In praise of brown beer

If you have a “favourite beer”, you don’t really like beer. Similarly, you don’t really like beer if you have a “favourite beer style”, any more than you can really like music if all you listen to is folk, or rock, or only classical, or only jazz.

That said, I would cope for quite a time if all I could listen to was Bach (there’s a Polish internet radio station, Radio B.A.C.H., that plays nothing but the works of “Jana Sebastiana”) or the sort of “modern” jazz played in New York clubs between 1954 and 1964. And I would be very happy to spend – well, weeks, certainly, maybe months – drinking nothing but bitter, specifically the loose-headed amber-cornelian cask bitters of Southern England, cool, low in CO2, lightly aromatic, just bitter enough to stimulate without overwhelming, hints of toffee, marmalade and apricot, maybe a touch of fruitcake or blackcurrant, and with a strength – not much more than four per cent abv at the most – that means you can swallow pints at a leisurely rate while chatting, relaxing, chilling, eating, watching the world or listening to, say, Miles Davis play Walkin’.

Do I love that style of beer because it was the one I drank growing up? I’m sure sitting at rustic tables in rural pub gardens in Hertfordshire on long, warm, sunny summer evenings, talking with friends, clouds of cow parsley nodding over the car park wall and martins high above swooping through the flying ants like little fighter planes, while dimpled glasses of Rayment’s BBA or Wethered’s (RIP the pair of them) were slowly emptied, fixed in my mind the idea that English bitter equals quiet, unpaced enjoyment. But I never grew up in Elizabethan England and I still adore Thomas Tallis. Nor did I live in St Petersburg in the reign of Catherine the Great, but I rate Imperial Russian Stout as highly as the Empress apparently did.

No, I love English bitter because, while beer can be many things – that’s one of the drink’s strengths – from terrific taste experience to brilliant enhancer of food, and while there’s plenty of room in my beeriverse for everything from souped-up extremobrews to simple refreshers, the subtle joys to be found in a pint of well-looked-after cask “ordinary” are what I would miss the most if I was told: “You can never drink beer again.”

So: surely that makes Southern English bitter my “favourite” beer style? Well, no, it’s the beer I love to drink when I’m socialising, and if I couldn’t drink beer when I’m socialising, then I’d really be suffering. But it’s not the beer I like drinking at the very end of an evening, or the beer I’d generally choose for accompanying food, and it’s not the beer I’d automatically lunge for when eyeing up the choices in a strange bar: I like to try something new, too, when there’s a chance. Then in the winter I love a good Burton, or a porter, in the summer a brisk Czech or North German lager or a golden ale, or a Bavarian wheat beer. Sometimes I listen to Irish traditional music, sometimes to Mozart operas. I don’t like smoked beers much, or artichokes, or Bob Dylan’s singing (some of his songs are good, though). I love a good brown bitter, Thelonious Monk, Richard Thompson, Dr Strangelove, Donatello’s David, blackberries with clotted cream, and roast duck. But I don’t have favourites.

0 thoughts on “In praise of brown beer

  1. Perhaps the best social fun I had was in Aberystwyth drinking half pints of bitter with a group of students. At 4% you can drink a lot, but I still got pissed. The taste was great.

  2. Ah i have similar fond memories of hopping the fence at the sanger institute to frequent the Red lion in hinxton Cambridge, and enjoy some brown beer of a summers evening. There is nothing like it

          1. I remember it well. It was one of the classic bitters where the taste was well-modulated, everything right, and in the right place. Ind Coope’s Burton Ale was another with its plum skins-and-fresh biscuit taste. Flower’s real ale was excellent, too, another Whitbread’s brand.

            Today, a beer like Old Hooky fills that role for me, or London Pride when well-served.

            But ah the old days, Burton Ale in Coach and Horses on Greek Street, Soho.



    1. I’ve got fond memories of Wethered’s bitter which I’d completely forgotten until you reminded me. Lovely pint. Makes me wonder what else I’ve forgotten.

      The word that springs to mind when I think of good brown bitters is “endless” – they have a flavour that just develops and goes on developing, so that you still feel you’re getting something new well into the second pint. (Imperial stouts do something similar in terms of a flavour that unfolds as you go on, but they necessarily do it over a much, much smaller volume – and I’ve never got into the idea of a “sipping beer”.) I don’t get that feeling from hoppy yellow bitters or IPAs – it’s much more of an instant hit. Wouldn’t be without any of them, mind you.

      1. That’s exactly what I find-a good old fashioned session bitter just gets better as the pints slip down.With some of the “new wave” brews the initial impression is good, it lasts for a while and than things begin to pall.A brewer once described them to me as “show ponies” because they do well in competitions where sampling in depth does not happen.

  3. As you’ve said yourself in the past, much of the point of beer is defined by the social context in which it is consumed. Taken in isolation, a pint of ordinary may seem, well, a bit ordinary. But a few pints as lubricant for a good night of conversation in the pub certainly isn’t ordinary.

  4. Keep writing posts like this so that I may retweet them to my American friends and let them know that there is life beyond hop bombs. Your post is making my mouth water and makes me miss the motherland and the times I had drinking “session beers” at an alarming rate compared to what I can drink over here in the US. It’s difficult to drink in bars over here without having to forcefully put the brakes on your consumption.It’s not the same drinking 8+% beers and chat away with your fellow drinkers. One American recently responded to me with a charming sentence, “Paradise is sitting in an English pub at noon with an order of fish and chips and a bitters, chit chatting the afternoon away.”

    1. While there is a dearth of quality under 4% beers in the US, Ive never not been able to avoid the over 8% when Ive wanted to.

      I dont know of a decent beer bar in the US that isnt loaded with 5-6% ABV beers.

      1. 5-6% isn’t session-strength. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes when I’m going out for two I look for something in that range. But when I’m going out for three or four, 5-6% would be no use at all.

  5. I do get frustrated with the kind of beer geek who makes such declarations as “I don’t drink session beer; I don’t know what people see in it” – and yes, that’s a genuine quote.

    Indeed there are some deathly dull brown modest-strength beers but, here’s a geek heresy for you – there are as many deathly dull strong geek-friendly beers.

    BTW The version of Walkin’ on “Miles Davis and John Coltrane Live in Stockholm 1960” is my favourite. Miles and Trane play free and loose as a taste of the decade to come while the rhythm section is firmly fifties. The unresolved stylistic tensions this creates makes this an utterly compelling album. I could give up beer for Coltrane’s choruses on “All Blues.”

  6. Well put and there are still many fine bitters which uphold the best of the English tradition, some from the old days and many from the newer crop of breweries. But great English bitter can’t be praised enough, fashions change in the beer world as any other and one can’t take it for granted.

    It’s my view that the great 4% English session bitter is a kind of historical accident. Pale ale was stronger than that originally, and probably much more hoppy (therefore not favouring a session style of drinking) although it still has plenty of hops. It was the gravity drops of the 1900’s together with a fall in hops per barrel since the mid-1800’s which resulted in bitter, and mild for a long time, becoming a sessionable product. The “session” itself is therefore something relatively new I think, not just the name but the practice. Of course people always took in the net amount of alcohol they wanted, which probably has remained unchanged, but I’d guess it took fewer beers to do it in the 1800’s. It’s only when the drinkers had to buy more units to get the same effect – something which worked happily to brewers’ advantage – that the session truly was born IMO. In this sense, the apparently higher U.S. average ABV for craft beer really hearkens back to what England knew in the 1800’s, down even to the hop bomb aspect.

    There is a partial exception to this in that porter in London seemed lower gravity than pale or mild ales, especially if you take into account the watering practices of the day. That may be one tributary which created the river of the modern English session (no pun intended!), but others include lower modern hop rates and the higher taxes which prompted lower gravities.


  7. Hmmm nice post except the nonsense about having favourite beers etc. We’re evolutionary programmed to prioritise and there is nothing wrong or unusual with having “favourites”. If that, in the beer world, stops us being more open-minded, then that is regrettable. But the two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive.

        1. No – if I had a favourite beer it would mean I’d rather be drinking the best possible brown bitter than the best possible hopmonster, or the best possible IPA, abbey beer, old ale, mild, stout, imperial stout, weissbier, witbier or whatever you’re having. There are three or four, or five or six, beers that I keep coming back to – Harvey’s bitter, anything from Magic Rock, Guinness Foreign, Conwy dark bitter, Summer Lightning, Old Tom, Marble Ginger, Orval – but to say that any one of those was my favourite would imply that I’d be happy to drink that one beer all the time, and (a) I wouldn’t and (b) I don’t think it would show much appreciation of beer. If I had to pick one – if I had to take a cask to a desert island, say – it would be the Harvey’s, I have to admit.

  8. So is there a bigger question? Would you give up our sense of smell (which essentially means giving up your ability to perceive flavor* as well) for your sense of hearing or vice versa?

    * translation from American to English: flavour

  9. Morning Martyn. No matter what you think about style, somewhere, hard-wired into your brain, there are a set of genes that will give you a predisposed love of certain flavours over others. Whilst I totally agree that having a ‘favourite beer’ is the wrong terminology (most – remembered fondly, perhaps?) , there will definately be styles that appeal more due to those flavour-leanings. I’m currently working my way through AG&B, too – enjoying it massively. Thanks.

  10. My favourite beer is a straw coloured bitter, heavily hopped, loads of hop aroma but still with plenty of malt taste, with between 3.8 and 4.5% alcohol. Any one of them will usually do because within that fairly narrow specification there are still dozens of beers to choose from, allowing me plenty of variation on the theme.

  11. Brilliant!
    “If you have a “favourite beer”, you don’t really like beer”, is now on my list of favourite quotes. And unlike “Beer is proof that God….” I know it’s an actual and correct quote.

    As an extremophile, Crouch Vale Amarillo and its brothers and cousins would be my choice for a beer I could live on for a long time. Or something kegged or bottled with the same purpose. And if you locked me up a year in Prague or Pilsen, I could easily survive without even missing top fermenting yeast or American hops…

    But since that’s only thought experiment, I’m very happy that I can pick and choose.
    Variety in styles is proof that brewers love us and want us to be happy

        1. The actual quote, which is from Franklin, is “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”

          The putative quote always struck me as unlikely Franklinesque language, and then I was reading a biography of Franklin by Walter Isaacson a few years back and read the actual one. At about the same time, US brewing historian and author Bob Skilnik published the truth.


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