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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Friday, 13 April 2012

In search of a Black Country Legend

"So you like beer then."

"Yes."

"What's your favourite?"

"I don't really have one."

"Have you tried Bathams?"

"No."

"Ah.  Well then."

Some beers go beyond rationale analysis and objective evaluation, and attain mythic status.  The affection people have for them is not based simply on a hoppy aroma and firm malty base; it doesn't have much to do with ingredients or flavour.  It transcends the liquid itself -or perhaps, that liquid becomes something divine and attracts all the clothing of religious devotion.

Westverleteren has it, though it's carefully stage-managed by the Belgian monks who take pains to control its scarcity.  Timothy Taylor Landlord has it - a beer which excites old ale drinkers and new crafty beer drinkers alike, which elicits simple sighs from beer writers who have used up all the words they have in trying to describe its perfection.

These beers are revered.  I knew of them within about five minutes of entering the beer world.

But I happily published two books, made my mark with this blog, and gained at least one column in the pub trade press before I'd ever heard of Bathams.

I was doing some freelance advertising work with a bloke from Birmingham when I first had the conversation above.  I've since the same conversation about six times, each time with a native of Birmingham or the West Midlands.  Each time, my 'no' got a little less "No?" in that tone that goes up at the end as if to say, "Should I have?", and a bit more "Nooooooo..." swooping down like a Messerschmitt in flames, defensive and frustrated and increasingly certain I was missing something special, fearing I was a lesser man, never mind a lesser beer writer, for not only having never drunk this beer, but for not having even seen any evidence of its existence apart from the word of an increasing number of Brummies who didn't know each other, and therefore could not have been winding me up.

But I never see Bathams at festivals.  I never see anyone writing about it.  I don't see it in shops.

Its acolytes try to describe its power to me.  It's a session beer, they say.  But that doesn't do it justice.  It's more than that, it's... oh, you just have to taste it, they say, and then, every time, they say, "Of course, there are only about five pubs in the world that sell it.  And they're all in Birmingham and the West Midlands."

The last person I had this conversation with was Charles Campion, food and drink writing legend and one of the most decent men on the planet.  And because Charles really is one of the most decent men on the planet, he resolved to put me out of my misery.  So a few weeks ago, nursing a brewers' conference sized hangover, I found myself in the back of a car while Charles directed the Beer Widow to the Vine (or, if you're in the know, the Bull and Bladder), the Batham's brewery tap in the West Midlands.


It's a cracking pub, one of those places that has withstood every single trend, technological development and interior design fad of the last thirty years.  It has carpets.  And separate rooms.  Aged banquettes that create a barrier between groups but still allow those groups to eye each other up.  A hierarchy so clear that as you walk in for the first time, you immediately know which rooms are open to you as a stranger, and which are not.  And a random collection of brilliant and nonsensical stuff on the walls that could keep you gawking for hours.

I was quite nervous when I got my first pint of Batham's.  It's made with Fuggles and Goldings hops, and contains invert sugar for a bit of extra sweetness.  It tastes quite sweet. And very nice.

I've noticed in some great session beers that the balance between malt and hops is not just about sensible balance, neither one being too extreme.  It's about the combination, the mix of malt sweetness and hop fruitiness that combine to create a kind of glowing, floral perfume that hovers just above your palate.  This may sound horrible, cloying, sickly and effeminate, but is actually the opposite of all those things.  And Bathams does this very well.

But detailed analysis of the flavour is beside the point - that's not what this beer is about.  It's a beer that can be drunk easily and yet is satisfying, and it's a beer that brings a smile to your face.  It doesn't overwhelm you - you don't have the first sip and go, "My God, that's awesome!"  But the more you like it, the more you drink.  And the more you drink, the more you like it.

It also comes in bottles:


and I got to bring a few home with me.

This is not to be taken for granted.  Because over the weekend that followed this Friday night session, the stories began to come out.

You can't find many places that sell these bottles, they say.  We visited one pub that does, but allegedly you have to take your empties back if you want some more, meaning it's very difficult to get onto the Bathams ladder in the first place.

On cask, demand always outstrips supply, they say.  There are only certain pubs that get it, and these are known to serious drinkers.  Stocking Bathams wins a landlord instant admiration.  Some of these pubs have been known to order an extra cask, and then sell it on at a profit, on the thriving Bathams black market that exists in the West Midlands.

Weeks later, when I opened my final bottle at home, I wrote, 'When you drink Bathams, it just make you feel NICE.'

That might sound like the most facile thing a beer writer has ever written.  But I believe there is truth and beauty in its simplicity.

I'm hanging on to the empties.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

I once had a bet with a friend who'd come up to Wolves Poly from Portsmouth, that he would get more drunk on Bathams bitter than on Gales HSB. So we went to the Vine and we each had 3 pints of bitter. He fell out of the door. I didn't - even though I only ever drink halves so I was roughly twice as pissed as usual!

Susan said...

You have done The Beer Hunter proud.
Well done, sir. Well done

Chris, Cheltenham said...

I had my first taste of Bathams only a few weeks ago and agree it is right up there with the TTs of this world.

I was however unaware of it's rarity - I was eyeing up a bottle of it in my local beer shop only last night... I'd better go back and buy the case!

tania_nexust said...

Bathams seem to have a very stringent policy of not supplying to festivals - even when one year they were shortlisted for a regional CAMRA award, it still wasn't enough to persuade them to sell the festival a cask for the judging competition!

It's certainly a little more widespread in the West Mids and Black Country than '5 pubs' but nonetheless it's still prize enough that your face breaks into a smile when you walk into a bar and see that it's on. Also great (though rarer) is their Mild - maybe look out for that too next time you're in these parts!

Ron Pattinson said...

No-one ever writes about Batham's? I did, just last year:

http://barclayperkins.blogspot.com/2011/08/birmingham-anyone.html

I usually stick with the Mild. Lovely beer.

John Clarke said...

They have just 11 pubs - 10 in the West Midlands and one, oddly, in remote north Wales. As someone who's known for having quite an interest in beer I'm sometimes asked what is my favourite. I always answer by saying that if I could only ever drink one beer again it would be Bathams Bitter. Cue quizzical and/or disbelieving look.

I think once you "get" Bathams (and I "got" it years ago thanks to an old friend of mine who lived in and around the Black Country) it sort if insinuates itself into your soul - and no matter how many double this, or imperial that you have, no matter how many hop bombs or oak aged this, that or the other, it's still there at the back of your mind, calling you.

Stan Stephens said...

They do supply festivals. The XXX winter ale has been on at the Dudley Winter Ales Fayre, held in November for a few years now and the Best Bitter regularly features on the Real Ale Bar at the Black Country Boating Festival in September.

may arthur ,B-o-T said...

quiote a few years ago , i was with our Burton Branch on the Batham 10 , i still have the beer mat signed by all 10 landlords .
I still remember everything on that trip, a great time was had by all 20 of us , great beer , full of flavour plus the happy memories of great times with the locals too keep up the good work Peter ,"well done"
may A

Curmudgeon said...

Yes, John, I remember you making that comment and I can well understand why you might. It's deceptively easy-drinking but has great hidden depths. And I'll be drinking some tomorrow in the Great Western in Wolverhampton :-)

Jeff Pickthall said...

Yes, my mate Black-Country-Jim-who-lives-in-San-Francisco gave me the Bathams schpiel many times. Eventually I found myself in a Black Country pub drinking Bathams with him. Sadly though, it was a flying visit and I was driving. I still intend doing it properly sometime.

david m said...

one of the absolute best - and you should add it's staggeringly good value

Dan Brown said...

Great post, which goes some way to encapsulating the aura of Bathams. You are quite right - it does have a mythical quality.

I was in the Vine/Bull and Bladder the other night, and the Mild was sublime - an almost holy experience.

And yes, it is a West Midlands gem. It's also almost the only Bitter my lager drinking friend will touch - and not under protest or anything, he LOVES it!

N.b. in addition to the designated Bathams pubs, it has crept into a couple of Birmingham pubs (Red Lion and Lord Clifden) and when I was in a Holdens pub in Wolverhampton on Monday, 3 people requested it within a 30-min period, and were very disappointed to here it wouldn't be back in stock for 2 days.

Matt Gorecki said...

Brill - a customer brought me a bottle of this beer a couple of years back, never saw him again, never had the beer again but I dearly wish to... This brings it all back.

Nice one...

Leigh Norwood, Favourite Beers - Cheltenham said...

I do regular tutored beer tasting evenings in my shop and I have this year started using Bathams as the first beer of the evening - it just blows people away.

Sarah said...

That's interesting. I had my first taste of Bathams last week in the Plough and Harrow in Kinver, not realising its mythical status. I found it far too sweet for my taste but maybe it would have grown on me. The pub very definitely had a local pub for local people feel about it. I've spent the last fortnight drinking my way from Wolverhampton to Droitwich and back by canal trying at least one and often two pubs a day. Some lovely pubs but the beer largely uninspiring, Marstons-dominated and with all the flavour sparklered out of it unless you catch them in time. Marstons Me Duck has to be the most insipid pint I've ever had.

Anonymous said...

It's the sugar they add that gets you hooked. White for bitter and brown for mild. And lots and lots of it.

Paul Bailey said...

Brings back memories of an excellent night in the Lamp Tavern, Dudley over 30 years ago! Ages since I had a pint of Bathams; must rectify that after reading this article.

delph said...

I spent a lot of my youth in the Lamp Tavern, never found a better beer.
I now live a long way away but always take a few bottles home when I visit the midlands.

Ross Singleton said...

Bathams bitter. Posibly the best beer in the world after Simpkiss Ales (also a Black Country ale) closed down. Very close in taste. Try the Unicorn in Wollaston for the bottled supply and again a great unchanged but packed pub (that says a lot these days) but also the Royal Exchange on the way to Stourbridge from Wollaston. Fantastic beer, fantastic pubs and thats not just my youth talking.

teninchwheels said...

Batham's Best was the 40th beer that I had in my '40 new beers' thing I did a couple of years ago. I'd never heard of it either until my wife's aunt and uncle brought me a bottle down from Nantwich (so it must be sold there, somewhere). I thought it was bloody marvellous.

link here if anyone's interested - http://tinyurl.com/cjmdxyn

Wyreman said...

I used to work up the road from the Bull for a while very difficult driving by it. There was a TV programme being made one Saturday I was there, by a local station. They interviewed these two brothers in their 70's, who lived together and didn't drive but every Saturday lunchtime made their way there from the other side of the West Midlands by public transport and had done so for the past 50 years !!! Its Not to everyone's taste but it is different and generally very well kept because it is revered by the landlords who have it. They do a tour of 7 of the pubs which is well worth an insight into real pubs of the Black Country.

Omnivoracity said...

Sounds good. Hope this doesn't spoil the image any, but seems to be available here http://www.wpwines.com/product/bathams_beer/ "Always plenty of stock!" they say...

Tom Jolly said...

For brewers who can't source the real thing, there is a recipe for Batham's in Graham Wheeler's book (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Brew-Your-British-Real-Camra/dp/1852492589). It is definitely the next brew project after reading this post and comments...

Jim said...

Bathams is a local legend and quite rightly so although not as rare as you make out. There's plenty of good pubs around the black country that sell it, you can also buy the bottles (which I always do when back home) from the offy in Kingswinford!

I brewed the graham wheeler recipe too and whilst it wasn't bathams it was a nice tasty Homebrew!!

Phil said...

Don't know if anyone will see this, but I've just got back from Wolverhampton (where the Great Western, a Holden's pub, has Batham's bitter as a permanent guest) and felt the urge to add my 2p.

Here goes:

Batham's bitter is very nice.

Yes, it's sweet, but it's not a big malty sweetness - it's a surprisingly light flavour. It's uncompromisingly bitter - a front-of-mouth bitterness that hits straight after the initial sweetness. Then you get the full effect - it's beautifully balanced.

When you're drinking it, it tastes like beer ought to taste - it reminds me of the first beers I ever got the taste for, malty Welsh bitters and London Pride, only lighter and more drinkable. And it is very, very drinkable - I had it on two occasions, and both times I was surprised how quickly the level in my glass went down!

Thinking of flavour comparisons, there is a bit of a similarity with Landlord - another beer with the "this is what beer tastes like!" effect. Other than that, I'm honestly reminded of Belgian beers. A session-strength tripel, if there could be such a thing, would taste a bit like Batham's.