Back in the 1980s when I first started drinking in Chester, real ale was available again in most decent boozers after being almost wiped out through industrialisation in the previous decade. The choice however was very limited. A pint of real ale usually meant Greenall’s bitter or Greenall’s original (a strong bitter). There was very little else. In contrast, the variety of quality real ale and craft beers available in the city today is vast and if the pub trade in general is in decline, the micro-brewery sector and those boozers free of tie that can access their products certainly are not. New ingredients, new beer styles and a lot of imaginative, driven people willing to embrace new ideas have reinvigorated the industry. Real ale is great. Real ale has even become sexy.
Last week I listed what we considered to be the best strong ales we’d encountered during 2011, but what follows is where we’re really at. Beer ponces stand aside. Here comes the list of the best British quaffing ales - mainly traditional bitters or modern variants thereof – that we drank in Chester last year.
Quaffers (abv 4.2% and below)
Before we get to the top five, the following excellent ales are all worthy of an honourable mention:
- Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best - Olde Cottage (No. 25) & others
- Weetwood Cheshire Cat - Red Lion, Handbridge (No. 8) & others
- Allgate California - Carlton Tavern (No. 5)
- Joules Pale Ale - Cross Keys (No. 40)
- Everard’s Tiger - Union Vaults (No. 37)
- Thwaite’s Wainwright - Coach House (No. 98)
- Pied Eyed - Pied Bull (No. 86)
And now, beginning with the fifth placed ale and finishing with the winner, here are the best quaffing ales of the CBP:
5. Tetley Bitter (3.7%) – The Ship Victory (No. 100)
I’m not sure about the history here, but back in days of yore, the Tetley bitter found in and around Chester was a distinctly different and considerably inferior product to that found in Yorkshire pubs. This is because it was brewed in Warrington (Walkers ?) and not the famous brewery in Leeds, which made the good stuff and which now has sadly been closed. Lord knows where they brew it now, or indeed who brews it. However, the quality is right up there with that of the original Yorkshire ale – or at least it is in this fine ‘old school’ boozer, where it’s kept and served superbly. No ‘bells and whistles’ here – just a good old traditional pint.
4. Higson’s Best Bitter (4.1%) – The Cellar Bar (No. 45)
Higson’s, the fondly remembered Liverpool brewery disappeared in the early 1980s when it became part of the Whitbread group. The brewery was closed, but then went full circle after it was bought by independent owners and re-opened under the Cain’s brand – Cain’s being the original name of the brewery in the early part of the 20th century before it was bought by Higson’s. The beers were lost though – that was until recently when the Liverpool Organic microbrewery decided to resurrect Higson’s Best Bitter. And they’ve done a fine job with it – possibly better than the original in fact ! It’s yesterday’s future nostalgia today – and a darn tootin’ session ale.
3. Marble Manchester Bitter (4.2%) – The Carlton Tavern (No. 5)
This is supposedly a clone of the original Strangeways Boddington’s bitter, which died with the demolition of the brewery – forget the mass marketed keg shite. Apart from the pale colour though, it doesn’t seem to bear much of a resemblance. It’s stronger and far erm, hoppier – not sure that’s actually a word to be honest. What I’m trying to say is that it’s better. This is a beautiful ale – bitter, citrus and dry. Lovely aroma as well. It’s an uber-quaffer of taste and distinction. And it’s not just a guest at the Carlton – it’s on permanently. Worth going ‘sarf of the river’ just to try it people.
2. Stonehouse Sunlander (3.7%) – The Marlbororough Arms (No. 56)
This one took us by surprise – picked it up on the last night of the CBP after we’d been to the final pub. We’d visited the Marlbororough earlier in the year, but this new ale was still in development at that point. It’s a very pale bitter, and this, coupled with the name suggested it might be a sort of light summer ale. Strange then that it was being launched mid-winter. The name ‘Sunlander’ though is a nod towards Australia, as the characteristic feature of this ale is that it’s loaded with Australian hops. This leads to an impressive level of tropical fruit flavour and hop aroma for such a light beer. It’s stonkingly pleasant.
1. Brimstage Trapper’s Hat (3.8%) – The Cellar Bar (No. 45)
I’ve always wondered whether or not the use of rhyming slang in naming this fantastic ale was deliberate or inadvertent. I suspect the latter to be honest. I’ve got an image of these genial old duffers sitting round a table at Brimstage HQ experiencing a ‘Eureka’ moment in their quest to find a suitably quirky name for their new ale. “I’ve got it chaps. How about the ‘Trapper’s Hat’ ?” “Oh yes, that’s perfect – encapsulates rural tradition with a dash of bumpkin charm” So, not a reference to a laydee-part then. Ahem, branding aside this really is an unassuming but quite spectacular light golden ale and were it not for the late showing of the Sunlander, would have won this contest by a ‘country mile’. It’s still our numero uno though – a light beer with the complexity and hop attack of a heavyweight IPA. A glory to behold. Total brewing perfection.
Next week the sparks will fly. Or maybe they won’t. It’s Chesterville's bottom 5 pubs !