Thursday, June 25, 2015

Barnsley Bitter - a forgotten taste ?

One of the iconic beer tastes comes from Yorkshire, and thankfully has been recreated after almost disappearing over half a century ago, and appears to be going strong.

As readers of 'A Swift One' will know, we do tend to champion the lighter, hoppy style of beer - partly because this is to the taste of the editors, and partly because we are predominantly based in West Yorkshire where we have some breweries who are at the vanguard of this style of beer.

However, in the last couple of days I have sampled two different versions of 'Barnsley Bitter', one from the Stancill brewery of Sheffield, and the other from Acorn of Barnsley, and pretty good they were too. It made me wonder about the style, and why it was so distinctive.

If you have not encountered it it is a bitter (obviously) made with English hops. It has a complex malt background, and tastes heavier than its strength suggests, being usually brewed at less than 4% abv. It has a residual sweetness, and is very drinkable. But what makes it special ?

Well, after reading the above paragraph you will note that there is no mention of two of the essential ingredients, yeast and water. It seems the latter is most important to the finished brew, and may explain why it tends to be concentrated in a small part of the country.

Stancill brewery actually located themselves deliberately to benefit from the local water. They are based in Sheffield, not in Barnsley, but the water that serves the brewery is almost identical to that that was used for years to create the beer. And the fact that their head brewer came from the now defunct 'Oakwell' brewery (who also used to brew the beer) may assist in recreating the original taste.
Acorn mention using yeast strains from the 1850's to recreate their version, and judging by the amount of awards it has won over the years, they seems to have got it right as well.

I cannot vouch for the comparison, as I cannot recall drinking the original version, but I am informed that the taste is very similar by those in the know. In fact, when John Smiths decided to move the beer production from Oakwell to Tadcaster in the early 1970's it created a massive public outcry, and was even subject of a motion in 1973 in the House of Commons, and a protest march in 1974. Both failed, and although the beer continued to be brewed, its essential character had changed - the water in Tadcaster being different to that of its home town.

I, for one, am glad to see it still going strong , and in the hands of two breweries who obviously care about the style, and the history of the brand. Long may it continue !

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