Thursday, 28 March 2019
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.
"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."
"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."
"Old timers were still drinking it in the late nineties / early noughties in the social club I used to work in. Not many though."
"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.
Sunday, 4 November 2018
Our Friends in the North East
Why I didn't make it to Wylam
Driving north from my native Essex there are a series of landmarks that trigger a feeling that I'm moving in the right direction: the will it / won't it congestion gamble where the end of the M11 meets the A14, the bushes that signify the end of the motorway section of the A1 at Peterborough, the Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR3 outside RAF Wittering, and the now sadly closed and boarded up Ram Jams public house. Next comes Stamford, then Grantham, then Doncaster, the cooling towers at Ferrybridge, the run to Scotch Corner, before we finally get somewhere that we always feel compelled to stop, get out of the car and marvel at its iconic majesty.
Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North never ceases to make me feel that arrived somewhere, and on this occasion that somewhere is a few days in Newcastle.
After settling in and unwinding a while at the quayside apartment we'd booked our first destination was, as it had been four years previously, The Bridge Tavern.
Situated between the stanchions of the famous Tyne Bridge, there's been an ale house on this site for around two hundred years. This was demolished when the bridge was built then rebuilt in its shadow, although if I hadn't been absolutely certain of where it had been last time we were there I'd have thought that I was in the wrong spot because, as the picture below shows, its former name of the Newcastle Arms is still proudly displayed on the stonework.
The Free Trade Inn had, over many years, taken on an almost mythical status for me. It had become the pub that I never quite made it to, fate intervening on every previous attempt. Tonight I was determined to make it.
As I got closer I could feel the anticipation building. They do say that you should never meet your idols, and was beginning to hope that this didn't apply to pubs as well. I needn't have worried. The Free Trade Inn was everything I'd hoped and more.
There'd been a Left Handed Giant tap takeover the previous weekend and quite a few of the beers were still on so, despite being warned by the attentive bar staff that they were pricier than some of the other beers I opted for a dry and bitter Cycle City IPA on keg which disappeared in no time at all.
Mr Vane) we headed out of town to the edge of the Roman Empire.
I didn't expect Vindolanda to offer much in the way of beer, however I was surprised to see that there were references to it on some of the tablets that had been discovered preserved in the mud there.
Twice Brewed Inn and Brewery which depending on which direction you're coming from is either in Once Brewed (East) or Twice Brewed (west). Dating from at least the 18th Century, this solid stone building is warm and inviting, standing up to the elements in this desolate part of Northumberland.
Thursday was our last full day in Newcastle and we were going to use it to explore the city properly at last.
We'd only booked our visit a couple of days before we went, and after I tweeted that I was finally going to do the city justice I was inundated with suggestions of places to go for both food, and of course drink. There were so many we couldn't hope to visit them all, and there were a few sights we wanted to see too, we tried to do our best.
Quay Ingredient, bacon and maple syrup on french toast if you ask, before we headed uphill to the Castle and on to the Discovery Centre where the children could play at being children and let their hair down a bit.
By The River Brew Co., a brewery that is as much on the river as it is by it. Opened in the summer of 2017, it was perfectly placed to take advantage of the magnificent weather, becoming the hottest spot on the Tyne in more ways than one. If you had any beery folk on your Twitter or Instagram feed from the Newcastle area then you will have most likely read or seen the buzz around this place.
As a first time visitor walking in I was confronted by a host of individual keg fonts with no obvious beer list or numbering system. Looking perplexed I asked what beer was on only to be pointed to the large chalk board to my right. Choosing Almasty's Breakfast IPA I was equally surprised when a seemingly unmarked font was approached and the beer poured. Spotting my expression the silver numbers on the bar top relating to the numbers on the board were pointed out to me by the man serving me, admitting that it had been a mystery to him too before he was shown.
@minkewales on twitter) to try nearby Meat:Stack who'd catered at her wedding, but looking at the list again we decided we wanted another drink here first.
We went for Summer Wine's Ripple Heights with its sweet aroma of raspberries and vanilla ice cream. This is a beer that would probably be too sweet for many and although I'd consider myself to have a relatively sweet tooth it was right on the borderline for me. This beer has a particularly good finish akin to a lingering frozen raspberry death rattle.
Meat:Stack didn't disappoint. We chose the upstairs bar in preference to the noisier, darker bar downstairs mainly because we all preferred it, and we did have the place to ourselves for most of our dinner.
I'd wanted Wylam to be my ultimate destination this evening, but as we made our way up Northumberland Street it was becoming apparent that the previous days exertions along Hadrians Wall coupled with the time we'd been out today meant that had started to look pretty unlikely.
The Town Mouse and, as it was close, this is where we went.
Warm and inviting, pretty much as soon as I'd walked in I found myself in conversation with the barman and another chap at the bar, I felt at home right away. There was only one table near the door, the chill of a late October evening keeping a space that we happily occupied.
One of the things that makes my heart sing most when I'm away is a beer selection full of beers and breweries I haven't tried before, and as the people of Newcastle are justifiably proud of their local beer scene and that of the North East of England, it had been my pleasure to drink beer from local breweries wherever possible. The beer list at The Town Mouse micropub was no exception.
Box Social were a brewery I'd heard Myles Lambert sing the praises of on the North East Sippin Forecast podcast and seeing that they had their Blackcurrant Ripple on keg was a temptation I didn't have to resist. Unfortunately for me, the barman proclaimed that he wasn't happy with the way it was looking so asked my to chose something else.
Reluctantly I opted for Wilde Child and Brass Castle's Adoption Process Passion fruit IPA, however no sooner had I paid for that than another beer appeared alongside it. Looking up, I was told that although he wasn't willing to sell it he was perfectly happy to give me a half to try as there was not really anything wrong with it.
Fortunately the Metro came to our rescue, and double-fortunately it took us directly to Newcastle Central Station, home to Centrale Beer Shop, although it did take a little while going up and down the platform until we actually found it.
Except there wasn't.
Those of you who have been paying attention will have noticed that our last full day in Newcastle was a Thursday. Re-checking the brewery opening times I realised that I had my dates wrong. Today was Friday, and I'd checked the opening times for Saturday by mistake. Wylam wasn't opening until five o'clock in the evening, far too late for us. It was time to make other plans.
Turning to Twitter I needed a different plan for our journey home. Twitter responded and we were soon on our way to ...
I'll leave that one for my next post.
There are so many people I need to thank for their help and advice in making my short stay in the Toon so enjoyable. Although I didn't get to meet up with Myles, who I mentioned earlier, on this occasion the excellent North East Sippin Forecast podcast is well worth a listen and is now hopefully back on schedule. Similarly Emma @minkewales for Newcastle recommendations, and Andrew her husband (previously @sheriffmitchell on Twitter, but no more) for an amazingly helpful email pointing out the best places to visit along Hadrians wall. We almost managed them all. Whoever manages the twitter account for The Free Trade Inn @TheFreeTradeInn, I really sorry we never actually got to meet. To all the people I met along the way and told them that my family history takes me back to the North East thank you for humouring me, you listened very attentively. And lastly but definitely not least, a huge thank you to Daisy (@daisy_turnell) who was, for all intents and purposes my virtual Newcastle tour guide. Thank you so much for all your help and suggestions, and the invite to the brand new Anarchy tap room that I sadly couldn't attend. I definitely owe you a beer.
Next time I'm going to get to Wylam.
Wednesday, 10 October 2018
A Bottle Conditioned Beer Event
It''s a warm Thursday afternoon in early October and I'm sitting outside The White Horse in Parsons Green with a pint of Ilkley's Mangoes Overboard, occasionally checking my watch for the six o'clock deadline. It's a deadline that I really don't want to miss as tonight beer writers and brewers are gathered together to celebrate bottle-conditioned, and as we shall see, can-conditioned beer.
Bottle conditioning, as I'm sure you are well aware, is the process of adding priming sugars into a bottle containing beer which has little or no carbon dioxide which enables refermentation in the bottle. It is this that brings the beer into condition, continuing the fermentation which produces carbon dioxide, making the beer naturally carbonated and as similar, in many cases, to the cask conditioned product. To quote The Oxford Companion to Beer, "Bottle conditioning, when done properly, can result in a beer with a finer, silkier texture of carbonation, superior foam retention, more complex flavo(u)rs, longer ag(e)ing ability than beers that are "force carbonated"."
Gathering in the upstairs rooms, where once I brewed a Citron Pilsener with Martyn Cornell and Andy Parker, now of Elusive Brewing renown, we are seated at tables laden with glasses, and platters of bread, meat and cheese, ready for the panel in front of us to introduce both themselves and tonight's beers.
After a brief welcome from Rupert Ponsonby from R&R Teanmwork, who have invited us here tonight, Jeff Evans, editor of eight editions of the Good Bottled Beer Guide, is ready to give us a brief history of bottle-conditioned beer.
He asks us to forget the apocryphal story of it's invention some 400 or so years ago by the Hertfordshire rector and angler, Dr Alexander Nowell who, after a fishing trip, left a full bottle of home brewed ale by the river, only returning a few days later to discover the still full bottle had continued its fermentation. "He found no bottle, but a gun, such was the sound at opening". (Martyn Cornell also debunks the myth in this excellent post on the subject ).
Potentially the story of bottle (or flask, or leather bag) conditioned beer goes back millennia, but certainly goes back to the 18th century when beer was first put into bottles for sale commercially. It was the advent of pasteurisation, the process that killed bacteria, making for a consistently uninfected product that meant that bottle conditioned beer became little more than a footnote in history.
With the formation of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) in 1971 there were only 5 bottle conditioned beers available in the UK, including Spingo from The Blue Anchor in Cornwall, Worthington's White Shield, and the recently revived Thomas Hardy's Ale, produced at that time by Eldridge Pope in Dorset.
With the uplift in cask conditioned beer there was, from the early 1980s, a revival in bottle conditioned beer. By 1990 there were more and more available, so many in fact that in 1991 CAMRA passed a motion at it's AGM to actively promote these beers.
As a result of this Jeff persuaded CAMRA to produce a book on the subject, and in 1997 the CAMRA Guide to Real Ale in a Bottle was produced. He wasn't happy with either the title or the cover, and in 1998 this was relaunched as the Good Bottled Beer Guide.
By the time of the 2009 edition there were over 1300 bottle conditioned beers in the UK alone, with foreign bottle conditioned beers, including the iconic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, swelling that number.
There has been no new book since the 2013 edition, and there are approximately 1800 beers that meet the criteria now, but Jeff left us with the parting comment that it might be possible that an up to date edition is not too far away.
First to present their beer was Stuart Cail from Harviestoun Brewery in Scotland.
Schiehallion Lager (4.8%) came to us in a 75cl sharing bottle which Stuart informed us that they had just started producing. This bottle conditioned version started as a trial sample which was tested locally before they made the decision to expand. To my mind it tasted a bit flat, with the aroma of burnt tyres, a little maltiness with some lemon in the mix. This faded quickly and the general consensus at our table was that the beer was in poor condition.
Highland Park whisky casks. There was a little of the same burnt tyre aroma as the Sciehallion initially but this was quickly overtaken by a nose full of boozy dark chocolate and coffee. It had a deep chocolate flavour and a long, lingering finish, one that completely removed all traces of the previous beer.
Pat McGinty from Marstons then spoke to us about their approach to bottle conditioned beer. For them, he said, it was all about wanting to give the consumer the experience and taste of cask conditioned Marstons Pedigree in a bottle.
Burton Union System in Burton on Trent, but the new process involved here was understanding how much yeast was needed in the bottle in order to give exactly the result they were after.
After much trial and error they hit upon the winning formula, although there was some initial confusion with consumers over the haze resulting in the yeast in the beer, and helping them understand that bottle conditioning was a continuation of the brewing process. He finished his talk with the following phrase which summed up what they are striving for: "Bottle conditioning is the way forward, it's what real beer is all about."
We were then giving some of the bottle conditioned Marstons Pedigree (4.5%) to try, and they really have done a fantastic job with it. The aroma retains that classic sulphurous 'Burton snatch', with a hint of cardboard and a little roasted malt. Quite thin, it was clean and fresh tasting, with that distinctive Pedigree malty flavour with the merest hint of berry fruits. It was astonishingly close to the cask version in great condition and I would have welcomed the opportunity to taste them side by side.
Next it was the turn of Justin Hawke from Moor Beer Co. who talked about the influence that both cask beer and the beer he had whilst stationed in Germany with the US military had on both him and the beer he now produces.
After a night out drinking they would notice that the naturally cloudy, unfiltered, naturtrub beer he and his companions had been drinking meant that they avoided hangovers the following day, but it was cask beer that he had fallen in love with and it was this that led him to come to the UK and start brewing. This was something that, once you know, is obvious to see and taste in Moor's beer, something that has made their uncompromising position on both unfiltered beer and taste in abundance both admired and respected.
All three of the beers we tasted from Moor were out of the can, with Nor Hop (4.1%) with it's score of 100% for style on RateBeer being first. This has a gorgeous tropical aroma, lime mango, passion fruit and dragon fruit all inter-mingling wonderfully, and with a wonderful taste that delivers everything the nose promises.
Do It Together is a Mango Tea Pale Ale at 5.2% abv, with a slightly musty green tea and passion fruit aroma. It glides over the tongue elegantly before delivering those flavours all over again for maximum impact.
The final beer from Moor was Old Freddy Walker Strong Old Ale (7.3%) which had a strong chocolate malt aroma, like a chocolatey horlicks. It was thinner than I remembered but the chocolate malt punch was swift and welcome, the taste fading wonderfully slowly leaving a subtle reminder of the beer before.
Roger Ryman of St. Austell Brewery spoke of how a trip to Marstons to see what they were brewing led him to set up his own version of the Union System to experiment with. We were told that St. Austell are possibly the biggest producer of bottle conditioned beer in the UK, with Proper Job IPA (5.5%) taking up a third of that production.
The initial aroma reminded me a little of 'cheesy' feet, although that may have been down to the brie I had just consumed, but there was more of that burnt tyre aroma I experienced with the Harviestoun beers (which I am inclined to believe may be down to the carbon dioxide produced in re-fermentation) before a wave of lemon hit my senses. The beer itself was clean and fresh tasting, with some biscuity malt accentuated by the lemon notes from the hops. It finished clean and succintly on that same biscuity lemon note, a beautiful beer by all accounts. I can't remember the last time I had some Proper Job but I'll be making a point of having at least one next time I do.
The Bad Habit Abbey Tripel (8.2%) was the second and final beer from St.Austell, one that Roger confessed was a bit of an indulgence as he wanted to explore the flavours of the Belgian beers he loves so much. This had a sharp, sweet aroma, with that classic Belgian yeast note reminding me quite considerably of Chimay Blue. There were some dark fruit notes in the flavour and it tasted quite sweet, however we all noted that it didn't linger on the palate as you may expect a Belgian beer of this strength to do, rather it rinsed itself away, the flavours all collapsing in on themselves before seemingly disappearring down a drain in the middle of the tongue. None of us found this unwelcome just unusual, and it's certainly a beer I'd like to try again.
Our final speaker of the evening was John Keeling of Fullers someone who is never short of an opinion. He also had two bottles of their Vintage Ale with him which I will come to in a moment, but before that I want to start with three direct quotes that I noted down from what he said which seemed to sum up what this whole evening was about. They were:
"Bottle conditioned beers are never the same as cask beers."
"Bottle conditioned beers are the supreme example of small package beers."
"Bottle conditioned beers exist in their own right."
The first Vintage Ale was the most recent, the 2017 (8.5%) which was relatively light tasting. It positively glowed in the glass with a distinct raisin and biscuit aroma. I last had this beer shortly after it's release and someone remarked after their first sip how it had changed in the last 9 months. The slight bitterness I remember had faded away and this was a more complex beer, the raisin notes accentuated, hinting at plums and damsons, but that malty biscuit backbone was still very defined.
Fortunately I have a bottle of this, and many other years of the Vintage Ale at home, although when asked about tasting this at the right time John suggested we should,
"Buy 64 bottles of each vintage on release and try it every three months or so."
He went on to explain the method they use at Fullers for the Vintage Ale where they chill the beer at one fifth gravity, although I missed the next part as I was rather distracted by the sublime beer in the glass in front of me.
When asked about the changes in the beer and how to account for them he replied in a phrase that was honest and summed up my experience and the science of ageing beer for me:
"Changes are so difficult to predict so you just have to enjoy the ride as it goes on."
After thanking the speakers and respectfully applauding it was revealed that there was one more treat in store for us that evening.
When the noise of applause had died down it was revealed that they were opening a bottle of the Bass & Co. Ratcliff Strong Ale, brewed on the 16th December 1869, for us to try.
We were all given thimble-fulls of this beer which, considering it's age I tasted with some trepidation. It poured a murky brown colour, and the aroma had a touch of dusty port about it. Initially muddy and musty it quickly changed character and became a deep rich madeira flavour. Hints of raisin, not unlike the last Vintage Ale, began to appear, and it finished incredibly smooth and complex. At nearly 150 years old this was certainly a beer to savour but my small pour was finished far too quickly for my liking. Luckily there was still plenty left so I managed to grab another so that I could enjoy this rare and wonderful experience all over again.