’, using draft Mild Ale and a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale, though that was never as popular where I lived. I believe due to the success of CAMRA’s campaign of getting good quality Cask Ales back in pubs, plus the rising popularity of Lagers amounst the younger drinkers, the practice of serving a bottle ale with a beer declined dramatically.

    As a young man, I remember trying various mixed beers, the most infamous was a “Purple Nasty”, which I think was half a Guinness Stout with (almost) half a Cider, with a top of Blackcurrent cordial.

    We used to go in for mixing beer with soft drinks, the most common was “Bitter Top” which was almost a full pint of Bitter Ale and a top of Lemonade. As opposed to Shandy, which was half and half. Alternatively, Lager and Lime was a nearly a full pint of Lager with a top of Lime cordial. Some years afterwards, a bottle of Sol Lager served with a wedge of Lime stuffed in the bottle neck became popular, which I guess is the similar idea.

    Otherwise, we used to enjoy a wide range of ‘simple’ short drinks, which normally only consisted of two ingredients and so we never thought of them as ‘cocktails’ which would require three or more components. The range included the classic Gin and Tonic, but also Vodka and Lime or Vodka and Orange, Whisky and Ginger (American Dry Ginger Ale), Bacardi Rum and Coke, Pernod and Black (Blackcurrent), Martini and Lemonade, and Port and Lemon (bitter lemon)

    Finally, a soft drink favourite of ours was Orange Juice and Lemonade, which for some odd reason we referred to as a ‘Henry’.

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