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Proper British Ale
Best brews and pubs in the United Kingdom
by David Yeadon

British pubs have always had their little rituals. Once they used to be relatively simple. Way back, this is how it went when you ordered a pint of beer at your 'local':

"Pint of bitter," (or mild) "please, landlord."

"Yes, sir. Coming right up."

And that was it. You waited with salivatory anticipation as the long black pump handle was pulled with laconic grace and the amber liquor flowed with its froth building to a creamy head into a large pint glass with faceted sides and a fat glass handle. You paid your pittance (beer used to be cheap. I can remember in my student days guzzling pints at 15 pence, three shillings in the old British currency — or 25 cents) a pop for a pint and a bit extra. Then you raised the cool (no, not iced) glass to your lips, sucked a little froth to open up a space for the golden gleam to shine through and slowly took that first long draught, allowing the hoppy-malty liquid to tantalize every pore of your palate before swallowing to the delight of a receptive stomach. Sometimes you'd even get the 'bonus' " . . .bit too much froth on that, sir. Sorry about that. Let me just top it up for you."

Ah, those were the good old days of local pubs often only selling the beer of the brewery that owned them. Not much in the way of choice but always top quality 'live' cask-conditioned ale drawn directly from cool cellars (not warm as sneering foreigners like to claim) around 50F which allows the full bouquet and aromas of well-brewed ale to finesse the whole experience of its slow, steady consumption . . .

And then, sometime in the 60's, when the big national breweries had gobbled up most local breweries and the great beer-monopoly brouhaha began, the whole scene changed. Gone were all the quaint and quirky 'town' labels and flavors and in came the homogenized products of Bass, Charrington, Allied, Scottish and Newcastle et al.

That also coincided with the opening up of foreign travel to Britishers. Prior to that, restrictions on the amount of money tourists were allowed to take abroad kept most residents of this island nation at home. But suddenly it was a free for all and within a few short years vast chunks of the Eastern Spanish coastline, the Spanish islands of Majorca, Minorca and Ibiza, the Dordogne of France and the Portuguese Algarve coast became Brit-colonies complete with tea and crumpet cafés, fish and chip shops, 'real' Brit-pubs, bacon-buttie stands and all the myopic 'home from home' attractions that made you wonder why anyone bothered to travel at all.

But travel they did in their millions. And tastes became more eclectic (and distasteful: consider paella and chips, escargots and peas, barbecued suckling pig with bubble n' squeak, etc.) And new tastes in beer particularly the fizzy 'lagers' of Europe and the strong beers of Australia were soon in demand back home. Odd concoctions like lager and bitter, lager and lime ('for the ladies') even lager and blackcurrent (presumably an attempt to replicate Belgium's fruit-beers) became 'de-rigeur' at the 'locals.' British brewers at first tried to ignore the trend and lobbied Parliament to allow the import of only small amounts of Carlsberg, Heineken and other 'foreign' concoctions. But as demand grew the breweries decided that the old, time honored recipes for slow-aged bitter and mild ales (the only real options in pubs previously) should be augmented by the trend for ultra cold, ultra fizzy brews — aka 'dead' pasteurized beers — shipped in pressurized aluminium, not oak, kegs and pumped with carbon dioxide 'fizz', inert, yeast-free and bacteria-less, into glasses — glasses that were now offered in a range of fluted 'Stein' and other odd 'foreign' shapes. Even the traditional milds and bitters were produced in 'dead' form with the most notable and ultimately notorious concoction, Watney's Red Barrel, becoming a national icon of these new 'improved' blends.

At first, and in traditional British fashion, the mumblings and rumblings of protest were low-key and decorous:

Doesn't quite taste the same, landlord. — Ah well, it's what they ship isn't it and it's what people seem to like nowadays. — Well it's a shame isn't it. A little too cold. Too fizzy really. It's a bit like sodapop! Aye, I reckon it is. Another one? . . .

But then in the early seventies along came CAMRA and the glorious revolution of The Campaign for Real Ale' advocates. Almost overnight (actually it took a couple of high-hype years) CAMRA, backed by such stalwart beer-lager journalists as Michael Jackson, regalvanized the tastebuds and traditions of the British beer-drinking populus. They wreaked havoc upon the mega-breweries and their 'dead beer' keg products and demanded on behalf of hundreds of thousands of their supporters and eventually received, a reinstitution of the time- honored methods of brewing 'cask-conditioned' ales.

The revolution was on. But it was just the beginning. Since those early days, Britain has seen a total transformation of its pub-scene. Breweries have been required to release their stranglehold on their own pubs (and in many cases, sell them to private owners), offer a far wider range of ales, lagers, stouts, local micro-brews and even pub-brewed ales which of course is where it had all begun centuries before when every inn worth its own name brewed at least some of its own individual-recipe ales.

So, back to our typical pub scene. Except that the scene isn't typical at all anymore. Gone are the little rooms and 'nooks,' flagstone floors, a fire, the pungent aroma of cigars and cigarettes. Now it's 'open all day,' 'open plan' bars, red velvet everything, etched glass and brass, carpets, restaurant areas, piped musak, TVs, non-antique antiques, fiberglass 'Olde English' beams, and even 'beer gardens' and children's play areas outside . . .

And this might be a 'typical' exchange nowadays:

Pint of bitter landlord, please. Real ale, sir? Yes, please. We also have Guinness, and Mackeson stouts on tap, Newcastle Brown, Old Peculier from that little brewery in the Yorkshire Dales, 4 lagers 2 foreign, 2 British — Aussie beer Fosters and Castlemain, cider — light or Scrumpy, 8 different wines on tap . . . I think I'll just . . . . And then of course we have a couple dozen bottled British ales . . . Worthington White Shield's one of the best . . .and six American brands, they're very popular now y'know . . . Just a pint of real ale, please. Well, in that case sir, you've got your Speckled Red, Bishop's Mitre, Rumbold's Special, Black Sheep, Enoch's Hammer that's from a micro just down the road — then there's your . . . What about the old names like Tetleys . . . Oh indeed sir there's Tetleys, Youngers, Timothy Taylor, John Smith, Sam Smith . . . . A pint of Tetley's please Yes, sir Cask Bitter, Smooth, Mild, Imperial, Falstaff or . . . Cask, please. Very good choice, sir. Fine creamy head. Almost chewy like Guinness. Would you like that in an iced glass sir . . . No, just cellar temperature is fine, the way it used to be. Fine sir. Now would you like that in a handle glass, plain, flute, stein . . . Handle glass, please . . .

The landlord pulls the ale (a little faster now. Some of the pumps are electro-powered), but it's not full to the top as it used to be — flowing over the edges.

Thank you. But I think it needs topping up . . . Oh no sir, you're fine. It's an EEC regulation glass now. See that little line. That's where the beer should be poured to now . . . I see. Well thank you but that's the froth level. The beer's below that . . . Froth becomes beer if you leave it sir. Oh . . . So that'll be two pounds and ten pence ($3.40).

The customer blinks but pays up. Inflation has hit everything. Long gone are the days of 15 p. pints now it's twenty-two times the price and rising!

But. It's still good. It's definitely fine ale and still cheaper than anywhere else in Europe. You just have to be patient with all the choices and a little more rash with cash. Which may not be a bad thing because with drinking and driving laws the way they are in Britain today (and many other parts of Europe), any driver found with more than a pint or so in his system (once barely a thirst-quencher for a night's imbibings) is going to pay a hefty penalty for his indulgence. So there's good and bad. But somehow the pubs have survived although many look more like restaurants now or some filmset designer's idea of how a 'real' traditional pub should look) and British beer is still British beer although a few 'deads' are creeping back in. Still I'm a loyalist supporter of 'proper' British ale and for my tastes and pockets, it remains the world's best (even when drunk in one of those beer gardens surrounded by screaming kids and great ubiquitous platters of ham, eggs, chips and peas . . .)

Sup up. Next one's on me . . . .


It's always best, I have found, to declare one's biases up front so, before presenting this highly-opinionated, regionally-focused listing of Britain's 12 best brews, I feel obligated to emphasize that:

— I am and always will be a Yorkshireman (despite an American home for 30 years).

— With a few notable exceptions, Yorkshire (or northern — to be generous) beers are definitely the best.

— And to quote a beloved British sitcom — "I am unanimous in this."

So with all that out of the way, may I present my findings based upon years of arduous, arm-bending, belly-busting research:

1. The top brew: without a doubt, Britain's best range of ales, stouts, porters, brown ales is produced by the 1758 brewery of Samuel Smith in Tadcaster (no, not the John Smith Brewery next door — they're okay but . . .) And, if one were to pick the best of Samuel's six most renowned brews, it would have to be: Samuel Smith's Old Brewery Pale Ale.

From now on it's strictly alphabetical.

2. Bank's Mild (Midlands) An increasingly rare find in Britain — The "mild" beer full of malty, fruity flavor and a little winelike in the finish. "When it's on song," claims one devotee, "you just don't realize how quick your glass empties."

3. Eldridge Pope Thomas Hardy Ale (Dorset) Yes, a southern beer, but made in the robust northern manner and, despite its literary pretentions, it's a splendidly rich and creamy brew.

4. Marston's Pedigree (Midlands) This fine ale produced in the famous beer-town of Burton-upon-Trent has been described by one aleophile as "graced by a hint of desert apple in the aroma, a clean, soft texture, a light nutty maltiness and a flowery, hoppy elegance in the finish. In all, a highly complex beer." And I concur wholeheartedly and also recommend the very hoppy Best Bitter and the strong dark winter ale Owd Roger.

5. Newcastle Brown Ale (Northumbria) A world-renowned northern stalwart in the form of a unique-blending of two ales which according to one bit of beerspeak possesses: "Subtly restrained notes of pear-drops and bananas, balanced with a faintly roasted maltiness, a touch of residual sugar and perhaps the gentlest of yeast bites in the mouth drying, moreish finish." (Who writes this guff — just sip, savor and smile!)

6. Smithwick's Draft Ale (Kilkenny, Ireland) Well there's got to be at least one serious competitor to Guinness and this is it — produced in a 1710 brewery and famous for its 'multi-phase' tasting qualities and its distinct Irish-red color.

7. Tetley's Bitter (Yorkshire) Despite its lauded reputation as the world's largest producer of cask-conditioned ales, Tetley's is still a touchstone of the old 'Yorkshire Square' brewing process which produces a bold, robust and cream-headed ale. Hard to beat anywhere.

8. Theakston's Old Peculier (Yorkshire) At the eastern end of Wensleydale (wonderful Yorkshire Dales cheese-making country) the village of Masham is home to a small but deified brewery which was recently taken over by one of the mammoths but still loyal to its ancient brewing traditions. There's no ale like this — thick, ultra-rich, 'treacley', and remarkably strong. An offshoot brew by one of the original family owners is the excellent Black Sheep.

9. Timothy Taylor's Landlord (Yorkshire) A limited production bitter, very hoppy and creamy and a definite 'must' in central Yorkshire.

10. Worthington White Shield, (Midlands) A most unusual Burton-upon-Trent masterpiece of bottle conditioned real ale which continues to age (up to 18 months is ideal) and must be poured carefully to reduce sediment in the glass.

Oh — and one final curiosity (curious because I can't relocate the pub that brews this amazingly strong and flavorful 'knock-your-socks and everything else off' brew for its customers only — a rapidly increasing and encouraging UK trend). The name of the ale is Enoch's Hammer and it's in the Huddersfield part of Yorkshire, so if anyone knows the name and location of this brewpub, please email us — and your next four pints are on us if you're the first correct answer . . . .

P.S. A final comment on such beloved southern breweries such as Adnams, Ind Coope, Youngs, Beakspear Greene King and Whitbread. Nothing personal in your omission lads. On my infrequent sorties to the south I've enjoyed many of your brews (they should be good — you're much closer to the hopfields) and I'm sure, given another century or two of trying, you might even be a match for the noble northern nectars . . .


The problem with British pubs nowadays is their tendency — partly due to increasingly strict drinking laws — to try and appeal to all and everyone — from serious real ale connoisseurs to families with children and thirsty coach crowds. Hence it's increasingly familiar to see pubs offering not only a range of bars but also restaurants, games rooms, children's play areas, beer gardens, B&B facilities and even occasionally outdoor barbecues and afternoon teas! So — the criteria of excellence are obviously far more complex today compared with the once traditional draught ale, dominoes and darts watering holes and my selections must be regarded once again as highly personal, and biased toward The North!


Fisherman's Tavern (Dundee, Scotland) Fabulous real ales and spectacular ocean panoramas.

Old Black Lion (Hay-on-Wye, Wales) A splendid 13th century inn set in the town of second-hand books — (truly).

Lord Crewe Arms (Blanchland, Northumbria) Mysterious moorland resting place with priest's holes, ghosts and strange traditions.

Crown Posada (Newcastle) A highly ornate Victorian masterpiece in a revived Victorian City.

Kings Arms (Askrigg, Yorkshire) Deep in the Dales this rustic gem is also used occasionally as a set for a popular TV series.

Fauconberg Arms (Coxwold, Yorkshire) Comfortable 'olde world' charm complete with wing armchairs and sedate service.

Mason's Arms (Cartmel Fell, Cumbria) Fantastic range of beers in an idyllic country setting, ideal for walkers.


The Crown (Blockley, Gloucestershire) Charming Elizabethen pub (with superb gardens) in one of the prettiest villages in the Cotswolds.

Bull Terrier (Croscombe, Somerset) One of the county's most ancient pubs and now famous for great food and homemade Bull Terrier best bitter.

Old Ferryboat (Hollywell, Cambridgeshire) The epitome of southern pubs by a river, thatched, and renowned for great food and ales (and its resident ghost!)

PS: Sorry — no listings for London. There are just too many. We plan a special focus-piece in the future.


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