I never used to get Butcombe Bitter. From my early days living in Somerset from 1994 onwards I never got it. It was ok was the best I could say. So what was the problem? I don’t really know. It was brown, bitter in an old fashioned sense and malty in an equally arcane way, everything in balance; it was said to be ferociously hoppy (in the same way Holt’s Bitter was), but all I did was sit there waiting for a leonine-like hoppy bite that never came.
You know how you get dead set against a beer, find it bland and that’s the end of it? That was me, for whom the 1990s was all about Adnams Extra, Taylor’s Landlord, ESB plus West Country beers such as Archers Gold, Norman’s Conquest and at one stage anything from the short-lived Bridgwater Brewery. I changed my stance a bit on a visit to the brewery in 1999 or 2000 and enjoyed it at the source, but was far more excited when they produced Butcombe Gold and Blonde (the brewery’s founder Simon Whitmore was famous for sticking to one brand from the brewery’s start in 1978 to the late 1990s, though there was the brief appearance of a beer called Wilmott’s — stop sniggering at the back there! — in 1997).
Well (as you can guess from the title of the post) I have finally got Butcombe Bitter. A glass or two of it in the Ring O’Bells, a Butcombe owned pub (they have 17) in the Mendips village of Compton Martin saw my palate ring and sing with its crisp, cracker-like character exchanging joyous high fives with an over-arching, invigorating punch of bitterness and dryness; with a stupefied smile I kept returning to the glass to take another sip. The finish was Sahara dry with a crisp biscuity, cracker-like character clucked over by delicate citrus notes.
This is old school bitter at its best, but what I find equally fascinating is the loyalty the beer (always beer for me, never brand) commands in its home territory around Bristol, Bath and the Mendips (and further afield) — yes this is beer country but it’s also ciderland with Thatchers at the top of the pile. According to Butcombe’s owner Guy Newell, with whom I was enjoying this beer at the Ring O’Bells, ‘Butcombe founder Simon Whitmore learnt a lot from his time at Guinness about customer brand loyalty, which is why he stuck with one brand for years. It’s got a loyal customer base and is the best-selling beer in all our houses.’ The brewery has also brought out a 4.5% bottled version of its Bitter, bottled for them by Fuller’s (the launch of the beer was the reason several of us were sitting in the pub).
Obviously it’s not the same and I prefer it in cask, but the fact that they have taken 32 years to bottle it is intriguing and a tribute to both Whitmore and his successors’ patience. It’s even more striking when you consider that in the past 15 years one of the first things a new cask beer brewery does is get their beer bottled (all too often bottle-conditioned much to the beer’s detriment). Another intriguing thing is about Butcome is this beer loyalty thing. Over the years I have spent in service at the easy side of the bar, I have noticed loads of men (yes it’s usually men) who stick night after night to their pint of Ordinary, Best, Ale through thick and thin. Brewers ignore the I-know-what-I-like crowd at their peril, for at the end of the day brewing is a business (and I’m sure that there are people out there who will only drink Jaipur or Punk IPA).
And one last thing about Butcombe — for the past few years they have produced a kegged and cooler version of their blonde (only for summer sadly), a beer that is actually rather delicious. It’s a ‘bridge’ beer (rather than Trojan Horse) I’m told, for younger drinkers, a recognition that for a cask beer brewery to progress there are times when they might have to try other modes of dispensation, especially if, like Butcombe they have an estate. Which brings me to one last point about Butcombe: unlikely as it might seem this unassuming brewery quietly producing beer in the foothills of the Mendips has been at the vanguard of the coming keg revolution. Get it?