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.


  1. pubcurmudgeon
    Posted 1 April, 2015 at 9:01 am | Permalink | Reply

    Ah yes, but you, whether you like it or not, have become a beer geek with an interest in trying a wide variety of styles. If you include golden ales as a kind of reinterpretation of bitter, then a large majority of beers on the PBA shelves (and even more by sales volume) are still bitters, as are most of the cask beers on the bar of the average non-specialist pub. And pale beers, even pale’n’hoppy beers, were far from unknown in the 70s, for example Boddingtons, Yates & Jackson and Theakstons,.

    • Phil
      Posted 1 April, 2015 at 7:05 pm | Permalink | Reply

      That’s a good point. I did initially put pale/golden ales in the same category as best bitter, but when I thought about it I couldn’t picture myself drinking them before the mid-90s, when Summer Lightning was big. But for a lot of that time I was down south.

      Do you remember Hyde’s Anvil btw? As I remember it was a bloody awful beer – nothing like anything you can get now, with the possible exception of saisons – but it was *very* pale; bright yellow, as I remember.

      • pubcurmudgeon
        Posted 1 April, 2015 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

        Do you mean Hydes’ “Amboss” (German for anvil)? That was their top-fermented “bastard lager”, rather similar to Robinsons’ Einhorn, and from memory equally horrible.

      • Phil
        Posted 1 April, 2015 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

        Don’t think so – I remember it being a (sour and bright yellow) bitter which was actually called Anvil. Mind you, if I was actually drinking a poorly-made imitation lager that would explain a lot…

  2. DaveS
    Posted 1 April, 2015 at 5:49 pm | Permalink | Reply

    So how long do pale ales and IPAs have to be around before liking them no longer makes you a “neophile”?

    • Phil
      Posted 1 April, 2015 at 6:56 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Until they’ve been around since I was young, unfortunately!

  3. Posted 6 April, 2015 at 10:32 am | Permalink | Reply

    Is a “dark bitter” a real thing? It’s a term that I remember being applied to things like Younger’s No. 3 when CAMRA types didn’t really understand what they were. “Too strong to be a mild, so it must be a bitter of some sort … dark bitter” seems to be the thought process.

    • Phil
      Posted 6 April, 2015 at 11:14 am | Permalink | Reply

      When I was growing up ‘dark bitter’ was a thing to the extent that it was what you’d get if you were lucky enough to stumble on Young’s Winter Warmer or Old Peculier. Only I’ve covered those separately under ‘old ale’. Drat. Perhaps I should just have put ‘two bitters’ and left it at that.

      I’ve never seen Younger’s No 3. I like Ron‘s take:

      This beer tells us so much about British brewing. About the links between Burton and Edinburgh beers. And how hard it is to pin a specific style label on many beers of the past. What is No. 3? A Scotch Ale? A Burton Ale? A Strong Ale? The answer is, it’s all three. (Maybe that’s why it’s called number three.)

      In retrospect the spat a couple of years ago over whether ‘black IPA’ was a thing was a skirmish on the fringe of a much bigger grey area, labelled Here Be Dark Beers. The whole stout/porter thing is bad enough; there are a whole bunch of beers that are (a) dark going on black but (b) not a stout or porter and (c) not a dark mild either – things like Ridgeway Bad King John or Orkney Dark Island. Nobody knows what to call them.

      Talking about dark Scottish beers reminds me that I encountered American craft beer hype long before I got (back) into beer. I was in Colorado for work & there was a do one evening, for which somebody had got some decent beer in. I forget the brewer, but I remember drinking a 90 shilling ale – and thinking that in Scotland it would just about pass for 80 shilling, on a bad day, if you were thirsty. 1998, this was.

One Trackback

  1. By It Would Be So Nice on 1 April, 2015 at 6:39 am

    […] a related note, Phil at Oh Good Ale considers the struggle between his self-identity as a traditional-bitter drinker and the reality of his drinking habits in the brave new world of British… — ‘But look at that one lonely best […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: