So near my nose

[Crossposted from Oh Good Ale]

There was an interesting article by Gazza Prescott in the July 2010 Opening Times (the CAMRA magazine for Stockport and South Manchester), called “Mid-Atlantic: the new ‘Best of British’?”; it’s a slightly shortened version of a similarly-titled post on Gazza’s site.

Gazza’s argument goes something like this. There’s a distinctive beer style, which Gazza labels “mid-Atlantic”; it’s characterised by the use of lots of hops and the palest possible malt, to give an end result which is clear and pale yellow to look at, light in mouthfeel and very, very hoppy. Gazza traces the ancestry of this style from Exmoor Gold and Summer Lightning, through experiments by Rooster’s and Brendan Dobbin’s West Coast brewery, to today’s Pictish, Phoenix and Marble brews (“brewing of the new style around Manchester continued apace”). The growing availability of new varieties of hop, particularly from New Zealand, has fed into the growth of this style.

So far, so descriptive, but we’re rapidly reminded where Gazza’s allegiances lie. “The drinking public are waking up to pale and hoppy beers – or ‘Mid-Atlantic’ as I call them – with their intense flavours and attractive colour”; “happily, the number of brewers specialising in this new style of beer is growing all the time”. The conclusion is downright triumphalist:

Pale’n’hoppy beers are slowly taking over the beer culture of the UK … in the majority of specialist cask pubs nowadays, it’s common for most – if not all – of the pumps to be pouring beers of this style … this golden revolution is here and, on what I’ve seen atop bars and heard from brewers, it’s only going to keep growing.

“Mid-Atlantic” combines the UK’s growing love of extremely pale beer with the American ethic of large-scale hopping and, in doing so, has created a style of beer which is easy to drink, full of hop flavour, uncluttered by dark malts and – importantly in these image-obsessed times – a delight to behold atop a bar. It’s becoming extremely popular in the UK at the expense of old-fashioned “brown bitter” … we can legitimately claim it to be a new style of beer, one we have invented, and one of which we should be justifiably proud. So, long live “Mid-Atlantic” pale ales… the UK’s new favourite beer style!

I’m particularly struck by the idea that a pale yellow pint is intrinsically more attractive than a nut-brown one, irrespective of which you prefer to drink; it’s not a thought that’s ever crossed my mind before.

For my money, Gazza gets one thing right and a few big things wrong. Here’s the text of a letter I’ve sent to OT:

I came to Manchester in my early twenties, in 1982. In the previous few years I’d drunk and enjoyed beer in London, East Anglia, Cumbria, Scotland and Wales. Those beers were very different – you’d never mistake Buckley’s for Young’s, or Dryburgh’s for Tolly Cobbold – but two things they all had in common: they were brown and they were malty.

In Manchester things were different. The pride of the city was the yellow, hoppy Boddington’s Best; my local served the yellow, hoppy Hyde’s Anvil. I tried seeking out Robinson’s pubs, I tried switching to mild, but I soon realised I was fighting a losing battle: I was going to have to learn to like the Manchester pale style.

It’s taken a while, but I’ve just about managed it. So I agree with Gazza Prescott on two things: there are a lot of these beers around at the moment, and some of them are very good. But I don’t believe this style is anywhere near as new as Gazza suggests, and I don’t believe it’s “taking over the beer culture of the UK”. Without looking particularly far afield, I’ve drunk big malty ales in 2010 from Allgates, Conwy, Dunham Massey, Moorhouse, Robinson’s, Rooster, Titanic… the list goes on. And surely this is how it should be – the strength of British beer is its diversity.

Gazza’s “Mid-Atlantic” (I prefer “Manchester Pale”) isn’t a “golden revolution”; it’s just one style among many, one that happens to be popular this year. Done well (Pictish) it’s very nice indeed; pushed to extremes (Marble) it’s interesting at worst, stunning at best; done badly (no names) it’s bland as Budweiser. Hops have their place, but so does malt; brewers who forget this fact, in pursuit of the taste of 2010, could end up taking British beer up a flowery, lemony, smoky dead end.

The first point here is Gazza’s “mid-Atlantic” family tree. I yield to no one in my respect for Brendan Dobbin, but – as anyone who remembers Boddington’s Best can attest – Manchester’s affinity with pale hoppy bitters goes back well before he got started. I wrote about this back in 2006 (in a post on the class politics of the smoking ban). [Updates in square brackets.]

In south London, where I learned to drink, the bitter is generally tawny and malty. In south Wales and East Anglia, the next two areas where I tried the beer, the bitter is usually both malty and tawny. The types of bitter native to Scotland, Cornwall and Yorkshire, in my experience, have similar characteristics. There are variations – Cambridge beer is flat and tannic; a lot of Scottish beer tastes as if a bag of toffees has been dissolved in it (which in a sense it has); and South Walian beer is the best in the world bar none. [Damn, but I miss Buckley’s bitter.] But they’re variations within a shared style: in most parts of the country, if you order the local bitter you can safely expect something T and M.

Manchester is an exception. At least since the heyday of Boddington’s, there’s been a distinct local style of ale: pale and hoppy, with variations ranging from light-but-sour through cyanide-with-a-hint-of-malt to just-plain-undrinkably-bitter. I am not, as you may have gathered, a fan of this style – but the brewery which owns one of my two main locals [viz. the Marble] is very big on it. They brought on a seasonal ale in summer (when, to be fair, pale and hoppy styles do go down well) [the original (2005) Summer Marble]; I tried it once and seriously considered leaving the pint unfinished. It was the bitterest thing I’ve ever tasted, clove oil not excepted. The brewery does three or four different bitters, but they’re all pale and hoppy; most of the time the guest beers are pale and hoppy too. There’s a definite demand there, too. You can tell by the way the regulars’ favourite guests keep coming back – and the way their names keep including words like ‘white’ or ‘golden’. I’m in a minority on the tawny-and-malty front. A couple of years ago I had two pints of a guest mild they had on, and the barman asked me when I wanted to have the other 62.

The other points I don’t agree with Gazza on, clearly, are whether this style is “taking over” (clearly it isn’t, although it is having a bit of a vogue in a few parts of the country) and whether it would be a good thing if it did (absolutely no way at all). As Pub Curmudgeon commented at the time,

It’s probably also fair to say that these beers are the beer world’s equivalent of highly-peated malt whiskies such as Laphroiag and Talisker – very well-respected, but too much biased towards one extreme end of the flavour spectrum to appeal to many people as a regular tipple. You might well enjoy one or two during an evening’s sampling of a variety of beers, but few would want to drink them all night.

That’s about right. I’m baffled by Gazza’s repeated assertion that these beers are outstandingly ‘drinkable’ or ‘easy to drink’. Most Marble beers, in my experience, have a full-on front-of-mouth attack combining bitterness with hop aroma. Sometimes they’re brilliant beers, but they’re certainly not easy drinking bitters; sometimes, when a brew is particularly hoppy or has a particularly strong nose, I’ve found it a challenge to get through a whole pint (especially when they were using that particular hop variety which smells of stale beer and vomit – or is that just me?).

To my mind, Gazza let the cat out of the bag in a sentence which was cut (diplomatically?) from the print version of his piece. Describing the characteristics of the “mid-Atlantic” (or Manchester Pale) style, he says

The malt is here to give body, alcohol and a suggestion of flavour and not to balance the hops; if you have balance then there’s something wrong!

I like a lot more malt in my beer than Gazza, but I also like the sense that the different flavours are in balance. I think great beers almost invariably give that impression of balance, of no one flavour swamping the others; this is as true of Summer Lightning as it is of Old Peculier. What Gazza’s presenting is not so much a “golden revolution”, more a Hopheads’ Manifesto.

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