Monthly Archives: March 2015

Stylish

I really ought to drink more session bitter, I say to myself from time to time (sometimes on this blog).  I really ought to drink more traditional styles. Beer began for me in the mid-70s, in the (first) heyday of CAMRA: back when CAMRA was half anti-big business and half conservationist, when finding good beer was a matter of finding the pubs that were still serving it. And, back then, traditional styles were what there was – to be more precise, bitter was what there was, unless it was winter and you were very very lucky (mmm, Young’s Winter Warmer…). That’s in the south-east, at least; I never tasted mild until I came to Manchester in 1982. (Mmm, Marston’s dark mild at the Royal Oak in Didsbury…) Porter was something you heard mentioned in historical dramas; as for stout, for a long time I had a vague idea that there wasn’t any such thing as a cask stout – that you actually couldn’t make it to be served that way. As for bottles, I’m struggling to remember when I started buying decent beer in bottles; as far as I remember, (a) it was much later, (b) at first I mainly bought imports and (c) the British beers I did buy were bitters, old ales and barley wines, just like the cask beers I’d tracked down from the late 70s on.

So that’s what I keep feeling I really ought to get back to. It’s partly because I suspect I’m missing out (some session bitters that I know are utterly wonderful, so it stands to reason that some I don’t know will be too), but mainly because I don’t want to turn into a neophile – or, worse still, an extremophile. It’s just not how I see myself. Never mind your short-run barrel-aged bourbon saison infused with kopi luwak! I picture myself saying. Never mind your limited-edition single-hop Imperial Pale Gose! Give me a pint of bitter!

But I fear it may be too late. Here are the last six beers I’ve drunk in pubs and bars:

2 pale ales
1 red ale
1 stout
1 IPA (keg)
1 double IPA (keg)

And the last nine beers I’ve bought in supermarkets – actually, one supermarket; this was the fruit of a single trip to Tesco:

1 best bitter
1 dark bitter
1 pale ale
1 red ale
1 Burton
1 old ale
1 stout
1 black IPA
1 saison

That’s an only slightly unusual range for a supermarket – there certainly aren’t any exotic (or exciting) breweries in there. Ten years ago you’d only have seen that kind of lineup in a specialist beer shop; twenty years ago you wouldn’t even have seen it there.

But look at that one lonely best bitter! Amalgamating the two lists you get eleven styles (counting ‘IPA’ and ‘double IPA’ separately). When CAMRA first got going, ‘best bitter’ was the only one of those styles that was at all easy to find in Britain, with ‘dark bitter’ a distant second; your best bet for finding a Burton or an old ale was to stop looking for a year or two and rely on serendipity. Of the other seven styles, one was more or less dead, one could only be found as an import and the other five didn’t even exist. (I’m counting ‘pale ale’ and ‘IPA’ in the five. Of course there were such things as pale ales and IPAs, but IPA in the 1970s meant ‘like bitter but very slightly different‘, and ‘pale ale’ basically meant ‘bitter in a bottle’; neither of them mean anything like the pale’n’oppy things that go by those names now.)

I don’t think I’m turning into a hipster; so far this year I’ve mostly stuck to my resolution to avoid beers that can’t be described in fewer than three words. But going back to session bitter may be a lost cause. There’s just too much else going on.

Advertisements

Tasting the difference

Morrison’s isn’t a supermarket I get to very often (although this may be about to change), and it’s taken me a while to get round to checking out their ‘own brand’ beers. In the past I’ve seen beers brewed by Titanic and Black Sheep in the range, but at the moment they all seem to be from Marston’s or Ringwood (owned by Marston’s since 2007). Last time I was in, I bought one of each – at £1.50 you might as well; here’s what I thought.

Dark (Ringwood) Not sure if this is a mild or a very dark bitter. Fairly thin, either way; competent but not exciting.

Amber A bit more full-bodied, with some of that satisfying hoppy prickliness going on. I say ‘some’, though – again, this struck me as a light beer, lighter than it needed to be.

Stout Light is the word, again; there’s some burnt-grain bitterness, but a lot of sweetness too, and the body’s thin. It’s as if a stout has been blended 1:3 with a dark mild. It’s not unpleasant by any means, it’s just not necessarily what you’d be expecting.

IPA Now this was more like it: tropical fruit a go go, a proper new-model IPA. I’ll be getting this one again. (Ratebeer says: ‘One of those that fall into the “I’ve had worse…..” category’, ‘Bit on the boring unremarkable side.)

For another set of comparisons, I bought the two separate Marston’s IPAs currently available at Sainsbury’s – their own “Taste the Difference” IPA and Marston’s Old Empire IPA. All three of them – these two and the Morrison’s – are within a couple of decimal points of a.b.v. (they’re all over 5.5 and under 6), and I wasn’t expecting there to be much difference. I was surprised.

Sainsbury’s IPA I was particularly surprised by this one, and not entirely in a good way. “Toffee apple” is the best flavour descriptor I can think of: the flavour’s dominated by a great wodge of sweetness and burnt-caramel bitterness, with some fruit in the background. It’s well within the style parameters of a twentieth-century IPA, but even in that context it’s rather offputtingly heavy. Taste the difference you most certainly will.

Old Empire IPA Ratebeer has strong opinions about this one: ‘bitter disappointment to notice that this has nothing to do with IPA‘, ‘Not IPA as it says on the bottle.‘, ‘I have no idea why they wrote IPA on the label.‘ Well, excuuuuuse me. It’s actually well over on the ‘tropical fruit’ side from the previous one; like Sheps’ ‘historic recipe’ IPA, it’s basically midway between the IPAs we were (occasionally) drinking in the 1980s and what the style stands for now. Not bad at all.

To sum up:

Morrison’s own-label beers are (currently) best described as ‘light’, nay, ‘undemanding’. This works better for some styles than others; for the IPA I think it works rather well.

Marston’s three* IPAs cover the range from 1980s toffee apple to 2010s fruit salad, and two of the three are pretty good.

*Unless, of course, you know different.

IPA, IPA, IPA

Martyn’s recent post on the relaunch of Greene King IPA strayed, for me, a little too close to following the GK party line – a view shared, and stated rather emphatically, by some contributors to the ensuing comments thread. But I thoroughly agree with the final point:

Meanwhile, here’s a small rant directed at all those idiots who keep chuntering on about how Greene King IPA is “not an India Pale Ale” and how IPA has to be “strong and strongly hopped”, so it would survive the long journey to the Indian sub continent, over 200 years ago. You don’t have a clue what you are talking about. Let’s rush past the fact that 19th century IPA wasn’t strong at all, for the time, but comparatively weak, at around 6% abv. Do you complain because today’s porters aren’t matured in 30-feet-high oak vats for 18 months, as they were 200 years ago? Or that today’s stouts are as weak as 19th century porters? Do you complain because today’s milds are nothing at all like the mild ales of 200 years ago, 7% abv and made solely from pale malt? Beers change, and beer styles are not carved on stone tablets. A 19th century IPA would have been kept for up to a year in cask, would have lost all its hop aroma and would have developed a distinctly Brettanomyces flavour. Nobody at all is brewing an IPA like that. American IPAs, in particular, lovely beers though they often are, are nothing whatsoever like 19th century IPAs: totally wrong hops, totally wrong emphasis on hop aroma, often too strong, and meant to be drunk much more quickly after being brewed than 19th century IPAs were. After the First World War, and the huge rise in the tax on beer, all beers, of all styles, were brewed to lower strengths than they had been in the 19th century. What Greene King IPA is, is a perfect example of a mid-20th century IPA, just like those once brewed by Charrington, Palmers, Eldridge Pope, Wadworths, Wethered’s, Youngers and others in the 1960s and 1970s, all 1035 to 1043 OG. Go and get your Camra Good Beer Guide 2015 edition and look up Phipps IPA (page 844, column 2): OG 1042, abv 4.2%, “recreated from old recipes”: recreated from genuine 20th century recipes, as a genuine 20th century IPA. Just like Greene King IPA.

I’ve never had anything from Phipps, but I did stumble on Wall’s Explorer IPA (4.7% in cask) the other day and noticed that the pump clip described it as “a traditional style India Pale Ale”. So I tried it, and I was very pleasantly surprised.

Clearly, somebody at Wall’s remembers mid-20th-century IPAs too. What was it like? You get a big, fairly heavy, malty body with just a little sweetness. Then you get the bitterness – a tannic bitterness, which hits in mid-mouth, but it’s dialled right up, almost to the charcoal level. The bitter aftertaste isn’t immediately apparent, but it kicks in hard  at the bottom of the glass.

One of my pet hates is the phrase ‘with a twist’. I’d be useless as a judge on Bake Off – I’d much rather see a straight Dundee cake recipe brought off really well than a competently-executed Dundee-with-a-twist, using pecans instead of almonds, chillis instead of glace cherries and polenta instead of flour. The same goes for beer, obviously – I’ve had some really good raspberry beers, damson beers, chocolate beers and w.h.y., but a straight style done really well will usually beat them all. But that IPA made me think that ‘twisting’ a style need not be such an artificial process. A fuller body, a more bitter aftertaste, much more bitterness mid-mouth – the 20th-century IPA was, basically, a twist on best bitter (the same way that black IPA emerged as a twist on stout, perhaps).

To compare and contrast, I made tasting notes for the next few beers I had with ‘IPA’ in the name. Harbour IPA (5%) is a favourite of mine; perhaps the best way to review this one is to say that, if there was ever a juicy banger, this beer is it. There’s bitterness from the off – it leaves your lips buzzing with it – and then a big, bursting hop flavour, fruity without being sweet, citric without being sour. It’s light, goes down very easily and finishes with an emphatic bitter aftertaste.

Another comparison: BrewDog Punk IPA (5.3%). One thing BD’s bottled beers really get right, in my experience, is the aroma – by which I mean, they’ve got lots of it: you really know when you’ve opened the bottle. In this case the aroma was mostly citrus, but with an odd, grainy, burnt-toast quality blended in. The flavour began with citric freshness, building to a big grapefruit character but with some of that burnt toast mixed in. Some sweetness on the finish, too; a distinct lychee or pear-drop flavour lurking in among the bitterness. Like the Harbour it’s very drinkable, and has almost nothing in common with the Wall’s beer.

The impression that IPA means (or has meant) two completely different things was strengthened by a bottle of Shepherd Neame‘s ‘historical recipe’ India Pale Ale (6.1%). Comparing with the Wall’s beer, the same key elements were there: the big, heavy body with a sweet edge; the strong, uncompromising bitterness mid-mouth; both were intense enough to combine in a pleasantly marmaladey way. In fact, the flavours were stronger all round than in the Explorer. Indeed, compared to the Wall’s beer the Shep’s beer was stronger, with more citrus at the front of the mouth and a more intense bitter-lemon aftertaste: in other words, it was like a halfway house between a twentieth-century IPA and the much more extreme contemporary style.

One final comparison: Greene King IPA. I jest – I don’t know where I’d go to find it (my local Spoons serves Ruddles and Abbot Ale). No, what I’m comparing with this time is Metropolitan Lone Wolf – which is to say, a 6% IPA sold in supermarkets in 330 ml bottles (with a rather stylish branding reminiscent of Peter Saville’s Manchester M logo) and brewed by, um, Greene King. The label boasts of seven different hops, with dry hopping for added ‘intensity’. What I tasted, bizarrely enough, was a rather bland variant on the twentieth-century IPA style. Heavy body, sweetness, tannic mid-mouth bitterness and a drying bitter finish were all present and correct, although for my money there was rather too little tannin and too much sweetness; in fact a malty sweetness dominated throughout, perhaps with some hop fruitiness a long way down in the mix. I don’t know if this is in any way related to Greene King IPA in any of its guises, but I’d be surprised if it was startlingly different. Why GK are trying to sell this quintessentially undemanding old-school beer into the ‘craft’ market is anybody’s guess. About the best I can say of it is that, if it were a better beer, it’d be good example of a twentieth-century IPA.

Which – returning to my starting-point – would be no bad thing. To quote a comment I left on Martyn’s post,

I got into real ale as soon as I was old enough to drink, then had a break from beer (or at least from taking beer seriously) between about 1980 and 2000. Coming back into a vastly changed (and rapidly changing) beer scene, one of the things I remembered clearly from ‘before’ was how an IPA ought to taste. Imagine my surprise (among other reactions) when I first tasted one of the new breed of IPAs. I’m not about to start drinking GK IPA in preference to Bengal Lancer et al – that ship has sailed – but I’m sure my 18-year-old self would have recognised & liked it

Even at my current advanced age, I recognised the Explorer IPA as such – and liked it. (But I like the Harbour too.)

Uncool

In comments over at Ron’s, John Clarke raises an interesting point:

The usual narrative is that US soldiers stationed in the UK during the war found our beer “warm” because they compared it to what they were used to back home. However given that many of them would be stationed in the country and visited rural pubs, it seems that the beer really would have been warm – especially those that stored the beer in the way described here and the moved it inside to be served on gravity, as I suspect many of them would have done at the time.

(“The way described here” refers to… no, I won’t spoil the shock for you. Read the whole thing.)

This got me thinking about the ‘warm beer’ trope. If you plug the phrase ‘warm beer’ (without quotes) into the Google Ngram Viewer, you can see several distinct periods. From a low point at the turn of the century, the frequency of the phrase creeps upwards through the 1910s, 20s and 30s, but it’s fairly low throughout. From Google Books we can see that, before 1941, the phrase ‘warm beer’ is used in several different contexts:

  1. Recipes for beer that’s warmed on the stove before drinking (what we’d now call ‘mulled beer’)
  2. Same as 1, but for medicinal or other household purposes (warm beer is good for cleaning oak furniture, apparently)
  3. First-person references to drinking bottled beer that hasn’t been kept cool, particularly in hot countries
  4. Occasional references to problems in serving draught beer, invariably from the point of view of the server

The last of these is interesting: serving beer that was warm when it hit the glass was recognised as something that might drive custom away as early as the 1930s, if not before. (In one article the tendency to end up with warm beer is cited as a reason for the limited takeup of kegging!)

What we don’t see is any reference to drinkers finding cask beer to be warm in the glass. This rapidly changes from 1941 onwards; there’s a steep climb on the Ngram Viewer’s chart, peaking in 1945. The frequency then drops back down, to settle at a higher level in the early 50s. It’s in 1941 that Google Books finds its first reference to ‘warm beer’ being the norm in Britain – and there’s only one in the whole year. In 1942 – with the arrival of GIs in Britain – the floodgates open. From 1942 to 1946 the references to warm beer are legion; it’s often mentioned together with tea, as typical features of the English landscape which American newcomers found baffling. Warm beer in this sense is referred to just as often as warm beer from bottles. Interestingly, a lot of these references are also from the point of view of soldiers on active service. Perhaps from a GI’s point of view there wasn’t much to choose between beer that had been kept in a hole in the ground in North Africa and beer from a quaint old English hand pump – they both met the same lowered expectations.

As I said above, the Ngram Viewer shows a lower frequency of references after the war; Google Books also goes a bit quiet. This surprised me – I was expecting George Orwell’s famous reference to warm beer to have had more of an impact. (More on that later.) The ‘warm English beer’ trope may have got going when the GIs came, but when they left it seems to have stopped again – or at least become dormant; after 1946 we’re back to the warm bottles and problems with inadequately chilled lines. It’s worth emphasising that this idea of warm beer as a problem, from the server’s point of view, is not at all the same thing as the idea of ‘warm beer’ being the norm. If anything it’s the opposite, as they show that English bar staff in the 1950s and 60s were worrying about their beer occasionally being too warm – just as they had done in the 1930s.

In about 1973 the Ngram chart line starts to climb again; it climbs and climbs until it plateaus at the start of the 90s. This may be partly in response to the rise of kegging, which by then was becoming ubiquitous; some sentimental souls may have seen warm beer as part of an England we had lost. My trawl in Google Books didn’t turn up any evidence to support this, however. What I did find was an association between ‘warm beer’ and another 1970s development: CAMRA, and the broader movement towards taking English beer styles seriously. Ironically, the ‘warm beer’ trope seems to have been given a boost by several people – not all of them called Protz – complaining about it, and pointing out painstakingly that cellar-temperature cask beer is not what anyone from south of the Arctic Circle would call ‘warm’.

Throughout the 1980s, if Google Books is to be trusted, references to warm bottled beer remained the main source of ‘warm beer’ quotations; the idea of the traditional warmness of English beer had taken hold to some extent, but it was still fighting it out with an equal number of grumpy (but well-informed) arguments to the contrary. In fact the idea of ‘warm beer’ as synonymous with Englishness doesn’t seem to take hold until much later. How much later? Well, certainly after 1993, when the then Prime Minister John Major told us that

Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist” and if we get our way – Shakespeare still read even in school. Britain will survive unamendable in all essentials.

Before we get back to the beer, it’s worth noting why it was that the PM felt the need to evoke an unchanging essence of Britishness. The answer is in the next (and concluding) paragraph of his speech:

Surely we trust our own integrity as a people quite enough to fear nothing in Europe. We are the British, a people freely living inside a Europe which is glad to see us and wants us. After 20 years we have come of age in Europe. One Conservative leader put us there. This Conservative leader means us to thrive there. So let’s get on with it.

For Major, in other words, a sentimental vision of an unchanging – even unchangeable – Britain was the counterweight to a commitment to remaining, and playing a bigger role, in the EU. One can think of worse causes for the British pint to be enlisted in. Be that as it may, it was surely this speech which launched the idea of warm beer as an inherent part of Britishness. And it’s worth noting that, unlike the GIs’ catalogues of British quaintness, Major wasn’t evoking Britishness as seen from outside: these were British tropes which we ourselves could be proud of, or mock ironically, or mock our own pride in, or be proud of mocking, or whatever. (Complicated business, being British.)

As for the Orwell quote, it comes from “The Lion and the Unicorn”, the (in)famous wartime essay in which he described Britain as “a family with the wrong members in charge”, and which is generally seen as a low-water mark in the radicalism of Orwell’s politics. So perhaps it’s not surprising to see him banging on about warm beer. Except that he didn’t – and, if you read the quotation, you’ll realise that Major didn’t even say that he did. All the guff about the eternal British verities of county cricket and pools forms was Major’s own invention (which was ironic, really, considering that Major’s own government was about to cut the legs from under the pools companies by bringing in the National Lottery). The same goes for the warm beer – and, in fact, the entire mistily harmonious message. Orwell’s own vision of England was a lot more hard-edged, and looks a lot more like a celebration of diversity and change:

When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?

But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.

Orwell gets a bit soggy and essentialist in the second paragraph – and the conclusion is a majestic piece of having your cake and eating it – but it’s striking that those old maids on their bikes are presented as an example of disharmony: they’re nothing like the Lancashire mill-workers or the kids playing pinball in Soho. And, more importantly (for this blog at least!), the beer isn’t characteristically warm – it’s bitter; in fact it’s bitterer than the beer in any foreign country! (He did like his statements sweeping, did Orwell; you start to notice it if you read his stuff long enough.)

As for the contemporary fortunes of the ‘warm beer’ trope, I’d like to be able to report that the phrase became a stock signifier of Englishness (or possibly Britishness) straight after Major’s speech. I’d like to, but both Google Books and the Ngram Viewer are telling me otherwise. The phrase climbs in frequency very gently between 1992 and 1996, then climbs much more steeply over the next eight years; it peaks in 2004 and then declines gently until 2008 (the Ngram Viewer’s cut-off point). Similarly, Google Books shows very little action for the rest of the 90s; there are at least as many references to beer recipes and to unpleasantly warm cans and bottles (generally in hot countries) as there are to the proverbial Britishness of warm beer. Something certainly happened to give the phrase more prominence some time in the late 1990s, but exactly what it was – and when it happened – is unclear. Interestingly, if we put other phrases from Major’s speech into the Ngram Viewer – phrases like ‘pools fillers’ and ‘old maids cycling’ (Orwell wrote ‘biking’) – we see a similar pattern: a rapid rise after 1994, a peak between 2000 and 2004, then decline. Perhaps it simply took time for Major’s imagery to work its way into print (a book called “Invincible Green Suburbs” was published in 1998). Perhaps it has something to do with ‘Cool Britannia’ (1997-8) – and in particular Tony Blair’s eagerness to jump that wave when he became Prime Minister in the middle of it; perhaps the TV programme “I Love 1993” (broadcast in September 2001) would be worth checking out.

John Major didn’t invent the image of warm cask beer. It had been knocking around the national consciousness ever since 1942; thirty years after that, the image had been given greater salience both by the rise of keg and, paradoxically, by the efforts of cask devotees to debunk it. (You can’t say “it’s not true that cask beer is served warm” without saying the words “cask beer is served warm”!) But the prominence that the image has enjoyed recently is just that, recent. Before Major (and before Cool Britannia), “warm cask beer” was a sneer and a debating point. It took a controversial speech by an unpopular Prime Minister to turn it into a popular image of a British tradition. Like many imagined traditions, this one is barely old enough to drink.

Update (8th March) This conclusion needs a bit of qualification. As commenters have pointed out, ‘warm beer’ jokes abound in Goscinny & Uderzo’s Astérix chez les Bretons – written in 1965 and translated as Asterix in Britain in 1970. Further Googling for the phrase “as British as warm beer” finds multiple occurrences in the late 1990s and after – as we’d expect – but also one from 1986 and one from 1965; unlike those in the Asterix book, these don’t appear to have been written by outsiders looking in. So perhaps the ‘warm beer’ trope had a bit more of a hold before 1993 than I gave it credit for. I’d still maintain that Major’s speech gave it, at the very least, a big push towards the prominence it now has.