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 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 old ale
1 black IPA
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.