Beers, like animals, can be endangered species: some can even go extinct. Nobody’s seen West Country White Ale in the wild for more than 125 years.
Camra, I’m very pleased to say, has recently decided that it could be doing much more than Make May a Mild Month for promoting endangered beers, and has set up a Beer Styles Working Group to look at ways of plugging and encouraging endangered beer styles of all sorts.
I’ve managed to blag my way onto the working group, mostly because I’m keen to point out to Camra members, and beer festival organisers (and brewers) that endangered beer styles in Britain go a long way beyond mild, stout and porter, and to try to get the other half-dozen or more endangered British beer styles recognition and promotion as well: and maybe even get some of the extinct beers remade. (That’s the advantage of beer: it may turn out to be impossible to resurrect the mammoth, but reproducing a vanished beer style generally only requires the will, a recipe and the right ingredients.)
So what ARE Britain’s vulnerable and endangered (and extinct) beer styles? Here’s my personal checklist:
Porter, once made by thousands of brewers, large and small, in the UK, actually went extinct in Britain in the early 1950s, and in Ireland in 1973. It was brought back to life in 1978 by a couple of brewers, Timothy Taylor in Yorkshire and Penrhos in Herefordshire. A fair number of small brewers make porters today, but it is still far from the mainstream beer it was in the 19th century, when it was the most popular drink in the country.
Guinness aside, stout – today’s version began as simply the stronger version of porter – also suffered a sharp decline in the second half of the 20th century. London was once a huge centre for stout brewing (as it was for porter brewing): in the early 1950s the London brewer Watney Combe Reid made one draught stout and seven different bottled stouts. But by the mid-1980s a survey by What’s Brewing found just 29 brewers in the UK and Channel Islands still making stout, most of them milk stouts (qv), and as older breweries closed, few of the newcomers were making a stout. Stout has seen a small comeback among Britain’s new brewers in recent years, but one problem is the extremely blurry line today between stout and porter: some modern brewers actually make a stout that is weaker than their porter.
Twentieth-century light mild was the descendant of the strong pale light mild ales of the 19th and 18th centuries (qv), still lightly hopped, but with the strength drastically lowered in response to the huge rises in taxes on beer, and the restrictions on production, seen in the First World War. Together with dark mild (qv), this was the most popular draught beer style in Britain from the end of the 19th century through to the start of the 1960s. However, the drink failed to capture new generations of pub-goers, and it suffered a catastrophic decline in sales over the next 30 years. Arguably, since most modern drinkers expect a “mild” to be dark, “light mild” should really be in the “critically endangered” category.
Dark mild is pretty much a 20th century invention, and overlaps with (and sometimes includes) the weaker Burton Ales/Old Ales. It is related to Brown Ale (qv), but Brown Ale was always a bottled beer style. It may have sprung from an attempt by brewers during the First World War to produce a weaker beer that still had a full mouthfeel, by using darker malts (but this is just my guess). Dark mild suffered from the same late-20th century catastrophic decline in demand as light mild: both also had a marketing problem in the 1990s and 2000s as some brewers tried to revive them, that many drinkers apparently would not buy a beer called “mild”, though they would happily drink it if it was labelled something like “dark ale”. This may now be less true, as drinkers become keener on trying the beers their grandfathers drank.
Another product of the “Great gravity crash” of the First World War, light bitter has its roots in large part in the AK, KK and XK light bitters of the 19th century, which were themselves only “light”, at around 4.5 per cent alcohol by volume, in comparison with other 19th century beers. Twentieth century light bitter, between 3 per cent abv and 3.5 per cent abv, included the “boy’s bitters” of the West Country, as well as the AK and KK beers brewed in places such as Kent, Hampshire, Nottinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Monmouthshire. There appear to be very few examples around today.
The boundary between Old Ale and Mild is blurry, simply because, historically, Old Ale was Mild Ale, but aged. Old Ales were generally stronger, however (which means they sometimes cross the line into the region known as “barley wine”, a catch-all for many different varieties of strong ale/beer) and a number of Old Ales still survive, including Robinson’s Old Tom, Theakston’s Old Peculier and Adnam’s Tally Ho.
One of the oldest styles in Britain, going back to Old Welsh bragaut, but killed off in the 18th century by a tax regime that wanted only (taxed) malt and (taxed) hops to go into beer. Revived in the late 20th century, but despite the success of honey beers from Wells & Youngs (Waggle Dance) and Fullers (Honeydew), still too much of a minority beer.
One of the finest strong beers in the world, but extinct in Britain in 1994, after the last brewing (at that time) of Courage Imperial Russian Stout. However, it was successfully revived in the US, where it fitted perfectly the market for extreme beers, and a small number of UK brewers now make Imperial Stouts. In 2011 Wells & Youngs brought out a new version of Courage Imperial Russian Stout, but it is style a style more celebrated away from the country of its birth than in Britain.
Burton Ale/winter warmer
Burton Ale, dark and slightly sweet, was one of the three most popular draught beer styles in Britain up to the 1950s, particularly in London, where it was a winter speciality. It then crashed out of favour, so that in 1971 Young’s changed the name of its own Burton Ale to Winter Warmer. Ind Coope thoroughly muddied the waters in 1976 by bringing out a beer called “Burton Ale” that was actually a draught IPA, a totally different style. Burton Ales came in every strength: Bass No 1 was an example of the strongest variety, Marston’s Owd Rodger is another strong Burton Ale, but some could be as low as 4 per cent alcohol, when they were sold as milds. A few examples of this classic and largely forgotten style survive: Fuller’s 1845 is one, and Fuller’s is reviving a version of its Old Burton Extra strong ale from the 1930s for its Past Masters series of beers. BPA, the beer that is blended by Greene King with two-year-old 5X to make Strong Suffolk, is a Burton, made with dark sugars and crystal malt: the initials stand for Burton Pale Ale. Almost no new brewers have ever made a Burton, one of the rare examples being Smiles Heritage.
Scotch ale is the Edinburgh version of Burton Ale: dark, with a bittersweet, sometimes slightly metallic tang, and generally strong. It survived in Belgium as Gordon Highland Scotch, which is sold (at a slightly lower strength) in the UK as McEwan’s Champion. Hopes are that Wells & Youngs may revive Younger’s No 3, a draught Scotch Ale.
Milk stout/sweet stout
In the late 19th century a taste arose for sweeter stouts, but such beers would quickly lose their sweetness as they aged. The perfection around 1907 of stouts made with an addition of unfermentable lactose sugar, derived from milk, eventually resulted in one of the most popular beer styles of the mid-20th century: even in the early 1970s there were still more than 40 sweet stouts being brewed in Britain. The style again crashed as older breweries closed down, with few or no new brewers making a sweet stout. There has been a small revival very recently in interest in the style, led by the Bristol Beer Factory and its draught Milk Stout.
Vatted old ale
About the only survivor of vatted old ale in Britain is Greene King 5X, which is, alas, almost never made available on its own, but generally blended with other beers to make, eg, Strong Suffolk. Up to the end of the Second World War, however, Old Beer, matured for a year or more in huge oak vats, was still popular in the West Country, particularly in Bristol. Few brewers, alas, have the time or space to make long-aged beers today.
Sour aged ale
A variety of vatted old ale is the sour aged ale represented now only by Gale’s Prize Old Ale, where a proportion of each brew is held back, solera-style, to add to the following year’s fresh ale. The complexity and depth available from such long-aged beers, particularly after several years in bottle, is stunning. Fuller’s rescued POA when Gale’s closed, but again, few brewers have the time or space to devote to such a minority beer.
Modern brown ale in Britain was the invention of Thomas Wells Thorpe, managing director of the London brewer Mann Crossmann & Paulin, who introduced Mann’s Brown in 1902. It did not take off until after the First World War, but by the 1930s every British brewer had at least one brown ale in its portfolio. A number of brewers made stronger Double Brown ales. Again, the closure of so many breweries from the 1960s onwards saw the number of brown ales made fall off a cliff, not helped by the sharply ageing profile of brown ale drinkers. Seriously endangered today.
Brett-fermented stock ale
Brettanomyces yeast was first isolated by the Danish brewing scientist Niels Hjelte Claussen in or just before 1903 from an English “stock beer”, in the Carlsberg brewery’s laboratory, in Copenhagen, and the name Claussen gave them honours their origins: Brettanomyces literally means “British fungus”, as Saccharomyces, the name given to the standard brewing yeast, means “sugar fungus”. Brett gave cask and vat-aged stock beers their particular flavours, at it does to Belgian lambic beer, and at least one former classic British beer, Colne Spring Ale, from the Hertfordshire brewery Benskin’s, was deliberately infected with Brett in its production. The last brewing of CSA was in 1970. Today a number of American brewers have been making beers with Brett, but to my knowledge no British brewer has put out a commercial Brett ale.
Strong pale mild
London once had a set of brewers who specialised in making pale ales at around 8 or 8.5 per cent abv that were sold “mild”, that is, unaged: they included the former Lion brewery that stood on the site of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. Strong milds gradually gave way to “four-ale” milds (weaker beers sold at four old pence a quart pot), which themselves were transformed by the restrictions of the First World War into the even weaker light milds of the 20th century.
Ale flavoured with bog myrtle, or sweet gale, Myrica gale, and a host of other herbs from yarrow to rosemary were being made in Britain until an Act of 1711 that brought in a tax on hops and banned any other “bitter ingredient (to serve instead of hops) in brewing or making any ale”. One of the few beers made today that contains sweet gale is Williams Brothers’ heather ale, Fraoch, which tastes, in fact, more of the gale than it does of the heather.
West Country White Ale
West Country White Ale, a “naturally fermented” ale containing eggs and wheat, was one of the oldest British beer styles known, made in Cornwall and Devon from at least the Medieval period. It was still being produced in the 19th century, but died out around 1875.
A beer style originally brewed in Germany but popular in Britain from at least the 1660s, mum was a heavily herbed, strong, bitter wheat beer. It had vanished by the start of the 19th century.
There are other beer styles you could argue should be on that list, such as oatmeal stout, and the East India Porter Ron Pattinson successfully persuaded the Pretty Things brewery in the US to resurrect. You can argue (I’m sure you will) about which category different beers should go in. And, of course, Continental Europe has its own selection of endangered and extinct beers. But I hope that’s a start to making EVERY month Endangered Beers Month.