Sunday, 7 February 2021

Why did British beer become blander in the 1980s? (part two)

I'm just back from a walk. Unless it's pissing down, I always go for a walk around noon. A good time to think, while I'm strolling around my little patch of Amsterdam.

Not just think, but start writing in my head. Phrases or even whole sentences. I can shuffle the words around before committing them to metaphorical paper. (That's an example of a sentence I mentally wrote.)

But let's not stray from the point. I was pondering why and when UK beers became blander. A few things became clear. Oh, what I'm referring to is mostly cask-conditioned Bitter and occasionally cask Mild.

First, timeframe. I was thinking 1975 to 1985 or 1990. Then realised that the reason I started at 1975, if because that's when I began drinking in earnest. Were I ten years older, I'd probably have kicked off in 1965. I'm sure beers have been tending towards blandness at least since WW II.

As for why, I believe multiple factors. All to do with changes. Sometimes small changes having a cascading effect. Or acting in combination with another small change alter a beer's flavour cataclysmically.

Why does Harvey's Sussex Best still taste the same? Because they haven't changed anything for years. Same equipment, same ingredients, same process.

Cask Bitter is a surprisingly delicate beast. Easily thrown out of kilter by the slightest tinkering. Let's look at all the potential trouble spots in turn. While remembering that some breweries quite deliberately made their beers blander.

Plenty of room for enforced change here. A barley variety may no longer be grown. A hop variety might succumb to disease. Or you could just be a cheapskate and use cheaper hops. Or fewer of them. Shortly after Greenall Whitley took over Nottingham brewer Shipstone, they started fiddling with the Bitter recipe, reducing the hopping and making it less bitter. Luckily, Greenalls didn't pay the Mild any attention and its recipe remained unchanged.

Equally, the thrifty brewer could replace some of the malt with something a little cheaper, like unmalted grain. As Guinness did with Extra Stout, when they substituted flaked barley for 20% of the base malt.

A proprietary sugar might be discontinued. If the manufacturer goes bust or is taken over. Which is reportedly what happened with the primings Boddington used.

I'm guessing Harvey's recipe hasn't changed much in many decades. Based on the sacks of flaked maize and tubs of invert sugar, it looks like a typical 1950s recipe.

Even water can change. Fullers had to abandon their well when it became contaminated. Now they use standard London tap water. I'm sure they're not the only brewer that's had the problem.

Yeast, too, can be a tricky bugger. Harvey's' have been repitching their John Smith's yeast for 60 years. If a brewery's yeast turns bad, they can be in real trouble.

In my first year at university (1975-76), I drank a lot of Sam Smith Old Brewery Bitter. Mostly because they had it on cask in the student union bar at 18p a pint. I quite liked, it as well. It wasn't simply the price. When I got back after the summer holidays I was horrified by my first sip. It tasted completely different. What the hell had happened? I later heard that they'd such bad problems with their yeast that they had to find a new one. They must have been constantly repitching - as Harvey's does - and didn't have their strain banked anywhere.

Equipment. Changing the size, type, dimensions or materials of brewing vessels can impact a beer's flavour. I won't include fermenter here as I'll cover those in fermentation.

For example, if you get a new mash tun without rakes and an underlet, you won't be able to underlet mash. Can your copper handle whole hops? One of my favourite beers ever was the 1837 Truman XXXX Mild Ale Pretty Things brewed some time back. An extremely simple recipe: mild malt and a shitload of whole leaf Goldings. The beer had this incredible citrus aroma you only get a huge concentration of leaf Goldings. Only thing is, the brew house was designed for pellets. Hop cones get stuck everywhere and it took them a day to dig them out of the equipment. So next time they brewed it they used pellets. It just wasn't the same. Still a really good beer, but not hitting the heights of the whole leaf version.

The shape of a copper can influence how much colour a wort takes on while boiling. Enclosed ones adding more colour than open ones.

. It has a multitude of traps. Most obvious is changing the type of fermenter. For example, ditching the dropping system and just open ferment. Or do what Fullers did and go straight to conical fermenters. Here's where we get back to yeast. When Fuller moved to conicals, they slimmed down their pitching yeast from three strains to one. Which did they pick - the one that gave the most distinctive flavour. Which also happened to fit the bill in other aspects.

Adnams still have two strains. One provides most of the flavour, the other the attenuation. Neither would work on their own. But I'm sure there are breweries who opted for a bland attenuative yeast when they wanted to simplify what they pitched.

Even a simple thing like changing the size of a fermenting vessel can influence flavour. Yeast is funny stuff and can be picky about where it works.

When Bass removed their union sets in the 1980s, it had a huge impact on the beer. Never tasted the same - or as good - again.

A new brewhouse can cause a total disaster, if something goes badly wrong. Take Home Ales, a regional brewery based in Nottingham and with around 400 pubs. Their boozers were mostly pretty basic, but well frequented. Their beer was cheap and dead reliable. Not my favourite, but OK and guaranteed to be in good condition. The brewery seemed to be doing very well. So well, that they invested in a shiny new brew house. And that's when the trouble started.

There was a source of infection somewhere in the new plant. Their beer was now sometimes just about OK, but mostly tasted infected. It must have hit them financially, too, as they sold up to Scottish & Newcastle in 1986. I don't know if they ever really fixed the problem.

Including cellaring. Lots of sensitive spots here, as well. Primings and finings, for a start. A change in the former might affect secondary fermentation, as well as the flavour. Then there's how much secondary fermentation there is and how long it lasts. Miles Jenner told me that they stored casks in a warehouse for a week after filling. Basically because they don't trust all landlords to leave casks long enough before tapping.

I was a bit of a Tetley's Mild snob when I lived in Leeds. It was about all I drank and could detect considerable differences in flavour between different pubs. I suspect it was all to do with how long the landlord left a cask alone before serving it. Where they didn't wait long enough. Too young and it tasted much like the bright version. Which was served through the same electric pumps as cask. I thought the Newlands sold bright beer until the landlord went on holiday. Under his standin, the beer got much better and was obviously cask. As soon as the landlord was back from holiday, the beer became crap again. Clearly something that was going on in the cellar that made a big difference to the flavour.

Turning onto dispense proper, most obvious purveyor of blandness would be excessive CO2 top pressure. Or nitrogen. Though that would make it no longer cask. I'm not sure if anyone applies CO2 top pressure any more. I'm not including cask breathers in that.

Exactly how you serve proper cask is hugely important. When I first moved to Leeds, handpilled Tetleys was a rarity. Almost all the pumps had metred electric pumps. Only a few pubs in some of the rougher parts of town had retained beer engines. My first taste of handpulled Tetley's Mild was in the Sheepscar. A corner pub in the middle of nothing, the street around it having been demolished. I have no idea where they got their customers from. Me and my mate Matt dropped by one evening at were delighted - at least, I was - to see a set of working handpulls. The beer was wonderful. And very different from the electric pump version. Much smoother somehow. I guess from the univac/econimiser method of serving. Where beer was recirculated from the drip tray. Tetley's just doesn't taste right unless it's served that way.

In 1976, I started regularly frequenting the Cardigan arms in the Kirkstall Road in Leeds. A lovely Victorian pub. Electric pumped, but well kept beer. Then the hand pumps were put back in. The beer was like nectar. So drinkable. So moreish. The perfect session pint. Such a big difference just from how the beer was moved from cellar to cask.

In conclusion, there are a stack of ways beer can become blander. Some beers may been afflicted with several changes. Others just the one. It can be an incremental process - like the reduction in the hopping rate in Budweiser. In multiple, almost imperceptible individually, steps.


Thom Farrell said...

I wonder how many of the traditional British breweries still use whole hops as opposed to hop pellets.

BryanB said...

"Miles Jenner told me that they stored casks in a warehouse for a week after filling" - John Keeling told me the same thing a few years ago about Fuller's.

Alan said...

I remember around 1980 there was an article in the tissue thin paper version of The Manchester Guardian that came in the mail to Nova Scotia. An elderly French chef explaining how dull food had become since he started out on his career in the 1920s. It was about then that I worked for a few months as a burger flipper at McDonalds, just when the hydrogenated oil was intoduced. it was almost undigestible and left a quarter inch of plaque on the bottom of your shoes that had to be peeled off after a shift. Like the 1890s it was a time of technical advance in mundane things. More TV channels. More shapes of pasta. Microwaves. Single servings of pudding in plastic containers. Distributing the novel may lead to flattening and corners but also innovation with McLuhan's promise of unintended consequences. Plus Reagan and Thatcher's promise of profits skimmed from everything.

Anonymous said...

Fermenting temperatures seem like another possible candidate. A lot of English yeasts can throw off different flavors, or a lot less flavor, within a pretty narrow range of temperatures, and the change in temperature during fermentation can matter too. It's possible some brewers got hung up on consistency or speeding up fermentation and wiped out a degree of yeast character even when the actual strain remained the same.

Russell Gibbon said...

Russell Gibbon here. I really like this post, Ron. You have given us a lot of things to reflect upon here. I find it especially interesting how sometimes a huge difference in beer quality is made by what seems on the face of it to be a tiny change. All that I would add is, while this is a comprehensive listing of potential chance changes and largely negative consequences for the quality of a beer, there´s one BIG reason beer has become crap: profit. I know one famous online Master Brewer who told me that one of the reasons that he left the brewing industry was the intentional, deliberate blanding and weakening of once good beers, by the big brewing companies. No accidents or unintended cockups here - we are talking about the intentional turning of proper beer into piss, to reach more people, increase sales and make more money.

Mike said...


Great post. Yeast(s) and fermentation (vessel geometry, head pressure, etc) are leading candidates for me for flavor impact. I think a good piece of the magic of Harvey's is that, and while seemingly not an impact on their cask beer, (and as you know) they also have Debaryomyces in the mix, sharing 71% of the DNA of Brettanomyces, responsible for the Brett like aroma of their Le Coq Imperial Stout. Truly one of the world's most magical breweries.


Ross Slaughter said...

Just a small point Ron but as a fan of Sam Smiths I am pretty sure they claim their yeast strain goes directly back to the 19th century. I am not saying you are wrong at all as I only tasted my first pint of it 8 years ago. I wonder what the truth really is then? I am sure though Sams would never reveal anything themselves.

Ross Slaughter said...

On another note, well done on another great article Ron. As a beer fan of 35 I find myself bedevilled by the certainty that my fathers generation and above got to taste the beers that are still common today in ways I never will. Newcastle Brown Ale from what I can surmise is nothing remotely like the Newcastle brewed blended beer it was when my Dad fell for it in the 70’s. Similarly I have never found the legendary Marstons Pedigree to be anything but cheap and mediocre but I can at least pick up hints of the beer it once was in its case.

Owd Burnly said...

Re: Tetley's hand pumps. Quality depended as well on turnover of beer. Me and a mate came across The Sheepscar by accident one afternoon in the late 70's. One of the best pints of Tet's bitter I've ever had. My mate was on mild and he insisted that we stop on 'til chucked out. We then hitched up to York to watch Dr Feelgood, well watered.
The standard of beer was because of demand for good stuff. I think a lot of the old residents came back to drink there, giving a good turnover in fresh beer. It was a bit of an Irish pub too and the creamy Guinness was flying as well. Sheepscar district is now a business area and the last time I looked I couldn't find the pub. RIP.
Those back street boozers often had the best beer as their customers were dedicated drinkers who spurned keg beer and lager.

qq said...

@Thom - some do, many don't use whole hops, but it's perhaps significant that those with a reputation for quality, like Tim Taylors, tend to be in the former camp.

Keeping beer for a week at the brewery is reasonably common - once circumstances meant I had to take a cask just after filling and the brewer made me promise not to tap it before it had gone a week in cask.

@Mike - you have to be a bit careful with the whole DNA comparison thing, but bear in mind that 71% in common is similar to the difference between humans and chickens - it's a massive difference. Personally I think the influence of the Debaryomyces gets overstated for their ordinary beers, the "magic" is more in the fact that it's a proper square yeast - a phenolic saison type. The phenolics in Harveys are subtle, but definitely there.

@Ross - you have to remember that traditional BBBs need to be fresh - really fresh - to be drunk at anything like their best. Some of the best Pedi can be found at big sports grounds where the bars are knocking through a kil every 10-15 minutes.

One of the best pints of cask I ever had was at an event where a Sheps pub was 4-deep at the bar and the beer was singing. We ended up going somewhere quieter but on the way home I called in to get another pint of the nectar - but by then the place was empty and the beer was just "normal" Sheps. Just a couple of hours made the difference between "wow" and "meh".