Alongside Mild, Bitter is the beer style that probably troubles people the most; the definition is broad, somewhat cumbersome and with no ‘sexy’ aspects to it. Yet Bitter defines a UK region like no other, such is the proliferation of other styles today. No-one calls Joker IPA an ‘Alloan IPA’, nor is Marble’s Lagonda a ‘Manchester IPA.’ But Marble do (proudly, I might add) brew a Manchester Bitter, and you can’t deny you’d call Harvey’s Sussex Best the epitome of, well, Sussex. But as the question was posed to me a while ago, I’ve been asking myself: what is Yorkshire Bitter? Is is still around anymore? And what does it mean to me?
Well, It’s a beer of the pub. There’s something about a pint of Bitter that speaks of draught beer; a dimpled mug on a stained beer mat in a library-quiet inn, contented in etched glass and dark wood in those times inbetween dinner and post-work rushes. A cliche – and one that could exist in any county in the country – I know, but one worth trotting out when thinking about what the beer means to me. Bitter is unfussy, strong of heart and backbone, and the best – when fresh – are defiantly bold, and as forthright in flavour as a Yorkshireman’s political views.
I’d perhaps cite the Yorkshire Square as a key element to what makes our Bitter ours. But the fact is, there’s Yorkshire Bitter out there being produced by our enterprising brewers without the aid of those slate (or, mostly these days – steel) squares. Still, we have our own regional fermenting method – and that’s always worth giving a nod of the flat cap to. In fact, only Black Sheep and Sam Smith’s use Squares these days; one wonders in this age of interest in all things fermentation, whether the square could be seen as a niche instrument for fledgling brewers looking to find a little space in the current booming market. It is, after all, a type of open fermentation.
So, let’s consider those knee-jerk emotional responses, shall we? When I think of Manchester Bitter, I think of a beer lighter in colour than its counterpart from the White Rose county, and perhaps with a clean, smooth body and a sharp, bitter finish. Yorkshire’s Bitter, on the other hand, makes me think of brown; autumnal amber, always served with a tight collar of foam and a nutty, sweeter body underpinning a slightly bready, subtly floral aroma.
I think of slabs of my uncles’ Stones Bitter, unfashionably orange, piling up in the kitchen at Christmas, or that smiling Huntsman glaring at me through his monacle on bartops across smoky pub rooms visited with my parents. The way that, travelling from Leeds to Haworth to see my mum, the pub signs change from red-brick Tetley’s to the green and gold sandstone of Timothy Taylor’s once you hit Shipley. The intimidating red neon of the Tetley’s sign drawing our gaze as we walk to The Adelphi. It’s powerful stuff, for sure.
Problem is, once I start codifying it like that, I’m struck by the Landlord conundrum.
Fellow Yorkshireman Michael Jackson described Landlord (in his usual, wonderfully florid terms) in 1992 by remarking ‘…that barley-sugar maltiness is never cloying; that resiny hop character offers the perfect edge. They are deftly balanced without cancelling each other out. This is more the balance of the fighter versus the boxer. Or the Featherstone Rovers’ loose-forward versus the Keighley scrum-half.’ Landlord is one of (alongside Black Sheep’s Best,Theakston’s Best & XB and Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter – which is perhaps hamstrung by generally only being available in Smith’s pubs on draught) the major Yorkshire Bitter on our bars now, and enjoys perhaps a more artisanal feel than Tetley’s did post-Carslberg. As you know, Landlord is anything but ‘fudgy’ – pale, loaded with sweetness, and a soft, rolling bitterness.
It’s brewed with 100% Pale malt, but it’s a Yorkshire Bitter. More quenching that Tetley’s, I feel Landlord is the beer that illustrates the region’s diversity in bitter. The fact that I think of it Pale Ale doesn’t really matter; it’s semantics. It’s all Bitter. It just so happens that one of the most popular in Yorkshire is one of the most different.
Can a bitter still define a brewery in Leeds, Huddersfield, Hull, Wakefield or Sheffield in 2013? Has it really been usurped by paler, hoppier cousins? Is it still the sole interest of the older generation? Is it difficult to market? I once had a pint of Tetley’s that, simply, was trancendent. It was in the Victoria pub, and remains not too dissimilar to this in terms of being knocked off your feet by simple, plain beer. I’ve not drunk it since it left Leeds, and although I don’t want to concentrate too much on Tetley’s here (what’s done is done) – it defined Leeds for a long, long time. As we all know, however, there are some promising heirs to the throne, if you will.
Leeds Brewery’s Sam Moss still thinks there’s something to the term – hopefully the pavlovian equivalent of a hug; a tug of a string that’s tied to many a Yorkshireman’s past. ‘I think that for many drinkers in Yorkshire – and perhaps this is becoming an increasingly older demographic – a ‘pint of best’ is still the ‘go to’ choice as they walk into a pub. Maybe this is something which is a peculiarly Yorkshire phenomenon, but I think that there is something endearingly reassuring and comforting about settling down over a great pint of Yorkshire Best Bitter.’ he says.
Yorkshire Bitter is the bedrock on which our region’s fantastic beer culture sits; a style we once held proud but perhaps don’t shout about as much any more. Richard Boston said of us in Beer & Skittles (1977) ‘Yorkshire people, chauvinists about beer as about everything believe they have the best beer in the country.’ It was probably our Bitter that we were espousing. He also said of Theakston’s Bitter ‘…Is a pale yellow, and its taste arouses controversy between its admirers and detractors.’ What Boston meant by that, I’m not sure; there’s a suggestion that the beer wasn’t quite playing ball – perhaps too light, too strong, too mild or too bitter. A controversial bitter? There’s a thought.
Bitter is worth fighting over, too. Roger Protz has done a great job of telling the battle of Barnsley here.
I’m going to pin my colours to the mast here: i’m incredibly fond of Acorn’s Barnsley Bitter. A simple, tawny pint with a hearty, rousing profile, it’s a modern classic as far as I’m concerned and, in that frame of mind, I contacted Dave Hughes (Acorn’s head honcho) and asked him how he felt about such an unassuming pint; how it was born and whether it was important to Acorn these days. The answer was fairly emphatic.
‘Barnsley Bitter is the reason Acorn Brewery was born.’ Dave states, matter-of-factly. ‘Back in 2003 I was working for Elsecar Brewery, but the business closed and production of their Barnsley Bitter was moved to Blackpool. I was made redundant along with everybody else. The thought of Barnsley Bitter being made in Blackpool and also the thought of returning to my former profession as a chef drove myself and my wife, Jude to open Acorn Brewery. ‘
‘We brew our interpretation of Barnsley Bitter using the original Barnsley Bitter twin yeast strains.’ he continues. ‘…We also use the finest Maris Otter malt, crystal and pale chocolate roasted malts and have used English Challenger hops – purchased directly from the same hop farm – for the last 10 years.The consistency of the raw materials have helped us to create a Yorkshire bitter that we are very proud of. It accounts for 30-40% of our trade and highlights to us that there is a great market still out there for a classic Yorkshire bitter amidst the ever growing popularity of golden ales and IPA’s.’
Bu it’s not just Imperial Stout, Saison and barrel-aged oddities nipping at the heels of Barnsley Bitter. There’s…well, other bitters, actually. It’s like stepping through the looking glass; the term might be getting dropped in favour of ‘Amber‘ and ‘Classic‘-type terms, but it’s still there. Take Ilkley’s Joshua Jane (a nod, of course, to the Hunstman and Ilkley’s moor-wandering heroine), which began life as a trial brew of a Leeds Homebrew competition winners (by Matt Lovatt and Dave Broadford, who have gone on to brew for Kirkstall Brewery and Northern Monk respectively) and has recently made it into the permanent bottled range.
Slightly dryer than you’d expect , loaded with biscuit and bread and a zippy finish of grassy hop. It’s a great example of a Bitter brewed in 2013, and I asked Chris Ives how it sells. ‘Joshua is a permanent beer and volumes brewed have been steadily climbing all year. We brewed it because (we felt) there were too few good examples of a contemporary Yorkshire Bitter.’ I would place emphasis on the contemporary. JJ does boast a sprinkling of New World hops, and as a result takes a more modern twist in the finish. One wonders how many of Ilkley’s more image-conscious drinkers realise they are enjoying a bitter? Semantics, again…
…And of course it sells. Good beer always will, Bitter or not. When interviewing Lee Pullen, landlord or the excellent Old Cock Pub in Otley a little while ago, he confessed that ‘…I love chestnut-coloured beers, but they can be hard to find. We love ‘em here.’ , in response my remark about how his bar was well-represented in the color range. Wharfebank’s Martin Kellaway said something similar in my interviews for Great Yorkshire Beer – how Slinger’s Gold would cater for those customers who absolutely want a bitter – not pale, not dark. Brown. Fruity. Softly tangy. It was in demand, and lo, it was brewed.
Leeds Best is one of the few that’s not been renamed. Sam Moss elaborated: ‘Although Leeds Best doesn’t sell anywhere near as well as Leeds Pale, it has a really loyal following of drinkers across Yorkshire and always sells well in our pubs so we have no plans to delist it anytime soon. I think it’s an important part of our range and a brilliant beer – in fact I have had many conversations with people who think that it is our best product. Interestingly, Leeds Best in bottles absolutely flies off the shelves.’ Last Christmas Leeds Best was Sainsbury’s best selling small brewery bottled beer in their Yorkshire stores; it’s has just won a listing in Tesco. Saltaire Pride – Saltaire Brewery’s Bitter – also won a listing in Tesco in the summer.
If you were to line up (for example) Leeds Best, Black Sheep Best , Acorn Barnsley Bitter, Sam Smith’s OBB, Theakston’s Best and Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, the wealth of flavour and variety that you would find in those beers would be as remarkable as any that you would be likely to find in a line up of the any other style. All in my very humble opinion of course – although Martyn Cornell puts it much better in Amber, Gold & Black : ‘The best Bitter beers leave the drinker satisfied and yet still happy to have more. The harmony of complex flavours that the finest examples contain, even at comparatively low alcohol strengths, is one of Britain’s greatest contributions to bibulous pleasure.’
I will say this much, however; perhaps the days where a brewery would see a Bitter as a flagship beer are gone. Those seeds were sown before the ‘craft ‘ boom – I can certainly recall a time where ‘Pale n’ Hoppy‘ was the default style for flagship beer for a nascent Micro before the “Craft Beer Revolution”. The difference was, they’d eventually pop a brown beer into the range. These days, a whole generation of brewers are probably thinking that brown does equal boring if you’re not talking about a hybrid style – and a true Bitter or Best – as completely superfluous to their needs.
I, for one, wouldn’t want to see Bitter as a style being taken for granted – but in Yorkshire at least, it isn’t. Bitter is alive and well up North; so here’s to Frothingham Best, Saltaire Pride, Copper Dragon’s Best, Kelham Island Pride of Sheffield, Kirkstall BYB, Mallinson’s Stadium Bitter, Rudgate’s Battle Axe, Theakston XB, Hop Studio XS, Revolution’s Reward, Bradfield’s Brown Cow, Great Heck Navigator…. and all the others knocking around.
Here’s to Yorkshire Bitter.
Ironically, this weekend has seen the soft opening of The Tetley, the new ‘art space’ that’s now housed in the shell of the brewery. This post was part of Boak & Bailey’s Longreads weekend – I’m sure there will be a round-up of the other posts on their blog in due course.