English beer styles provide an interesting example of economics at work. American microbrewers have been continually increasing the alcohol content in their beers over the years, mainly because that was what people wanted, and it didn’t cost them all that much to do so (sure, high-test beer takes more malt and yeast, but it’s a little price bump). Basically, why make anything low-test? It might be thin, tasteless and — horror of horrors — easily confused with Budweiser. This has left many American drinkers scratching their heads and trying to figure out what to think of the English session beers. Who would want a low-alcohol beer, especially when there are IPAs, Russian Imperial Stouts and Barleywines readily available?
The answer is that the beer excise tax was based on the final alcohol content of the beer. Basically, low-ABV beer is taxed less and costs less to make. This means that you end up with a pint o’ bitter that costs less than an IPA. This appealed to drinkers, who also appreciate being able to drink large quantities of beer without ending up passed out on the floor. Consider that a 12-pack of Boddingtons (4.7 percent) contains 9 ounces of alcohol, and a 12-pack of Old Horizontal contains 15.5 ounces of alcohol, even though the pint-cans of Boddingtons add up to an extra 48 ounces of beer. This translates to roughly .18 and .38 blood-alcohol content, respectively, or the difference between being fairly drunk and near death. Attention to these details resulted in a family of beer styles with low alcohol content but a lot of taste, with the bitter family of styles consisting of light ales with a noticeable hop presence but not like an IPA.
Theakston Legendary Ales was founded in 1827 when Robert Theakston leased The Black Bull Inn and Brewhouse in the town of Masham in 1827. In 1875 Robert passed control to his son, John, who built a new brewery on a plot of land named Paradise Fields. The brewery continued to expand over the years, acquiring Lightfoot Brewery and the Carlisle State Management Brewery, until it was purchased by Matthew Brown plc of Blackburn, which in turn was taken over by Scottish & Newcastle in 1987. Paul Theakston, then managing director, left in 1998 to found Black Sheep Brewery, but in 2004 four Theakston brothers were able to buy the name back from Scottish & Newcastle, returning it to family ownership. The new owners have undertaken a major renovation of the Masham Brewery and starting in 2009, brewing of Theakston Bitter returned to Masham.
The beer poured a very deep, somewhat hazy red-copper color — almost a shade of brown. No head formed on this beer, even with a vigorous pour — just some coarse, light tan bubbles. The aroma is almost nonexistent, but sweet caramel notes and a hint of bitterness are detectable. The body is fairly moderate, with very low carbonation, which is normal for this style. The taste is fairly sweet, with some caramel and biscuity toastiness. The sweetness continues on to the finish, just fading away at the end. The bitterness is quite low, just enough to accentuate the taste. This beer is very malt-focused, and I really liked the profile with the caramel and toastiness accentuating the light sweetness.
The beer went very well with the roasted corn flavor of tortilla chips, and pretzels would probably work well, too. I tried some Gouda with it, which went OK, but sharp cheddar was much, much better. For fruit, I tried some apple slices, but they didn’t go well at all. The sweetness in the apple clashed with the sweetness in the beer. This beer is traditionally served in a pint glass, filled to the absolute brim, and I would recommend pairing it with salty and greasy food, basically any form of pub grub like burgers, nachos, fries, etc.
I very much enjoyed this beer, and I would recommend trying it, or another session ale, if you get the chance. I’ve seen more of them popping up here in America over the past couple of years, which I think is fantastic because they provide great taste without getting you smashed.