They say…

Des de Moor
Best beer and travel writing award 2015, 2011 -- British Guild of Beer Writers Awards
Accredited Beer Sommelier
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Des de Moor


In search of the lost London beer style

Hop monsters -- the true London beer style?

Hop monsters — the true beer style?

When the late great beer writer Michael Jackson wrote The World Guide to Beer, the book that’s usually acknowledged as introducing the modern concept of , in 1977, he could hardly have guessed that, less than 40 years later, interpretations of nearly all the styles he wrote about would be brewed commercially in his home city. Back then, the Good Beer Guide needed only three symbols to describe the cask repertoire of English breweries: one for mild, another for bitter, and an occasional third for “old ale or special”.

It wasn’t always so. Beer historian Ronald Pattinson once remarked to me that, at the beginning of the 20th century, “you could walk into a London pub and have a choice of five or six draught beers such as bitter, mild, Burton and porter, all completely different in character and with strengths ranging from 3% to 7 or 8% ABV”. That diversity began to shrink exactly a century ago, during World War I, not only through shortage of ingredients but because of increasing taxation and regulation of the brewing industry – ostensibly in the name of the war effort but in reality driven by the same sort of ideological objections to alcohol consumption that gave rise to the USA’s disastrous experiment with Prohibition from 1920-1933.

Heavy taxation based on a beer’s gravity persisted into the interwar years, so beer strengths declined accordingly, and the industry responded to the challenges of the 1930s recession and of rebuilding after World War II by streamlining its output. By the time of the real ale revival in the 1970s, the idea that beer was all about low gravity session ales suitable for drinking in pints was firmly embedded in the British consciousness. The growth of microbreweries and the emergence of more discerning drinkers prompted a revival of interest in defunct styles like porter, and new developments like golden and summer ales – but almost always at session strengths.

The current abundance is partly the legacy of Michael Jackson himself, and the way his work directly and indirectly inspired would-be brewers in countries like the USA where big brewing had almost entirely obliterated older and more localised brewing techniques and styles to start rebuilding their beer culture from a blank sheet. The resulting enthusiastic eclecticism and cosmopolitan openness has now returned to the old European brewing heartlands to inspire a new generation of brewers. And nowhere is this more evident than London, a city with a long tradition of being open to exotic influences and new ideas.

All this makes it rather challenging to talk about specifically London beer styles. The beers with the deepest historical roots in the capital are porters and stouts, though, aside from a few wood-aged experiments, no contemporary London brewer makes porter in a way comparable to the 18th century methods of maturing strong porter for years in wooden vats. By the end of the 19th century, milds were a more typical London style, and in the early 20th century, the related sweetish style of bottled brown ale typified by Mann’s Brown was regarded as an East End speciality. Today, hardly any London brewers offer a regular mild and none brews anything like Mann’s Brown, which itself is still around but produced outside London.

Old school real ale drinkers associate the capital with the revered cask bitters brewed by Fuller’s and Young’s, the two independents that survived into the 1970s. While Young’s is no longer brewed here, Fuller’s is proud to remain a London brewer, though neither can really be said to brew beers in a distinctively London style. Instead they reflect a general southeast English preference for relatively dry and hoppy cask bitters, doubtless influenced by the proximity of the Kentish hop gardens, and drawn without sparklers, with a low level of carbonation and a minimal head.

London can equally claim, alongside Wrecsam and Glasgow, to be one of the UK’s few genuine lager-brewing cities. In the 1930s, Barclay Perkins on Bankside became the first big British brewer to commit to lager production  In the 1990s London was the birthplace of one of Britain’s first ‘craft lager’ breweries, Freedom, and is still the home of one of its most successful, Meantime. And today the city can claim to be the UK’s main centre for hop-forward US-inspired pale ales and IPAs: while a good few London breweries don’t bother with bitter, pretty much all of them have at least one hoppy pale ale in their repertoire. Anyone tempted to express regret at this apparent departure from tradition should remind themselves that London originally gave the world not only porter, but India Pale Ale too.

8 comments to In search of the lost London beer style

  • Very Informative. Thanks for sharing!

  • I’d like to nominate Burton Ale as THE great “lost London beer style”: Young’s Winter Warmer (known as Young’s Burton Ale until the start of the 1970s) is the only example we have left, and that’s now brewed in Bedford, but in the 1950s all the big London brewers seem to have made a Burton Ale, dark, fruity and bitter-sweet, particularly in the winter months. Now, admittedly, Burton Ale started in Burton on Trent, but Londoners took to it enthusiasically, and it was certainly an adopted local favourite.

  • Des

    Good point, Martyn. Fuller’s has brewed one in the Past Masters series, and delicious it was too. Peter Haydon also brews one relativley regularly under the Florence brand, called Stoat. My top extreme retro wish list for a London brewery to adopt as core beers would be sweet brown ale, Burton and vatted stale porter. Now that Kernel has foeders and Beavertown has some on order, who knows what we’ll see?! Oh, and perhaps a craft keg version of Watney’s Red…

  • Simon

    Sadly, I’m not sure how regularly the Stoat is brewed these days. I live nearby the Florence and haven’t seen it in two years. No Untappd sightings since August 2013.

    A shame, as that was a thoroughly enjoyable winter pint.

  • Gary Gillman

    I agree regarded vatted stale porter and this can be sold on its tod or blended with young porter, all as done in the 1700’s-1800’s. Brewers need to use vats (fodder-style), not barrels especially not bourbon barrels, and should build them from a European wood source (not the coconut-tasting American wood). This is the natural beer to offer but they need to market it properly so people will understand its roots and why they should try it.

    Apart from this, pale ale of course. The brewers need simply use Fuggles, Goldings and other hops which do not taste American in large quantities per the 1800’s recipes easily available. These beers would be quite different to the standard run of modern brown bitter since they would use lots of hops and no crystal malt, just highly modified good pale malt preferably from barley grown in Britain.

    All the elements are there in place to do this yet the American taste runs rampant amongst the newer crop of brewers (and began actually via the golden ale route, IMO, it’s nothing new). The APA taste is all well and good but let’s not forget who started this whole shebang.


  • Gary Gillman

    Sorry, I meant foeder-style.


  • Des

    Gary — both Kernel and Beavertown now have foeders, and European ones too, so the possibility of a revival of 18th century style vatted stale porter no longer looks so unlikely. I have some sympathy with your point about British IPA. Most of the strong and hoppy ones use US hops, even from old established independents like St Austell and Fuller’s. One London exception, curiously, is Meantime’s IPA in the 750 ml bottle which last time I looked was EKG, Fuggles and Styrian Goldings I think. The Shepherd Neame one also has English hops. Having said that, British brewers have been using US hops since at least the 1840s, often in times of poor European harvests. Back then brewers worried the public would object to their ‘catty’ flavours. Of course 19th century US varieties probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near as distinctive as the modern ones. I believe Truman’s have used older and more restrained US varieties like Cluster (closest thing we now have to an American land race hop) and Willamette as an authentic component of historical revivals.

  • Pale Stout is a very London beer that’s 100% dead.

    I’d say Allsopp’s were the first big established brewer to dabble with Lager, albeit unsuccessfully.

    I’ll publish a Red Barrel recipe soon. Deoesn’t look too bad. Unlike Watney Mild, Brown and Milkmaid Stout that were 20% ullage.

    Can we use the English terminology please. They’re vats, not foeders. Look at the vessels Porter breweries had. Belgian foeders are clearly scaled down versions of Porter vats.

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