Fri May 28th, 2010 at 12:09:17 PM EST
The local Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) magazine in London has an occasional feature called "Desert Island Beers", named in honour of the radio programme, Desert Island Discs, where celebs are invited to discuss the music they would wish to have with them if they were marooned on a Desert Island. Thus, in the mag, we have the beers the writer would choose to have available if they were cast away.
I was talking with a senior CAMRA person about beers that are no longer available and he suggested I put together a list of beers we have loved and lost. So here they are. Obviously this will not mean much to anyone else here, but I thought I'd write about why these beers mean so much to me and hopefully that will be a bit more interesting.
So here's 10 Beers I wish were still around
Boddingtons Bitter (pre-78)
Although I grew up drinking Greene king ales when they were good (an almost laughable idea now) the first truly great beer I encountered was Boddingtons Bitter from Manchester, when I first went to university. Nowadays drinkers think of Manchester's beer culture as being fabulously rich and diverse with great breweries such as Holts and Robinsons. Good as these beers are, when I first started drinking there Boddingtons reduced these others to the status of also-rans; it was a truly world-class beer. Straw yellow with just a hint of maltiness, the thing you noticed was the almost impossible depth and balance of flavour, culminating in a no-holds barred bitter thwack at the back of the throat as you swallowed.
Sadly, sometime in 78/79 the brewery got a bad batch of yeast which infected everything; a nightmare problem in such an old brewery and almost impossible to shift. A problem compounded by their use of 3 separate yeast strains working together. By 1980 the beer was almost undrinkable and the company was finally put out of its misery by the large national company, Whitbreads. To their credit, Whitbread threw resource and expertise at the problem and resurrected the beer, but it was ever after only a pale shadow of its former greatness.
Fenland Smokestack Lightning
I only had this beer twice from a sadly short-lived brewery, but I knew I'd found a British beer to stand alongside my long-time favourite beer, the beguilingly delicate smoked Schlenkerla Rauschbier from Bamberg, Germany. Smooth, rich, bittersweet and run though with a wonderful smoky bacon flavour, I miss it still.
Timothy Taylors Landlord (pre-85)
I'm sure people will reassure you that this beer is still plentifully available, that it still wins awards including CAMRA Supreme champion in both 94 & 99. Surely, they'd say, this means it's still a beer of great quality ? Well, let us say that it's not entirely straightforward and leave it at that. Let us instead note that most drinkers of my acquaintance don't think TTL is particularly special at all (no I don't know Madonna, who apparently really likes it). If it's good then it would be worth getting a pint or two, but that is a sadly rare occurence. Too often it's a bit thin, prone to being a bit too citrus-y and often lacking a balanced flavour. Given other options I rarely take the risk of a bad experience.
Yet, once it was the best beer in the world, possibly the first superstar beer of the CAMRA real ale revolution, where a small regional brewery suddenly burst out of its locality with a beer that took the drinking public by storm. This was not just my opinion, but seemingly everyone else's too. At pubs and beer festivals where it appeared, it was always the first beer drunk out. You didn't measure a barrel's lifetime in sessions, but in hours. If a particularly fine barrel came on, and they were frequent back then, it would just be hammered, not lasting an hour.
If the beer was available in a pub, you would naturally choose it first, not because you lacked imagination or curiosity to try other beers, but just in case it was really, really good and you'd have missed out.
However, somewhere along the line the brewery lost the knack of making this beer a great one. There are theories as to why that happened; I don't know and all is speculation. All I know is, I can't find it anymore and that is a desperate loss.
Back when CAMRA first started up, some of the national companies tried to deflect the criticism they were getting for their awful keg beers by getting small plants to brew boutique beers. And, Watneys, who were taking the most heat, in response gave free rein to their rather large subsidiary, Trumans, to brew good beer. The first of which was Tap bitter. At the time, in the 70s, beers had tended to go down the path of quite malty flavours, so to find this floral hoppy beer on the bar was a revelation. It was unlike any other beer around at the time and I know that it would still be a standout today because sometimes I drink other beers and am reminded of Tap, but they are always less than, not more.
Bass Bitter (Union brewed)
Bass bitter is known throughout the world, its red Triangle symbol is the world's oldest trademark (London no 1) and has been an export success since the early 20th century. And one of the things that made it a success was the fact that it was brewed using what is known as the Union system that made it an unusually consistent and stable beer. However, accountants, never known for allowing a bankable success to get in the way of seeking to squeeze costs, decided that the maintenance of the Union system was hurting the bottom line and scrapped it. With a stroke of a pen a yeast line that had remained stable for over a century was cast aside and the quality of the beer nosedived.
It became too sweet and lacked the depth of flavour that had made it such a bankable choice. Once a pub that sold Bass well had been a mark of quality to actively seek out and appreciate, people swapped notes as to where the best pint could be had (Euston station was the the most frequently tipped). But with the loss of the beer, so went the reputation. Bass is now owned by Coors of the USA. They deserve nothing better.
Caledonian Strong ale
This was a beer which I only saw on draught once, but it was readily available in bottles for a time and so became a staple for when I visited friends. It was a wonderful bitter, with that lovely Scottish tang of crystal and amber malts unusually(for a Scottish beer) balanced by a strong hoppy presence. Although I loved the beer, and there were months where I drank little else, sadly too few others did. The brewer himself once told me that it just wasn't selling enough to be viable and so it died a death.
American craft beers are not common in the UK even now, but once they were seemingly as exotic and unknowable as cockatrice and unicorns. This changed when the Great British Beer festival expanded its foreign beer section to include beers from the other side of the pond. And what a revelation they were, with their big booming flavours, powerhouses of hops both floral and bittering. As much as CAMRA inspired the American craft beer revolution, American beers are now influencing beers brewed over here; every huge hoppy British IPA you drink now owes its genesis to those huge American beers that came into the GBBF.
But tucked away amidst this riot of power beers was a little gem, Catamount Porter. Perfectly balanced, sweet and rich with more than a touch of the essential sourness too often missing from beers that pretend to the name of "porter". It was lovely thirst-quenching beer with just the right amount of `cut'. Sadly the brewery went out of business and this lovely beer was lost.
Adnams Mild & Adnams Extra
Much though I appreciate Adnams beers, I can't help but have a lingering exasperation for a brewery that killed off not just one of my favourite beers, but instead chose to obliterate two of them.
Good milds from British regional brewers are rare survivors, so I always went out of my way to drink Adnams mild. It had no pretentions to greatness, it was just a quiet, unassuming dark mild, a good old-fashioned quaffing beer. You could sit and socially drink 3 or 4 and not be the worse for wear. But somehow that wasn't enough, it was out of fashion they said, not enough people drank it they said. Sod fashion I say, quality isn't about fashion; but it was no surprise nobody drank it, it was in hardly any of their pubs. So, one day the accountants decided they didn't need it anymore and it was gone.
The story of Adnams Extra is altogether darker and one day the truth will be told about why they killed it off. Until then, all we have now are publican's legends, tales heard from salesmen and agents. It originated as just straightforward premium ale in their range. But it was quite a different beer to their ordinary bitter, much hoppier and with a more astringent taste. Strangely, it never seemed to find a market and for many years only 4 outlets stocked it. And then it went and won the CAMRA Champion beer of Britain and its future looked assured. Except that somebody at the brewery disagreed and within a couple of years the beer ceased to be brewed. Nobody knew why it was killed as it had become popular.
Earlier this year it was resurrected for one month only, and it was as wonderful as my tastebuds remembered but the brewery were savagely emphatic that it was a one off never to be repeated.
This is the one that makes most beer lovers spit with rage. Since the very early 60s, there had been two types of Guinness; the nitrokeg beer with which everyone is familiar and the "real ale in a bottle" Guinness that sat on the shelf of nearly every pub in the country. If you were with friends and went into a keg-only pub then you knew that you were safe from drinking keg nastiness.
It wasn't just a case of snobbishness either. The bottled stuff was entirely different from the Guinness in the keg. Not just in "mouth-feel", but in flavour, it was a more bitter beer with the coffee malt seemingly more prominent. Also, if the bottle hadn't settled properly or been badly poured, then it would have a rough quality that was a part of the experience. Somewhat like a weak version of the Nigerian Guinness we know today.
It was a special beer and Guinness management were vandals to destroy it.