Beer Matters

Fresh, Local, Seasonal

Those three words have become something of a catchphrase in today’s “foodie” culture - and quite rightly so. In my youth the quality of food was at an all-time low. Never mind freshness, technology was all that mattered and sod the flavour. Remember those adverts where little aliens fell about laughing at the idea of peeling potatoes and serfs slaving over a hot spit dreamed of the days when “all manner of roast meats” would come in little boxes?

Those were the days too when marketing men were trying to convince us that we only wanted to drink bland, fizzy beer. Sadly the introduction of “keg” and “top pressure” beer was aided enormously by the fact that a lot of cask beer was kept in poor (or downright unpalatable) condition and, despite the best efforts of CAMRA and Cask Marque, the downward spiral of “poor condition - reduced turnover - worse condition” has probably been the major impediment to the revival of cask ale over the past 40 years. Fortunately there at last seem to be growing numbers of young licencees and cellarmen able and willing to do the job properly. There is nothing quite like receiving your first pint of the day, noting the lively but loose head and savouring the fresh hoppy aroma of a really well-kept ale.

I have mentioned before the disappointment of walking into a pub far from home and being confronted with all-too-familiar pump-clips. In Christmas week I visited my ancestral pub, the Ship Inn on Lymington quay, and what did I find? Young’s “Ordinary” (my staple diet for most of the year but see below) and Fuller’s London Pride. In great-great-great-granddad’s day the beer would almost certainly have been from the Isle-of-Wight brewery of Mew and Langton (long gone, having been taken over by Strong of Romsey in the 60s and subsequently closed by the Whitbread group), who had a depot and bottling plant on the quay.

I was last on the IoW some three years ago for the old folks’ club annual holiday (I was driving the minibus in which we transported the less mobile members). Having seen the old dears safely ensconced in the hotel, Mrs Bibendus and I set off in search of a pint. The previous time we were in Sandown we had enjoyed Goddard’s bitter from Ryde in the Old Comical (formerly the Commercial Hotel), but this time it had been revamped in Greene King livery and there was nothing local but a few bottles from the Ventnor Brewery. In the event, with driving and wheelchair pushing taking priority, it was halfway through the week before we managed to locate some Goddard’s but I noticed in the pub window a lozenge-shaped logo (in this case neatly overlaid on an outline of the IoW) with the legend LocAle.

LocAle is a CAMRA initiative to promote the locally-brewed ale on the grounds that, as well as being good for tourism, it benefits the local economy and the environment (through reduced “beer miles”). Accreditation is granted to pubs meeting the criteria at the discretion of the local CAMRA branch. Although I have come across various accredited pubs since that first encounter on the IoW, the scheme is not nearly as widespread as it deserves to be. [For more information see]

Seasonality is a sore point! At the time of writing Siberian weather is on its way and my local has sold its last firkin of Winter Warmer. I emailed Wells and Youngs, demanding an explanation as to why a beer designed for consumption in cold weather and formerly supplied from October to March is now withdrawn at the end of January, and received a somewhat unconvincing reply: “Due to limited capacity at the brewery, we are only able to brew Winter Warmer for a very short period.” So with snow and sub-zero temperatures imminent they are presumably about to release another “seasonal” beer totally unsuited to the season. When the spring comes I will happily switch back to “Ordinary” but in these cold, miserable evenings something darker, richer and stronger is definitely called for.

I take the point that not everyone appreciates the seasonal nature of beer - particularly those bent on pouring chilled lager down their necks whatever the weather - but surely an established regional brewery with a long history of producing good English ale should be more sensitive to the needs of its loyal customers? It wouldn’t have happened in Mr John’s day”!

Maximus Bibendus

[Retrospective Note - In fairness to Wells and Youngs, I should add that they did replace the Winter Warmer with London Porter, which proved to be an acceptable substitute for those winter evenings. However their PR person hadn’t mentioned it and it didn’t arrive in my local until a week or so after I had written the article.]

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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