Less is more

This post is a kind of footnote to this one of Martyn’s. The other night, courtesy of the local JDW’s, I tried five different beers from the Congleton Beartown Brewery: Ginger Bear and Honey Bear (which speak for themselves), Polar Eclipse (a sweet stout), Bear Ass (brown bitter) and Bruin’s Ruin (strong bitter). They were all perfectly nice, although I’m not sure any of them would win awards. (In particular, they could all benefit from a touch less sweetness, in case anyone from the brewery sees this – until I looked it up I was convinced the Eclipse was an unusually-flavoured dark mild.) This evening, on the other hand, I had Dark Star’s American Pale Ale and Bollington’s Night Porter. Dark Star’s APA is a terrific beer: a classic of the type, where the type is essentially “pale beer that tastes of marmalade”. Night Porter is a spiced porter, with a rich malty flavour and a definite aftertaste of… what? Cloves? Nutmeg? Allspice? That area, anyway. A memorable combination & well brought off.

Obviously there’s room in the market for all kinds of diversity and any amount of experimentation. There’s no real danger that any style will crowd out others – and even if there were I’m not sure what a blogger could do about it. So I’m just expressing my own opinion, for the hell of it, when I say that I think those two evenings represent two different approaches to beer, and that I think the world of beer could do with a lot more of one of them and a bit less of the other.

The one I’d like to see more of is, of course, the Beartown. Honey Bear, Bruin’s Ruin and Bear Ass are all brown bitters (Ginger Bear is paler), and their flavours aren’t that far apart: they’ve all got far more in common with one another than with the Dark Star APA (or any American-style pale ale). But it’s in the subtle differences that the joy of this kind of beer resides. Anyone can brew for in-your-face hoppiness or extreme alcohol; anyone, with a bit of ingenuity, can put together flavours that have never been put together before. (Not everyone can do it as well as Dark Star or Bollington, admittedly.) Making a brown bitter that’s drinkable by the pint and low enough in alcohol to stay on all evening, but that’s still distinctive – that to me is a real art. The ironic thing is that it’s an art that doesn’t lend itself to smash hits and showstoppers – after all, who wants to drink four pints of a showstopper?

The conclusions I’m coming to are that

Good beats Brilliant: at least, a good session beer beats a brilliant beer that can only reasonably be drunk by the nip (although some of the latter are very good and I wouldn’t be without them). A brilliant session beer (Hornbeam Bitter, 5 a.m. Saint, Lord Marples) beats the lot, but that’s a very difficult target to hit.

and, perhaps even more counter-intuitively,

Narrow beats Broad: bringing out a range of subtly-different bitters is harder to do, and more rewarding to do well, than ringing every flavour bell going with a double IPA and a witbier and a gose and a black IPA and, and… I’d also suggest that appreciating a range of subtly-different bitters is harder to do (as well as being less exciting) than going Wow over the extremes.

So, ‘craft beer’, then. (To be continued!)

Update (nearly two years later) I’ve been studiously avoiding Beartown ever since and necking Dark Star at every opportunity. The theory advanced in this post may need to be revised.


  1. Posted 11 February, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink | Reply

    I think what you need to do is rate beer on ‘drinkability’ as well as ‘taste’. So Imperial whatnots will rate highly on taste but low on drinkability meaning their overall score will come down.

  2. Posted 15 February, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I missed this one when originally posted, but once again I must agree with you. Surely it is a good thing that individual brewers have a broad “house style” rather than just brewing a wide range of beers “to a spec”.

    I’ve heard it said of various seasonal beers produced by our local Stockport family brewer that “it just tastes like another Robinson’s beer,” but to my mind that can be a good thing.

    Subtle variations on a theme can have a quality all of their own.

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