Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - September/October 2019
Bitter needs to stop pretending to be something other than what it really is
A COUPLE of decades ago, there was a trend for brewers to start calling their milds anything but mild, in the belief that the name itself came across as old-fashioned and was putting drinkers off. Now this tendency has spread to bitter as well. At first it was mostly confined to beers at the stronger end of the scale, with Young’s Special and Marston’s Pedigree dropping the “Bitter” and just going by their one-word brand name. But it has now extended to the classic “ordinary” bitters, such as Hook Norton Hooky, with many of them denying that they are any kind of bitter at all, often just calling themselves “amber ale”.
It has been suggested that one reason behind this us the undesirable flavour connotations of the word “bitter”, but I’m not convinced by that. After all, we’ve been happily drinking it for decades, and “sours” have become popular in the craft world without anyone finding that term offputting. I’m sure it is more the case that “bitter” is seen as the beer your dad drank.
But “amber” itself is just a colour, and in fact is generally described as a rich gold, whereas many beers calling themselves such are copper or even chestnut. And nobody ever, when asked the question “what type of beer do you enjoy drinking?” replies “Oh, I like amber ale”. At least, round here, if you go in a Holt’s, Lees or Sam Smith’s pub, you can still ask for a pint of bitter and that is precisely what you will get.
Whether you like it or not, Bitter, while it covers a wide spectrum of colours and flavours, is perhaps the quintessential English beer style, and stands in the pub alongside other major categories such as mild, stout and lager. To try to deny its existence and break it down into a myriad of sub-styles just sows confusion and leaves drinkers adrift as to what it actually is. So maybe it’s time for brewers to say, loud and proud, that what they’re producing is Bitter, and stop trying to suggest that it’s just some fuzzy, ill-defined category of “Ale”.
Might handpumps be putting people off real ale as much as attracting them?
HANDPUMPS have become an unmistakable symbol of real ale; if you go in a pub and see them on the bar, you know exactly what to expect. However, this can cut both ways, and, for many drinkers who have had too many bad experiences, they may mark it out as something not even to be considered. So it’s interesting to hear that Sharp’s Brewery are trialling a keg-style tall font for cask Doom Bar. There’s a clear statement on the mounting that it is cask beer, so nobody can claim that they are being deceived.
Thirty years ago, plenty of real ale was dispensed via electric pumps of various kinds, so in a sense it’s a case of the wheel coming full circle. There may be a strong association between real ale and handpumps in the public mind, but it no more needs to be served through them than it has to be delivered on horse-drawn drays or kept in wooden barrels. And the fashionable “keg-conditioned” beers are dispensed through taps indistinguishable from those used for normal kegs.
Of course there’s always the possibility that drinkers are so wedded to the concept of handpumps that it will deter more than it attracts. But it must be worth a try, to see whether it helps to make cask look more like everything else on the bar rather than something “other” to be avoided at all costs. It could also eliminate some of the variability caused by incompetent bar staff having little idea how to use handpumps. I’d certainly be keen to try it if I saw it.