Monday, February 20, 2012

Stepping Back

I am fairly certain that were you to scratch the surface of even the most die hard of beer aficionado you will find a person who once upon a time drank stuff that they now deride and rail against. My particular skeleton in the cupboard is that before moving to the Czech Republic I drank the likes of John Smith's Extra Smooth, Tetley's Smoothflow and my favourite, Caffrey's. I loved the adverts, and could often be found propping up the bar of the O'Neill's pub on Broad Street in Birmingham when I was a student.

Having attended to the weekend chores on Saturday, I dragged Mrs V round to Wine Warehouse here in Charlottesville in order to completely ignore all the cases of wine and instead have a gander at the shelves of beer. I like Wine Warehouse's selection of beer, largely because they have decent British stuff, including Fuller's 1845 and a selection of Willams Brothers ales. As I perused the selection a thought occurred, I should try some of my old favourites in cans, and so I picked up these three, erm, delights.

As I said above, Tetley's was a fairly regular tipple in the misguided days of my youth, Old Speckled Hen and Bombardier were likewise something I enjoyed and bought plenty of in Prague when Robertson's would get some in, though I hadn't tried them in cans. Yesterday I set about them.

First up was Tetley's, mainly because at 3.6% it was the lightest of the bunch in terms of alcohol and, as it turned out, pretty much everything else. Any aroma that was there was basically that of a digestive biscuit dunked in week old black tea, and the flavours were a touch of toffee sweetness, a dab of crisp hop bite and sod all else. My overwhelming reaction was one of "I used to drink this?" confusion and disappointment, though only a little, in keeping with the beer. Four mouthfuls and it was gone, mind you it looked pretty in the glass, clear amber and a classic nitro can creamy white head.

I love the story of Old Speckled Hen, named for a rusty old MG in the brewery courtyard, and for a while in Prague it was a special treat, go to ale. In the can though it is another nitro abomination (sorry I really have issues with nitro, both for cans and draught, and it pains me to see "craft" brewers that make great stouts wandering down the nitro path to flavourless crap), so it poured a rich dark copper with that iconic shaving foam head. You know, I think they might actually have put hops in this beer, classic British spicy earthy ones at that. Big dollops of caramel and toast were the main features in the tasting department, and it was actually not that bad. Still, the bottles I remember were better, could that be a sign of entering one's dotage, thinking beers used to better in the old days?

Bombardier was the only non-nitro beer, as you can see from the huge voluminous head in the picture, which was topping off a nice red ale. Other than the looks though, Bombardier was just plain dull, kind of a souped up version of the Tetley's but without the nitro and a touch more malt. In my experience though the more loud and obnoxious the advert the worse the product, perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised then given the puerile cack of their latest Rik Mayall adverts?

So, yes Old Speckled Hen was the best of a decidedly mediocre bunch. Thankfully I also had in the fridge a few bottles of Williams Brothers beers, including one I had not tried before, the 3.9% Scottish Session - a magnificent delight of a beer, packed with bite, flavour and all round drinking happiness which reminded me again that the truly great brewers are those that don't have to hide behind insane volumes of alcohol, hops, random flavourings and gimmicks.


  1. Old Speckled Hen has had its recipe changed quite drastically over the years. It was still 5.2% ABV up until 2006. I recall with sadness my first encounter with the new version.

    For the record I think Williams Bros are incredibly gimmicky, and that's what I love about them. I'd like to see lots more gimmicks like Alba and Kelpie.

  2. I think the key part of that phrase is "have to". I have no problem with breweries doing the weird and wonderful, but being able to also do something as simple and delicious as Scottish Session is a major feather in their cap for me.

  3. I'm the same - very much in the camp of the John Smith's and Tetley's drinker for the beginning of my beer journey. I even went back to Tetley's quite often when we went to pubs which had no other beers on, and it was never anything I was disapointed with. Saying that though, I've not tried it since Carlsberg ripped the brewery out of my home town and moved it own South!

  4. It is interesting to note that what is "old hat" for Europeans is exotic and new for the US. Old Speckled Hen has been in my area for some time now but the I have not noticed the other two.


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