Boring Brown Bitter?

I’m going to talk about birds for a second but hear me out, I promise that I’ll bring this back to beer. Thing is, the winter sun had lingered as it held off the evening from drawing-in any closer, just a little longer than it had the previous day. Shadows were being cast high in the trees against a backdrop of holiday-blue sky. I shot up from my comfy seat and ran upstairs to get a better view of the fancy birds bobbing around outside my window. Curiosity had got the better of me. Only, they weren’t fancy at all, they were just sparrows.

Some consider the likes of sparrows to be little birds with indistinguishable markings; birds which are a bit dull; are much of a muchness; birds to not get excited by, and that right there is the overlap between those in the birding camp and those in the beer world because when I think of those little birds, I can’t help but to also think of traditional cask beers; English Pale Ales, Bitters and classic IPAs. They, much like the birds, can be understated characters when compared to their vibrant cousins from further afield. Some may even call them drab. The details, however, make them anything but dull because when done well and served right they are nuanced, delicate, balanced and unlike the showier variations on the market, there’s nothing to hide behind; no large hop bill or high alcohol content.

Traditional ales quite often get an unfair reputation thrown their way, or overlooked completely, by those who feel more compelled to chase the new wave, trendy end of the market. The modern beer scene is an increasingly crowded place, it often seems as if those who shout the loudest stand out from the crowd, but beer is just as susceptible to fashion and its whims as anything else. Variety is vast within the sector right now, something which is to be celebrated and encouraged, but the continued hype in parts of the scene is getting tedious, particularly when quality is often not as consistent as it could be. Let’s not, in all the excitement of the conveyor belt of super-hopped IPAs, pudding stouts and experimental sours overlook the simple beauty of an ordinary bitter, because chances are that it’s anything but. Often, the kind of beers that will weave themselves into the fabric of memories are those which are perceived as common, ordinary, simple; pints of Best ordered on repeat, cooling lagers under holiday sun, cheap beers in the park with friends. These aren’t fashionable or trendy beers, they aren’t the main event, but they are familiar, consistent and always there to aid in creating a moment, and it’s the moments in the pub which are perhaps best of all.

Sparrow: Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images on Pixabay

I no longer chase beers. I don’t chase fancy feathered critters either, I much prefer the familiarity of a sparrow and I will never be one of those who drive miles to an industrial estate, at the other end of the country, to catch a rare glimpse of a bird that’s been blown off course during migration (poor bastards- the birds, not the birders). I don’t, despite my sceptical tone, judge those who do, but increasingly I want to drink beers by brewers that get it right, consistently. I like having the odd special beer sitting at home but moreover I like walking into pubs knowing that beer will be on, tasting every bit as good as it did the last time I walked in and ordered it. It seems empty to fall for a beer, because that inevitably happens, only to know that I’ll probably never see it again.

In 2018 beer sales increased by 2.6% on the previous year, across both the on and off trades. In supermarkets and shops sales figures increased by 4.7% year-on-year, something which isn’t surprising given that many choose to drink at home. There has been a huge shift in the variation of styles of beer available to the consumer in supermarkets and shops, which is a great thing and, if my social media feeds are anything to go by, more and more people are discovering modern beers to consume at home. Pub and bar sales, however, only saw an increase of 0.1%. Look a little closer and you’ll see within that cask beer sales are not performing well. They’re not considered trendy, they’re not appealing to younger drinkers, particularly those aged 18-24, and it appears people just aren’t spending time in pubs like they used to. Cask beer sales, much like the sparrows, are in decline.

Charles Dickens once stated, “it’s not easy to walk alone in the countryside without musing upon something”, I like to think the same can be said of sitting in a pub. Boring brown beers are like a good cup of tea; they offer the chance for a sit down in a relaxed atmosphere (hopefully), the weight taken off; transferred to that pint as it rises and falls, sip by sip, as it’s set back upon the table top. It’s a simple pleasure and one of the finest to be had.

Familiarity can hinder perception. Common feels like an unkind term but by being the opposite of the limited editions, the one-offs, the specials, the exotic and hard-to-come-by stuff is what makes something just as special. Familiarity is part of the foundation of friendship. It’s the chance to get to know someone or something to the point of finding comfort. It’s the sparrows, it’s the chair by the window, it’s the friendly faces, it’s the pub and the pint of brown beer. It’s something that can easily be taken for granted but is overwhelmingly missed when it’s gone.

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Founder and Editor of Look At Brew - a beer blog dedicated to the celebration and promotion of the modern beer scene. Contributor to Beer Imbiber magazine, Regional Coordinator for the Sussex Tryanuary campaign and founder of the Sussex Bottle Share.