Monday, August 29, 2011

Not so ordinary

Back in the 1970s, most British brewers just produced Mild (at around 1033 OG) and Bitter (at around 1038 OG). Choice, and a contrast in flavours, was achieved by switching between brewers, not within an individual brewer’s range. There were a handful of premium beers, such as Ruddles County, Marstons Pedigree and Wadworths 6X, and these got the recognition as the beers you would go out of your way to sample. Inevitably, these beers gained a reputation and became the standard-bearers of the “real ale revival”. The fact that they had memorable brand names rather than just being “Bloggs’ Bitter” must have helped.

But times change, and recently we have seen a number of brewers reducing the strength of these “premium beers” because they were felt to be too strong for the current climate of sobriety and health obsession.

However, rather than doing this, shouldn’t the brewers be doing more to promote their classic “ordinary bitters” in the 3.5-4.0% ABV strength band? These beers, which manage to extract huge depths of flavour and character from a very modest, quaffable strength, are surely the most distinctive achievement of British brewing, and cover a vast spectrum of colour, flavour and character.

Locally, Robinson’s Unicorn at 4.2% is a bit too strong to qualify, but both Holts and Lees bitters are excellent brews when in good condition. Just considering the family brewers, a selection of Timothy Taylors Bitter, Batemans XB, Adnams Southwold Bitter, Harveys Sussex Best and Hook Norton wouldn’t disgrace any bar. I used to love Brakspear’s when brewed in Henley, but have not had enough of the Wychwood version to be able to judge it.

Incidentally, I was recently surprised to learn that Robinson’s are now selling more of the pale, somewhat hoppy 3.8% Dizzy Blonde than their traditional mainstay, the 4.2% Unicorn. Dizzy Blonde was originally just produced as a seasonal beer but has now become their best seller. Initially it was a bit bland, but more recently it has gained more hop character and is now, when well-kept, an enjoyable beer.