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Classic Beer of the Month July 2015: Theakston Old Peculier

Theakston Old Peculier, 5.6%

One of the aims of the Classic Beer of the Month feature is to bring back to public attention a long-established beer that may be overlooked in the current climate.

Theakston Old PeculierWith new beers firing out of breweries like rockets on Bonfire Night, and pubs clamouring for something new and different at every turn, it strikes me that we are in danger of losing sight of some truly great beers that have committed no sin apart from being all too familiar.

Theakston Old Peculier fits this description perfectly. Named after the medieval ecclesiastic court, or peculier, of the brewery's home town of Masham, it's a beer that's been around since the 1800s.

Based on the old style of 'keeping' ales that were used for blending with younger beer in centuries past, it was a great survivor during the twentieth century when the British brewing industry largely pared itself down to a basic range of mild, bitter and lager.

In the troublesome days of the 1960s and 1970s, when brewery take-overs and closures saw the abrupt end of many a fine ale, Old Peculier remained as a beacon, a rare strong beer that was still relatively easy to find, at least in its native Yorkshire.

Among the favourite beers of early CAMRA pioneers, Old Peculier was held in particular esteem.

There then followed a period of decline – not necessarily for the beer, which remained popular, but for the brewery. Theakston, giddy on the success of its cask ales, acquired the former State Brewery at Carlisle to expand its production.

This, in turn, made the business even more attractive to other companies, and Theakston was then acquired by Matthew Brown of Blackburn in 1984. Soon afterwards, Matthew Brown was swallowed up by Scottish & Newcastle.

Brewery Survivor

The Carlisle and Blackburn sites swiftly closed, but the brewery at Masham – operated by Theakston since 1875 – was kept open, even while S&N turned their attention increasingly towards the production of Foster's and Kronenbourg lager in large, industrial breweries.

In 2003, the wheel turned full circle when S&N agreed to sell the Theakston brewery back to the Theakston family.

Theakston beers have recovered their reputation since independence, although it could be argued that the shine never left Old Peculier, unless it was through over-exposure and the perennial difficulty of guaranteeing quality across so many pubs.

Today, Old Peculier is still a glorious beer. It glows an inviting deep ruby hue in the glass, offering aromas of dark berry fruits, gentle pear drops and liquorice.

From the first sip, it is mostly sweet, but never cloying, with candy and bramble fruits to the fore, blending perfectly with more notes of liquorice. It is faintly winey at all times without ever bragging about its strength.

There's nothing thick or heavy about the finish, which is pleasantly bittersweet and gradually turns more bitter as leafy hop notes start to build. Liquorice and berry fruits linger, too, offering a suggestion of the blackcurrant and liquorice boiled sweets many of us enjoyed as kids.

From the bare description – dark beer, 5.6% ABV – you'd think this would be a chewy, alcoholic drink. It's far from that, a wonderfully subtle and intriguing beer that is hugely quaffable for the strength. You can try it in bottle, but the cask version, if kept well, is immensely better.

Availability is considerably down on those national brewery times and Old Peculier can take a bit of seeking out, certainly away from its Yorkshire heartland. But I urge you to make the effort.

I know it's tempting to go for the latest hot off the mash, big-hop, golden ale from the hipster brewery round the corner, but please don't ignore classics like this.

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