THE CASK WHISPERER
Blog by Nigel Walsh
Some Favorite Things – Bitters and Pale Ales
I was hanging out in Jones Wood last week and I was asked about my favorite beer.
As I had just been served the first pint out of a fresh new cask of Dutchess Ales latest premium bitter Origen, I was ready to give my standard reply:
And it was true, sort of.
It was a lovely beer, cool, pale gold with a frothy/scuzzy white head and earthy flowery aroma. A surprising dry crispness, with the earthiness holding on from first swallow to the last sip.
At 4.8% it was a little above my sweet spot for a bitter, but not outrageously so, in fact I ended up washing it down with two more pints before the session was done.
While enjoying those first few gulps, I thought about the question again and gave a much more nuanced answer this time:
“Fifth Hammer Fugget Nuggle!”
And that was also true, sort of.
I first tasted Fugget Nuggle at the Caskalot 2020 event at the brewery, held just before the dreaded lurgy got to us.
It wasn’t among the casks racked up for the event, but had its own sweet spot, served from the brand new handpump at the end of the bar; I only had a couple the first time, interleaving sips from the pints with samples from each of the other casks pouring in the brewing room.
It was exactly the kind of beer that I had been awaiting for many years on this side of the pond.
To start with, it is only 3.8% and I am pretty certain that it was my first sub-4% American brewed beer; there have been others since then, a trend that I hope continues.
Medium gold with a nice foamy sparkled head (I am not holding that against it), and like the Origen, a gentle earthy bitterness (I love the fuggle hop) and a cool soft mouthfeel… the absolute definition of a session beer in my book.
It has returned to the Fifth Hammer beer engine several times since, and I always return to sample it; the latest occasion being this year’s edition of Caskalot.
And then it appeared one week at JWF during the 2021 version of the Summer Cask event, in its full unsparkled glory.
Served from a pint mug, it still had its soft cool mouthfeel, but the creamy head was replaced by a loose frothy one, making it even more sessionable, to the extent that I ended up downing nine pints that night with no apparent ill effects (although Mr. Liver may disagree). A session enjoyed but not to be repeated.
This weekend, as I was obsessing over thinking about favorite beers, I came to the conclusion that I probably had dozens in my top-10 list and would need to organize them by category (a la GABF) or some sort of pool (a la March Madness) to decide the best of the best.
Could I be that nerdy?
Well, maybe a little…
Even though my first gut response to the initial question was probably the most accurate (I really do love whatever cask ale is sitting in a glass in front of me), I thought that it might be an interesting exercise to recall the more memorable examples of my favorite beer style, the English Ordinary Bitter.
To qualify, each beer would have to have been regularly available to me at some point in time and would have to be a beer that I would seek out and return to whenever the occasion arises.
And the more memorable beers all come with a time and a place, so without further ado…
Early 1970s, Medway Valley, Kent, Home
Immediately we have two candidates: Fremlins Bitter and Shepherd Neame Best Bitter.
Fremlins is sadly no longer with us, having been taken over by Whitbread around the time that I started my cask drinking “career”, and phased out in the early 1980s. It reappeared in some Wetherspoons outlets more recently (I don’t know who was brewing it) but seems to have disappeared again. I am sure there are recipes out there if some enterprising local brewery wants to attempt to revive it again… just saying…
It was a lovely little beer, 3.7% pale bronze and all tea and biscuits, with a side of Kent cobnut (hazelnut). The appearance and mouthfeel varied depending on whether it was served via handpump (as at the Bull Hotel, Rochester) or straight from gravity cask (as at the Man of Kent, East Peckham).
I have a particular fondness for this beer as it was the first cask beer that I had ever tasted.
The Sheps is an almost polar opposite of the Fremlins; whereas the Fremlins was malt-forward, the Sheps is all about the hops and the yeast.
It survives today as Shepherd Neame’s flagship Master Brew Bitter, and if the articles and posts that I read about it are to be believed, it is as divisive as it ever was.
Folks either love it or they can’t tolerate it… I loved it, and still do.
It looks harmless, many would look at it and give it a sniff and compare it favorably with the likes of Harvey’s Sussex Best.
3.9%, deep bronze, and usually with a fairly tight foamy head and strong earthy bitter hoppy aroma, with just a hint of the yeastiness to come.
It is that yeastiness that puts people off, together with its laxative side-effects that some may experience (or so I have heard), colloquially referred to as the Shepherd Scream.
It never bothered me at all, although I would sometimes mix it as a half-and-half with Sheps Dark Mild to temper its intense bitterness.
It was widely available to me in my formative years and became my go-to beer of choice, although it drove many of my friends to become lager drinkers…
Late 1970s, London, Work
If you were a cask drinker in those days in London, you were either a Fullers drinker or a Youngs drinker. I would drink both but my preference for a session was always Youngs, and always the Ordinary Bitter over the Special Bitter.
The Young Special was a little sweet as were all of Fullers cask range, and I just had more of a bitter tooth, which the Youngs Ordinary satisfied; besides, most of my favorite pubs such as The Lamb on Lambs Conduit Street were Youngs pubs.
3.7% again (there is a pattern here), medium bronze with a loose frothy head, it really looked like the image of an English pint of ale. Quite bitter but with a hint of malty backbone and always finishing very dry.
2000s, District of Columbia, Work
I lived and worked in Northern Virginia and DC for over nine years and was fortunate to be there just as DC was discovering that it was a beer town, with a dozen good craft beer bars and another dozen or more breweries opening up in the greater DMV (DC-Maryland-Virginia) area during my time there as a resident.
I was fortunate to have lived just three blocks from Churchkey for the last five of those years, so that I always had four to five fresh casks within stumbling distance of my bed, with another dozen just a metro ride away in various directions.
At Churchkey I got to experience some fine British casks from the likes of Harvey’s, Adnams, and Fyne, but my favorites were three local (-ish) brewed efforts.
Yardbird is a 4.1% bitter from Bluejacket Brewery in DC itself. This beer was about as close to Youngs Special Bitter as I can remember and was available several times on cask at the brewery itself, both unadorned and also with a sympathetic dry-hopping.
Hardly Ordinary a 4% Ordinary Bitter from Mad Fox out at Falls Church in Northern Virginia, now sadly closed. This was probably the most sessionable of the regularly available bitters and/or pale ales available in the DC area and could often be found on cask at one of the craft beer bars in the area, and also at the brewpub itself almost continuously. Greatly missed.
Uncle Teddy’s Bitter a 4% bitter from Victory out in the wilds of Downingtown Pennsylvania. I would almost consider this to be a pale mild or at least an elusive AK style of bitter. Deep gold with a foamy head and very mild bitterness (oxy who? oxy-moron?). A really easy drinking beer that could be found on cask all over the mid-Atlantic region and even up to NYC at times. Unfortunately, I believe that they stopped brewing it a couple of years ago and I have seen no replacement candidates since.
2020s, New York State, Leisure
I have a home away from home in the Finger Lakes. Since stumbling across Seneca Lake Brewing Company at a cask festival in Utica five years ago, I have tried to get up there at least twice a year; once for their own New York State British Real Ale Festival, and once for the sheer relaxing joy of it all.
Seneca Lake exclusively brews Real Ale and serves up their delicious beers on a bar full of handpumps in an English pub-like setting overlooking a spectacular valley and lake.
Of course, I love everything that they brew, but I am particularly fond of their Beerocracy Bitter.
An absolute stunner at just 3.5%. Pale copper with a foamy/scuzzy white head and faintly malty faintly hoppy tea-like fragrance. It is so easy to have a session on this beer, and I have done so several times at the brewery and on a single occasion at JWF. This is as close to Fremlins as I have experienced in the States.
2020s, New York City, Home
So, we come back full circle to Fifth Hammer and Fugget Nuggle but let us not forget Strong Rope or Threes Brewing or Wild East; all three have been turning out wonderful sub-4% English style bitters, milds and golden ales recently and all would make my top-10 list (if I actually had one).
Whatever cask beer is in front of me…
Scorecard w/e 10/31/23
In the past week, The Cask Whisperer has enjoyed the following casks:
- Dutchess Origen @ Jones Wood Foundry
- Strong Rope The Inn Autumn Ale @ Jones Wood Foundry
Upcoming Cask Festivals
11/4/2023: 19th Annual Blue Point Cask Ales Festival
11/18/2023: Analog-a-Go-Go at Dogfish Head