Tuesday 2 April 2013

The Price of Fame?

I’ve touched on this point a couple of times in recent posts, and Boak & Bailey  published an article  a short while ago, stating "they wish they could have tasted certain beers in their heyday, when they were full of character and flavour, rather than the pale shadows of their former selves that so many of them have become today."

The beers I alluded to were Taylor’s Landlord, Hop Back Summer Lightning and Exmoor Gold. Boak & Bailey listed Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Marston’s Pedigree, Taylor’s Landlord (them as well), plus Young’s and Boddington’s Bitters. With the exception of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale which to me is still a very good beer, I would agree with their selection and would like to add a few more, such as Shepherd Neame Bitter (before they cheekily styled it  as “Master Brew”), Fuller’s London Pride plus Draught Bass (when it was brewed using the Burton Union system).

Friends of mine have also noticed the same thing; that a degree of blandness has crept in, and  once classic, multi-layered beers have now become very ordinary “run of the mill”, one-dimensional, bog-standard parodies of what they once were. We've concluded that it must be the beers that have changed, as surely our individual taste buds can't all have changed at the same time and to the same extent? Looking at the above list, whilst here are still some that I would be quite happy to drink, (assuming nothing more interesting was available), they don't excite me in the way they used to, and  I wouldn’t go out of my way to drink them. These include Landlord, Summer Lightning, Exmoor Gold, London Pride, Pedigree and, providing it was served West Country-style, direct from the cask, rather than pulled through a sparkler, Draught Bass.

Missing from the list is Shepherd Neame, as these days  I actively avoid the stuff!  Nor would I waste my time with the likes of Boddington’s or Young’s, neither of which now are brewed in their original location, or anywhere remotely near their original home anyway. Taking these three beers for a moment, whilst I was never a huge fan of Young’s Ordinary as it was known back in the mid-1970’s, preferring instead the company’s much more robust and full-bodied Special, both  Boddington’s and Shepherd Neame Bitters were once real favourites of mine.

However, even as far back as the late 1970’s, when I was still living in Manchester, rumours abounded that Boddington’s had reduced the hopping rate of their most famous product to make it less aggressively bitter (blander), so as to increase its appeal to a wider audience. This was confirmed by someone we knew who worked at the brewery, although the company strenuously denied it  (they would, wouldn’t they?). We ended up voting with our feet and switched to drinking in Holts’ pubs, where the bitter still tasted like bitter, and was also quite a bit cheaper as well!

Both Strangeways and Wandsworth have long since brewed their last pints, so we can dismiss Boddington’s and Young’s from further discussion, but what about Shepherd Neame, who are now  Britain’s oldest brewers?  At its best Shep’s ordinary bitter was the very perfection of a traditional Kentish beer, well-hopped, with those wonderful floral notes associated with traditional hop varieties such as Goldings. Now the beer has morphed  into a thin, harsh-tasting, unpleasant brown bitter liquid, and I know very few people who actively seek it out, let alone admit to actually enjoying the stuff!. A clue as to what might have gone wrong at Sheps’s was passed to me the other week by a friend who attended a “meet the brewer” evening at the Sevenoaks JDW outlet, the Sennockian. The brewer in question was from Whitstable Brewery, and during his talk he confessed to having worked for Shep’s in the past. He mentioned, almost in passing, that the brewery had “cleaned up” their yeast, eliminating a “wild” strain that had once been a vital element in the taste of the beers.

Boak & Bailey alluded briefly to this “cleaning up” of yeast strains. Whilst this might make yeast selection and propagation easier at the brewery, it can often have a detrimental effect on the taste of the finished product. In Shep’s case though, I do not think this was solely to blame for their bitter’s fall from grace; instead I believe the increasing use of conical fermenters must also take responsibility, and not just at Shepherd Neame.

There is no doubt that conical vessels can have an adverse effect on the taste and character of a beer, simply because fermentation takes place at a much faster rate. Whereas wort in a traditional square fermenting vessel would typically take around a week to ferment, this period is reduced to 3-4 days when fermentation is switched to conical vessels. Another characteristic of conical fermenters is the yeast sinks to the bottom of the vessel once fermentation draws to a close. This happens even when “top fermenting “yeast strains are used.  Shepherd Neame use conicals, so do Fuller’s plus Wells & Young's. I suspect Timothy Taylors use them as well, as I know they have considerably expanded their brewery in recent times  to cope with the increased demand, nationwide, for Landlord.

I don’t know about Hop Back or Exmoor, although I suspect they are still small enough concerns to stick with more traditional vessels. One beer though whose character was totally changed when production switched to conicals, was Draught Bass. This was despite the brewery claiming to have carried out extensive trials to ensure an almost identical match between Bass brewed in the old Burton Union Sets and that brewed using the more modern system. Despite my initial scepticism, I believe Bass did  achieve their aim to begin with, but after a while in its new environment, their complex, multi-strain yeast began changing, leading to a significant loss of character in the finished beer.

Of course, conical fermenters aren’t always the villains of the piece. Back in the early 1990’s, renowned Bohemian brewers Pilsner Urquell, carried out a similar exercise to Bass, switching the fermentation, and subsequent maturation of their world-classic lager from open cylindrical oak fermenters and massive, pitch-lined oak casks, to conical fermenters and conditioning tanks. Unlike Bass though, Pilsner Urquell managed to get the change right, and the finished beer is still a very good one. I know what I’m talking about here; I visited the brewery in 1984, when the old ways of doing things very much in place. I visited it again, last autumn, and to me the beer tasted every bit as good, despite all the high tech equipment now in place, and the company belonging to global brewing giant, SAB – Miller.

So if changes in fermentation methods aren’t always the reason why so many once cherished beers have lost their way, then what is? The answer has to be good old fashioned economics. In situations where accountants start to have more say in the running of a brewery, the temptation has to be to cut back on certain expensive ingredients, in favour of slightly cheaper alternatives. Maturation times are cut back, and the strength of a beer may even be reduced, just “ever so slightly”.

The end result speaks for itself, but in a market where most beers are promoted by brand, and where the brands in question are increasing in popularity and appeal, then so what if a few “old duffers” start claiming the beers aren’t what they used to be. For every once loyal follower of these beers, there are probably a dozen more new converts, “aficionados” if you like, who are all perfectly happy with what’s in their glass, having never known just how good the somewhat bland beer they are now drinking, once was.

This, of course, is often (but not always), the price of fame!


Curmudgeon said...

I suggested here that lack of proper maturation in the cellar may have something to do with it as well.

Word verification = "cloudies" ;-)

Paul Bailey said...

You are right about short cellar maturation times, Mudgie, and I think this is a subject worthy of a post in its own right.

Thinking back to when we had our Real Ale Off-Licence, I recall the almost volcanic erruptions that occured when a freshly stillaged cask of Taylor's Landlord was spiled. I think I'm right in saying there was a label pasted on the cask by the brewery, warning about this.

I somewhat doubt this is the case today; the reason being the vastly increased availability of Landlord, and similar beers, in none-tied outlets - as you point out in your "Opening Times" article.

Definitely food for thought here, and some interesting research opportunities as well.

Unknown said...

Interesting article. I can confirm that Sheps 'cleaned up' (or changed completely) their yeast strain in the early 80's. This was around the same time they installed a lot of new conical fermenters too.

Master Brew was apparently a much higher hopped, characterful beer back then but the yeast strain in use caused no end of production problems.

Out of interest, who was the brewer from Whitsable who gave the talk? Both Rafik and Julian who work there worked for Sheps in the past.

Paul Bailey said...

I'm not certain which Whitstable brewer it was, Pete, but I will find out.

Sheps' bitter certainly was much more to my taste before the change of yeast. I also think their beers are far too well attenuated for my taste; the abv of each brew is significantly higher than the stated OG would suggest, indicating all the available malt sugars in the beer are fermented right out, with virtually no "body" remaining. The end result is a thin, astringent beer that I find rather unpleasant.