Wednesday 8 May 2013

The Final Five

When CAMRA was formed back in 1911 1971 there were five bottle conditioned beers in production. Having finally got hold of the revived version of one of them, I got thinking about the final five:
  • Guinness Extra, a 4.2% ABV stout
  • Worthington White Shield, a 5.6% ABV IPA
  • Gales Prize Old Ale, a 9% ABV old ale
  • Courage Imperial Russian Stout, a 10% ABV imperial Russian stout
  • and Eldridge Pope Thomas Hardy Ale, a 12% ABV barley wine. 
Undergoing a secondary fermentation in the container they're served from they were adopted by CAMRA as the bottled equivalent of cask conditioned ale. And looking at the range of beers and the strengths they're at is surely conclusive proof that CAMRA are only interested in 4% ABV brown bitter!
Since 1971 all of these beers have suffered trials and tribulations. One has continually existed as god intended but brewed at various different sites, one has recently gone back into production, one has fallen victim to filtration and pasteurisation and two are currently not produced, though have potential to return.

Having finally got some Courage Imperial Russian Stout I also got each of these beers in one form or another to help jog my weary brain.

Back in the day the first one I can remember trying was Worthington's White Shield, then brewed by Bass, the largest brewer and pub owner in Britain. Though they didn't seem to own many pubs round my way they did at one point supply my local club so the beer appeared on the shelves there. I can remember the first sip as being shockingly bitter, but my taste buds soon acclimatised, and whilst it didn't become a regular tipple it was a good bet when I got a craving for hops. It wasn't to last though as production moved to King and Barnes and it entered its sweet brown gloop phase. When King and Barnes closed it returned to Burton where it was brewed in the museum brewery, which did an excellent job of replicating the sweet brown gloop that had come out of Horsham. But things have picked up since then, and the rise in interest in IPAs has lead to production moving to one of Molson Coor's big Burton plants. Crisp bitterness has returned to the beer and it tastes the best it has in years.

Guinness Extra lurked on the shelves of most pubs, and as draught Guinness is the fall back when you have the misfortune to find yourself in a keg only establishment, back in the day bottled Guinness Extra provided a CAMRA approved alternative. It tasted better too. Sadly when the number of bottled conditioned beers was starting to rise Guinness decided to ditch theirs and bottled Guinness, now sold as Guinness Original, is brewery conditioned.

It's a thin, watery beer with a taste of roast barley. There's not really much to recommend it.

When in the early 90s Courage Imperial Russian Stout was brewed again I didn't think I'd have much trouble getting a bottle. Courage owned loads of pubs where I lived and whilst I was was never a fan of Directors Bitter or the weaker alternative Courage Worst I thought that there would finally be something good about having so many Courage pubs near me. But it was not to be. When I asked the landlord of the local Courage pub if they'd be getting any of the Imperial Russian Stout in he went off into a barely coherent rant in a thick Irish accent. When it was translated for me I found out he'd been saying he couldn't get any of the beer as Courage had said there was no demand in his area, yet here he was having a customer demand the beer. I did manage to find the beer in the end, though Courage didn't make it easy, and I have to say it came as a bit of a shock. I found it practically undrinkable, and me and a mate were unable to finish a small bottle one night. I did finish it off the next day though, you can't let beer go to waste.

Over the years I've got used to drinking strong beers so when after another load of grief I got hold of the revived version it didn't come as shock when I tasted it, in fact it seems a little thin. The overwhelming taste I could think of when drinking it was 'leather'. But good, and in a beer. At the inflated price that, outside of New Zealand, you're changed it doesn't even come close to passing the Guinness FES test though.

I can't recall when I first found Thomas Hardy Ale, at the time made by Eldridge Pope and the strongest beer brewed in Britain. When Eldridge Pope decided to commit hara-kiri O'Hanlons brewed the brand for a number of years until their own financial difficulties made them stop. I have in one of my beer cupboards vintages from both the breweries and I went with a relatively recent O'Hanlon's for this tasting. Sadly rather than being as 'brisk as a volcano' as the blurb on the label says it was  more flat as a pancake, but much to my surprise it grew on me. Dark brown in colour the flat sweetness was almost overwhelming at first, and I thought I had a tipper on my hands. But as that seemed a criminal waste I pondered mixing it instead. By the time I'd decided which beer to mix it with I noticed my glass was half empty and the chocolatey flavour had really grown on me so I finished it off neat.

It seems the beer is once again being revived, though I couldn't work out who's going to be making it or when.

My post on The Final Five looked set, like a reimagined Sci-Fi series, to fizzle out into a disappointing and unsatisfactory ending. But rather than fade to nothingness for no apparent reason this post will have a solid, well actually liquid, ending as thanks to my contacts I managed to get hold of a bottle of the last of the five, Gales Prize Old Ale.

I can't remember when I first had this one either, but I always had a soft spot for it as the corked bottle really put the 'old' into 'old ale'. When Fuller's took over Gales and closed the brewery they brought out their own version of Prize Old Ale, blended with bug filled beer from Gales, though without the corked bottles and initially pasteruised. It then appeared again in bottle conditioned form before quietly being dropped without me noticing. After a recent trip to Fuller's I was disappointed to find none in the brewery shop, and talking to some of the brewers I found out there are no current plans to brew it again.

But fortunately for me my new boss is an ex-big cheese at Fuller's and he had kept hold of his own stash, of which he was generous enough to give me a bottle from 2008. It poured a very dark brown with light carbonation and a definite whiff of sherry about it. The taste was also at the sweet sherry end of things, and lightweight that I am nowadays a 500ml bottle was quite a lot of booze to get though in one go. Particularly when you wash it down with something else afterwards!

Since CAMRA were formed things have moved on from the Final Five and I have somewhat mixed feelings about CAMRA promoting bottle conditioned beers. The difference in taste between bottle conditioned, and filtered and carbonated bottled beer, is not as great as between cask and keg beer; and with the proliferation of bottle conditioned beers from microbreweries there have been more than a few infected beers I've had the misfortune come across.But having said that, how crap bottled Guinness is now it's not bottle conditioned was a real eye opener, and bottle conditioned beers without doubt include some of the world's finest.



  1. I found it practically undrinkable, and me and a mate were unable to finish a small bottle one night


    Blimey - and after you had to pay fifty million zillion quid for it, too. I think this calls for a fuller review. (For starters, undrinkable in what way?)

    1. Oh, hang on, I've just read the next bit. Never mind.

    2. Back in the day it was practically undrinkable as I thought 'ye gods what is this stuff?'. To re-create this experience you'll need a bottle of Harvey's Imperial Russian Stout as Courage doesn't do it anymore.

  2. Hrrr arrr eeeeww arrr no demand! Haaa eeeew eee arrr I'm demanding it! Hrrr arrr eeeeww arrr no demand!

    Thanks Bernie.