Monthly Archives: August 2019

Not a fan

I realised the other day that I’m not a fan.

I don’t mean that in the usual sense, as an elaborate way to say you don’t much like something – although I’m sure I could reel off as many dislikes and prejudices as the next blogger. I’m not a fan of beer you can’t see through, for example, and I still haven’t managed to get into sours; in my experience Wild‘s beers need to be approached with caution, and Omnipollo‘s are rarely worth the trouble (and expense) of approaching at all.

But that’s by the way. The point is, when it comes to beer I’m not a fan – of anyone or anything (any brewery, any style, any beer).

(OK, I’m already thinking of exceptions. But let’s pursue this melancholy line of thought a bit further.)

What’s happened? How did the decades-long journey of discovery – starting out with one big, explosive discovery (beer!!!) and continuing through the smaller explosions of other discoveries (old ale! abbey beers! Weizen! Dunkelweizen! porter! imperial stout! really really really pale hoppy beers!) – how did it wash up in my current state of vague yeah it’s all right I suppose not-a-fandom?

The short answer is that things change. The long answer is the same, but in four parts.

1. Breweries Close

Yes, I’m going to mention TicketyBrew again. I was a huge fan of Duncan Barton’s beers; I’ve still got a few in the garage, but when they’re gone I’m really going to miss them. If I knew a bar nearby had one of their beers on I’d always check it out, even if it meant making a special trip later – and I was very rarely disappointed when I did. I only really discovered how big a fan I’d been after the brewery closed, when I realised that I’d stopped peering in at the windows of local bars as I passed. If I already knew I wasn’t going to see one of TicketyBrew’s instantly identifiable zigzag pump clips… well, what was the point? There are a few other breweries in the “always check out” category – Batham’s, Holden’s, Harvey’s, Dark Star – but three of those are very rarely available around here, and as for the fourth…

2. Breweries Change

For a long time I felt like I ought to be a fan of Marble, what with the eponymous Beerhouse basically being my local, and for a long time I didn’t really get their beers. I don’t think it was entirely me, either; some of them were a bit rough round the edges, particularly in the period when they were using that one hop that smells like vomit. (That’s not just me, is it?) Anyway, breweries change – sometimes for the better – and, while James Kemp was head brewer, Marble produced two superb pale ales, the beast that was Built to Fall and the crystalline perfection of Damage Plan. Kemp, with Joe Ince, followed up with the Gothic Series, a range of barrel-aged old ales and imperial stouts, which were equally brilliant. I bought one of everything and started making notes towards what would have been a big (and favourable) review of Marble Beers In General. Then things changed; James Kemp moved on (to Yeastie Boys); the bottles started going out of stock and the beers weren’t re-brewed. There have been a few new barrel-aged beers from Marble, but Ince’s interests seem to lie more in pales and sours. (So, am I a fan of Marble? No. Yes. Which Marble?)

3. Fashions Change

When I first got into beer there was a simple rule of thumb; beer in general was brown, malty and traditional, quite easy to find but not very strong; good beer was very brown, very malty, very traditional, quite hard to find and very strong (a phrase which here means ‘over 4.9%’). I had Young’s Winter Warmer at a beer festival once and for a moment had to restrain myself from shouting Yes! That’s it! (“Est, est, est!” “Tell them I am drinking stars, although by ‘stars’ I mean ‘memories of under-age drinking in South London’!”)

Anyway, one taste I’ve preserved from that period is a taste for old ales and barley wines. But can you get them? I realise that 8%ers on cask are a tall order, but you’d think that the ‘craft keg’ scene – with its tolerance for high strength and high price, and its endemic competition for stylistic niches – would have been ideal territory for a revival of these types of beer. (And you can always bottle them – see above.) Strong pales we get; strong stouts, we get; strong sweet stouts, even. Old ales and barley wines, dubbels, tripels, doppelbocks – not so much. It must just be fashion. I guess barley wines will come back round again – everything comes back round again eventually; I just hope it doesn’t take too long.

4. Tastes Change

This last point, though, is the real shocker. I cut my teeth on the brown, malty beers characteristic of the London area and South Wales – and Sussex, and rural Yorkshire, and the South-West, and the North-East, and East Anglia, and Scotland… – and for a long time I was a staunch partisan of those styles, despite them not being the thing around here (or in south Lancs and west Yorks generally).

After several years of more or less forced exposure to them, eight years ago I made the happy discovery that pale’n’oppy beers are actually quite nice. But I retained my appreciation of the good old brown-and-malty, if done properly – as in, Adnams’ Broadside or Fuller’s ESB rather than Sheps’ Spitfire – and would always make a beeline for beers from those few contemporary breweries that were still turning them out. They were often Welsh; Conwy was a favourite for a while, and I was over the moon when I realised that Evan Evans was a direct continuation of Buckley’s, whose bitter was the one of the first I ever loved.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I had a half of Evan Evans’ uncompromisingly-titled Cwrw in a Spoons’ in Urmston (of all places), and it was… fine. Well, barely that. I mean, the beer itself was absolutely fine – good example of the style, well kept and in good nick, I could tell that it was doing what it was supposed to do. It was just… a bit on the sweet side, if I’m honest; a bit too big and mouth-filling for my liking. Results from a subsequent tasting of Fuller’s ESB were similarly disappointing. It’s a good beer, it’s just… it’s not really my thing, any more.

But if I haven’t got a brewery to be a fan of, and I haven’t got a style to be a fan of – except breweries and styles that you basically can’t get – what does that leave?

5. Found in the Supermarket

A bottle of Landlord, the other week, absolutely knocked my socks off – it was every bit as good as it is on cask, when it’s been cellared properly and allowed to dry out a bit. A can (it’s what all the cool kids are drinking these days) of Rooster’s Yankee was terrific; I was genuinely surprised at how fruity and how bitter it was. The whole thing was so well done, it really seemed to make sense of the pale’n’oppy style (which can be as ho-hum as any other). A bottle of Proper Job delivered something similar but in heavier boots; that’s a big pale hoppy beer.

So there’s that; the classics are still classics, at least some of them. And, going back to the first couple of points, it’s worth noting that these are all quite long-established beers from independent breweries that are still trading (and still independent). Maybe that’s something I am a fan of: independent breweries (so that the brewer is close enough to the top of the organisation to guarantee quality) making styles they’ve been brewing for a few years (so that they’ve had time to get them right). Same thing I’ve been a fan of since the 1970s, really.