I’ve been catching the Olympics games from my home, not London, but I’ve added a bit of across-the-pond flavor as I sipped some British brews each night as I watched Michael Phelps and Gabby Davis go for the gold.
Inspired by my beer-writing colleague John Holl, who wrote about British brewers recently in his Beer Briefing blog, I stocked up with a number of classic English ales for the games.
I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed these traditional brews with their biscuity malt, fruity esters, gentle bitterness and, on occasion chocolaty notes. Indeed, when the craft brewing scene in America was emerging almost a generation ago, many of us cut our teeth, so to speak, on the likes of Young’s, Samuel Smith, Fuller’s and Bass. Alas, Bass is now produced in a Budweiser brewery near Syracuse, NY, and is a shadow of its former self. And while there’s been consolidation over the years in the British brewing industry that has resulted in brewery closures and labels changing hands, there are still many fine beers being exported to the colonies.
In my search for Olympic brews, I had hoped to snag some British beer champions. Each year, the Campaign for Real Ale, a consumer group advocating for traditional ales, selects a Champion Beer if Britain at its annual Great British Beer Festival. (This year, the festival gets underway on Aug. 13-17.) The beers judged champions usually are strictly draft – or is it drought – beers. But some do get bottled.
I had hoped to find an old favorite, Coniston Blue Bird Bitter, the 1998 champion, which I first had on draft at New York’s Gingerman, and later in bottle. Unfortunately, it appears to have vanished from these shores.
Triple XB (XXXB), a classic English bitter from a Lincolnshire brewery that’s been around since 1874. It’s is a hazy amber brew with aromas of malt, hop resins and wine and a palate bursting with notes of biscuits, yeast and dried fruit leading up to a spectacular earthy, malty finish.
One of my biggest surprises was a realization of how much I missed Fuller’s ESB, or Extra Special Bitter, a genuine classic with its golden/copper hue, firm head, malty/biscuity nose with its crisp palate punctuate with notes of fruit and caramel all in perfect balance. The beer took top GBBF honors in 1978, 1981 and 1985.
I also was able to find a bottle of Summer Lightning, a 2001 silver-medal winner, from the relatively young Hopback Brewery of Salisbury, England (founded 1986). This golden ale, almost reminiscent of a pilsner, albeit a tad hazy, offers a hoppy aroma and palate, which also exhibits sweet malt. It finishes crisp and dry. Not a typical English ale.
Robinson’s Old Tom, at 8.5% abv, is what’s known as an English Strong Ale. Named by CAMRA as Supreme Champion Winter Beer of Britain three times, it has a deep copper in color with a dense tan head. This Manchester brewed beer has a rich sweet nose followed by a mouthful of silky malt with flavors of fruit, chocolate and treacle and a pleasant dry finish.
Some of the beers I sampled, though not festival champs, were absolutely terrific.
The copper-hued Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Pale Ale was an enjoyable classic brew with its firm tan head, malty nose and a smooth mouthful of malt, fruit and toffee balanced with a touch of resin.
Also quote good was a deep-russet colored Theakston’s Old Peculier, with caramel and fruit in the nose and treacle, dried fruit and winey notes in the palace. Soft, round its finished nicely dry.
Burton Bridge Brewing’s Empire India Pale Ale also proved to be a winner. This hazy amber beer, from a brewery established in 1982 in what was then the home of Bass, Marston and Boddington’s, among others, has a dense rocky head, grassy hops and malt on the nose. On the palate, there are notes of caramel and raisins. It’s nicely bittered for a lip-smacking finish.
JW Lee’s Manchester Star Ale, a strong hoppy porter based on an 1884 recipe revived in 2002, reminded me a bit of Oloroso sherry. Dark brown and opaque with a cocoa-hued head and great lace this brew had a huge malty nose and on the plate notes of molasses, chocolate and raisins on the palate. There were hints of alcohol, no surprise for a 7.3% abv brew and a bittersweet finish.
Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, another favorite years ago, remains just as enjoyable today. Ebony brown with aromas of roasted grain, chocolate and raises and oily chocolaty palate that culminated in an outstanding bittersweet finish.
Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, from a brewery that started in 1533, provided a taste of another style, milk stout. Opaque and with a tan rocky head it offers a nose of roasty chocolate nose and rich chocolate espresso character on a silky palate. Young’s original Ram Brewery was shuttered in 2007 for development of its valuable property and its brewing operations were combined with those of Charles Wells.
There are many more English beers that remain untried and the Olympics still have almost a week left. So there’s time for more. Hope you’ll raise a mug to Old England. Cheers!