On a recent haunt to The Mermaid in St Albans, I opted for a pint of Encore by Lacons Brewery in Great Yarmouth. It bills itself as a bitter and has won multiple World Beer and Society of Independent Brewers awards.
Lacons is a surreal tale of a brewery coming back from the dead after almost half a century. The original brewery dated back to 1760. In its heyday, a railway siding was even built in so its beer could ride directly out to its wide audience – much of it in London. Whitbread took it over in 1965 and closed it just 3 years later. The rights to use the name were bought from a subsidiary of AB-Inbev by Wil Wood in 2009 and the original Lacons yeast was obtained from the National Yeast Bank. Brewing began in earnest in 2013 and here it is again live and frothing.
Lacons Bitter (cask 3.8)
It was light clementine in colour with a Daz white lather on top. It retains this head right to the bottom. The beer’s delicate but tasty. I’m reminded of chewing through the rind in golden shred marmalade. Also on the palate are notes of apricots & peaches – dappled sunlight that gives hope during the cold wet February outside. It has a bitter aftertaste and a frugal body. This is not to say that Encore isn’t balanced because it is. It’s just unashamedly light and optimistic being hopped with Citra and Centennial. I approved of it so much I had to return to get the pump clip.
Encore made me think about what a bitter is and moreover what bitter has been, but inevitably what bitter is becoming.
A very short walk away I could order a pint of the oldest Hertfordshire bitter doing the rounds: Country Bitter by McMullens. It was first brewed in 1964 and retains the same recipe. Country Bitter has a really earthy leaf litter aroma – an association I make with many traditional English beers. It’s as malty as it is orangy. Compared with Encore, it would be like drinking caramel because of the primacy of the malt which has little counterfoil. The dryness and bitterness are noticeably absent compared to today’s brews.
Both beers are self-proclaimed bitters. Both are a combination of the same four principle ingredients. Both are from the large interpretation of East Anglia too. Would a drinker from 1964 have recognised Encore as a bitter? I doubt it. Too much citrus and too much levity. It would have seemed foreign.
I come back to the idea of a session bitter. Beer, as has often been noted, is bread. In terms of malt, the analogy here speaks for itself – when sessioning beer it becomes the food. Because there is now greater choice on the bar, because people generally drink less and because beer is tilting towards the more potently flavoursome and experimental world of craft, people session beers less – especially in full pints. It’s in this context that the malt abjures from its throne and the hops slide their eager buttocks into the warm grooves instead.
On the same bar in The Mermaid, dispensed from a neighbouring pump is the pub’s house beer: Citra by Oakham Ales in Peterborough. Golden and garish, this strong grapefruit punch of an ale is one of the most popular staples around. By a slow gradated creep from dark and malty to pale and alpha-acidic, will we soon come to regard Citra as a bitter too? The suggestion seems outrageous but the chasm between Country Bitter and Encore is much wider than the narrow strait between Encore and Citra. I suppose the same could be said about the crossover of many beer styles but it’s especially true for bitters, pale ales and IPAs: they blend into each other with no agreed defining thresholds to cross.
I’m much more fond of Encore than the ales I cut my teeth on like Bishop’s Finger, Arkells, Badger Ale, Morrells, Morlands, Brakspears or Wadworth 6X. Encore isn’t a recreation of them in my view but a reinterpretation of bitter itself. I find that more and more new breweries take this direction rather than the thicker maltier option – focus has switched from the bread to the marmalade. What it does share is bitter’s reputation for balance and subtlety
However you might categorise Encore, I thoroughly recommend it and think that for bitter to survive, be more refreshing and appeal to a broader palate, it needs to be like this.