Classic Beer of the Month
Young’s Special London Ale, 6.4%
There was a lot of excitement at Young’s brewery back in 1998 when Special London Ale was first released.
The development project had been led by the company’s second brewer, Derek Prentice, who took a filtered beer that had previously been sold as Young’s Export in places such as Belgium and adapted it for the emerging British bottle-conditioned beer market.
I wrote about it in an early edition of the Good Bottled Beer Guide, noting a grist of Maris Otter pale malt and crystal malt and a hop regime based on Fuggles and Goldings. I was impressed that the beer was conditioned over a bed of Goldings for up to three weeks.
My tasting notes described it as a ‘bronze ale … smooth, rich and malty on the palate with a fine, tangy hop bitterness with bitter orange fruit notes’.
Today, of course, Young’s as a brewery no longer exists. The last brew went out in 2006 and the Wandsworth site closed. Its beers relocated to Charles Wells in Bedford, where the name of the brewery was changed to Wells & Young’s, although it’s now reverted to just Charles Wells.
Several beers bearing the Young’s name are still produced at Bedford, including Special London Ale. While London drinkers are happy that the famous Bitter (‘Ordinary’) and Special survive, I am personally glad that Special London Ale exists, given its importance to that fledgling bottle-conditioned beer revival of the late 1990s.
Bed of Hops
As tends to happen with beers that get moved around, the recipe today is slightly different, with Target hops joining the Fuggles and Goldings. The beer is still conditioned over a bed of hops (Target and Golding), although for a shorter period (at least ninety-six hours).
The citrus character of the hops remains evident in the aroma, which has a hint of sherbet lemon and marmalade. The taste is slightly floral, falling just on the sweet side of bittersweet, with mellow English hop flavours, including soft orange and lemon and a subtle spruce note, sitting on top of a smooth, delicate malt base.
Hops then build in the dry, mellow finish to leave a tangy, leafy sensation on the palate.
Special London Ale is still enjoyable and robust, fully delivering on its 6.4% ABV. Crucially, the action of the yeast in the bottle produces a clean freshness and an airy texture that ensures it’s not too heavy for a satisfying strong pale ale.