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.