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Classic Beer of the Month March 2018: Samuel Smith Old Brewery Bitter

Samuel Smith Old Brewery Bitter, 4%

If ever a beer were a complete antithesis to the blisteringly hop-forward IPAs that dominate today’s craft beer scene, then Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter would be it.

Samuel Smith Old Brewery BitterLike many things this stubbornly independent Yorkshire brewery does, Old Brewery Bitter refuses to conform and play the game.

From a brewery that declines to advertise its own name on its pubs, that stocks no branded spirits or soft drinks in those pubs and that brews just one cask-conditioned ale comes a beer that defiantly ploughs its own furrow, majoring on malt and keeping hops well and truly in the background.

Old Brewery Bitter is a fine drink but you do need to appreciate malt to fully enjoy it. It pours a clear amber colour, suggesting the inclusion of crystal malt alongside pale, and offers a full, silky, mostly sweet taste with light touches of caramel.

Hops are there, of course – mild-mannered English varieties – but they only provide a gentle counterbalance of bitterness and a little vague fruit.

The other flavour that is just perceptible is that of oak. Old Brewery Bitter – again showing its individuality – is just about the only cask beer I can think of that is only ever served from oak casks (Sam’s employs two coopers to make the casks and keep them in good order).

The beer is not in the wood long enough to make a huge difference, but I think it does bring a delicate tannin dryness to the beer, which, again, helps offset the richness of the malt.

Restricted Sales

The fact that the beer is only dispatched in this way means that Sam’s restricts the availability of the beer to its own pubs – and not all its pubs at that. There was quite a hoo-ha just over twenty years ago when the company decided it would no longer provide Old Brewery Bitter to many of its London pubs as the turnover was not great enough to keep the beer in good shape.

Rather than switch to metal casks, which have the potential to keep beer cooler and fresher, they just removed the beer. There is a keg equivalent now in those pubs, but it’s the cask version you’ll really want to seek out.

When you find it, it is, of course, very good value, as Sam’s – in its own strange way – always defies the market and keeps prices very keen.

More than that, you’ll find a rare survivor from the days when not only had US hops not taken over the British brewing industry but neither had stainless steel casks.

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