Thursday, 4 February 2021

Why did British beer become blander in the 1980s?

I'd really like to know what happened to make UK beers less distinctive in the 1980s.

You may have been following my ludicrously detailed analysis of Boddington's Bitter. Probably not, if you value your time. It's a great case study, as I have so many of the brewing records.

How does subjective interpretation - that Boddies Bitter started to lose its way in the late 1970s and really went bad in the early 1980s - match up with the recipes and brewing practices?

There's nothing obvious to me. On the face of it, the recipe improved. Adjuncts were dropped, the malt percentage increased. While the hopping level remained around the same. You'd have expected the quality to have increased, or have not got worse.

Yet drinkers subjective opinions is that the beer got worse. I've not heard anyone say that it improved.

Why is this? I can't see any big change in process, other that the mash tuns and fermenters increasing in size.

A change in the yeast could be the reason. But I haven't been able to pin that down. 

I'm stumped. 

Was there really a big change in the beer, or was it people's perception of it? When it flipped from outsider to mainstream, was it assumed that it had sold our and turned to shit?

Some beer I drank definitely did bland out. I love Harvey's Sussex Best precisely because it reminds me of how Southern Bitter used to taste in the 1970s. While most other Bitters have become less distinctive.

Let me know if you have an explanation.

Yeast would be my guess. And old-fashioned fermentation methods.


Michael Foster said...

It's probably nostalgia for the good old days and we'll hear people say Boddingtons got worse in the 2000s in twenty years.

Owd Burnly said...

The smell of beer also seemed to change in the 1980's. I lived in Lancashire, Nottingham and Southampton then so I got a good sense of different beer styles around England. When you walked into a just-opened pub in the 70's you could smell the fresh beer which had been pulled through. And each beer, Boddy's, Tetley's Shippo's or whatever had a distinctive smell so you you tell without looking whose beer the pub sold. That only worked with cask beer. Keg beer just smells slightly hoppy.
For instance, Lancaster used to have two of the most distinctive bitters, Mitchells and Yates and Jackson. One dark red and malty and the other, pale and straw coloured and very bitter. I don't think any two breweries in the same town produced two more contrasting beers. However, as soon as Y&J got taken over over by Thwaites and shut down, Mitchell's standard beers got blander, as if the competion and had gone and they stopped trying to be so different and just went for lowest common denominator appeal. This also happened in Nottingham with Home Ales and Shippos.
No science here, only memory. Probably old fogeyism regretting the near wipeout of mis-sized town breweries.

Dennis King said...

My main tipple in the 70s was GK abbot a lovely beer. At some point in the 80s it changed and this was noticed by quite a few regulars. The landlord questioned his rep and was told a small fire at the brewery and the result was a loss of the yeast. They had recovered the yeast from the national collection but would take years to get back to the same as it was.

Lance from South Mississippi said...

Just another very subjective opinion. It could be that over the years people are used to the way something tastes, whether it tastes good or not. And when a change is made, even if it appears that the recipe got better, people just weren't used to the change. Most people are afraid of change. Maybe it is nostalgia. I didn't start drinking Boddies until the early 90's and I thought it tasted of honey, which is a good thing to me. Taste profiles are very subjective to the individual, even to a group.

Cal Ryan said...

If I had to take an educated guess, cost-saving measures as they expanded plus some natural changes that occur when you switch equipment. I'm sure they were looking to shave whatever time they could off of the fermentation and cellaring process. One or two tweaks no one will notice, but over time it is a death by 1,000 cuts.

I've seen plenty of other brands lose their way as they grow in modern days (BP's Sculpin leaps to mind). Slightly cheaper, better converted malt, shave half a point off the OG, switch hop farms, new yeast strains or nutrients. Suddenly over the course of a year or two, you have a completely different beer.

Even the partial adoption of draught would certainly also call for new considerations and changes in the cellar as well.

Also, as equipment scales up and efficiencies naturally increase, I'm of the belief that you will inevitably start losing some of that malt character that defines a beer. Less barley for more wort seems like a deal with the devil from a flavor perspective.

Sheffield Hatter said...

Re the takeover of Yates & Jacksons, followed by Mitchells becoming blander, I seem to remember something about the Y&J brewer going to work for Mitchells after Thwaites closed the brewery. This had the strange effect of the Mitchells bitter no longer being "dark red and malty" as Owd Burnly describes, but neither was it "pale and straw coloured and very bitter" as the Y&J bitter had been. In my memory it had become something in between, and the beer it most resembled was ... Thwaites!

Russell Gibbon said...

I´m Russell Gibbon, a Welshman living in Mexico since 1994. There are basically two giant brew companies here, that bought up all of the smaller breweries, names like Pacifico, Negro Modelo,Tecate and so on. Why am I telling you this in relation to this fascinating Boddingtons discussion? It seems to me that craving greater profits drives "death by a thousand cuts" small changes as another commenter has described it (above). For sure, what were once good quality and distinctive (i.e. they once had some character about them) beers, in 1994, have now all become the same, just different colours - every single beer here now is actually the same - Corona (yuk). There really is no longer a commercial beer in Mexico that has any credibility. Cost saving - replcing traditional malts with cheaper (lower quality) malts; reducing the alcohol level while looking to please as broad a range of the population as possible with a bland piss drink; operating at damn near automatic, robot / computer controlled level to reduce staffing costs. This is the sad story of commercial brewing in Mexico. I don´t doubt that some of what I have described also applies in the UK. Good job that I learned how to home brew in 2012!!!

Daniel Boisvert said...

Maybe new pasteurisation methods? Or maybe they just adapted to the market. In the past 20-30 years, here in Canada, biggest sellers are lite beers, like Coors Lite, or Bud Lite, and other similar piss-like beverages. No taste, no after taste, no personality, nothing. Now people complain whenever it is little heavy on the hop (while others re-discovered hopped beer in the 90s), or even when it's even remotely dark.
Of course, it is cheaper to produce light tasteless beer, with little hop, corn syrup aplenty and additives probably.

Mike in NSW said...

Australian beer is the perfect example of "blanding".
I first came across Aussie beer in Cardiff in the early 1970s - a heap of it was imported for the large expat population at the time. It wasn't just Fosters, I remember sampling Cascade Pale Ale, Resch's Dinner Ale and many others.

Those beers could hold their heads up proudly against any European and British equivalents, particularly the rather awful UK lagers. Fosters was pretty much the equivalent of the old school Stella Artois or Belgian Lamot that were tasty drops.

I moved to OZ in the late 70s, then came the numerous takeovers and mergers and gradually the IBUs dropped, the hop presence disappeared and year by year gravities dropped across the board. From a typical 4.9% ABV in the 70s, 4.3% or even lower is now classed as "full strength".

Poor old Fosters is a good example. It was last brewed around 2000 in its Australian form and by that time had become virtually flavourless. A new version has been introduced "Fosters Classic" which is a blatant lie. It's 4% and clearly based on the UK recipe. Hard to find and probably will be discontinued again.

The one major independant brewery, Coopers, has maintained a high standard of excellent full flavoured beers.

Ron Pattinson said...

Michael Foster,

it's Harvey's Sussex Best that makes me trust my senses. That tastes like many southern Bitters did in the 1970s. Which tells me its the beers not my tastebuds that changed.

Chris Pickles said...

In the 80's whole string of regional beers were promoted nationwide. Boddingtons was only one, the same thing happened with Tetleys, Websters, Stones etc etc. Nowadays its Greene King. In every case bar none it has been the kiss of death for the beer - quality plummets and sooner of later it goes out of fashion and the brand disappears, the brewery closes and nobody really cares because the beer is (by now) crap anyway.

The change in the recipe at Boddingtons in the late 70's is interesting. Perhaps the usual assumption that an all malt brew is better ain't necessarily so.

Mike in NSW said...

Chris, up till the late 60s Fullers used a fair whack of flaked maize as well as double dropping, but now all malt and fermented in modern conicals.
Not all that familiar with London brews but I've seen whinges around the Internet about London Pride being a shadow of its former self.

Mike in NSW said...

Chris: part 2!!!!

Two examples of beers that became nationally distributed then changed markedly: Theakston Best Bitter and Stones.

I remember when Theakston was lager coloured back in the 70s. It became a bit of a cult drink in the North and was attracting a lot of young lager drinkers because it looked like beer should look!!

Stones, owned by Bass hit back by lightening their bitter (all keg back then I believe) to get into that segment.

Now Theakston and the reintroduced Stones are just bog standard beer colour. I also remember Boddingtons being virtually lager coloured as well but only drank it when I was visiting my Cousin in Manchester so wasn't all that familiar with it.

John Lester said...

Mike in NSW may like to note that, far from Stones Best Bitter being “all keg”, at least 80% of its production in the mid-1970s was in cask. Stones had been an immensely popular beer in the Sheffield area for many years and remained so throughout the 1970s and beyond. (My experience, incidentally, was that the colour stayed the same (very pale) throughout the 1970s, so I’m not sure where the idea that Bass changed it to compete with Theakston’s came from.)

John Lester said...

On Lancaster brewers, it’s worth noting that Mitchells closed their own brewery and moved into the former Yates and Jackson’s brewery after Thwaites took over.