Mashing in

This month, Charlotte Cook discovers nostalgia is every bit as great as she remembers


Nostalgia is a bit of a strange emotion, ostensibly it’s a feeling that conveys a desire to return home, a romantic and sorrowful sentiment, as often the lost sense of home is a place to which we can never return. In a more general sense though, nostalgia is often used to describe a fondness for a time long since passed, and happy memories of stability and constancy, as we saw with the national wave of wistfulness after The Queen shuffled off to the great gilded palace in the sky. 

Nostalgia has a place in beer too, ask anyone what their favourite beer is and more often than not their reply will be about the setting, the people they were with, and the general loveliness of the day. Rarely do you receive a forensic response detailing the technical merits of the beer. We tend to cling onto the full body experience of happiness in a moment, long after the taste of hops has dissipated from our palates, and we associate that beer with the pleasure, and it becomes a firm favourite. 

We tend to cling onto the full body experience of happiness in a moment

This summer saw a revival in traditional, dare I even say nostalgic, beers. The beer of the summer was not, as might be expected, a light and fizzy pale ale or Saison, but cask mild. CAMRA have long extolled the virtues of mild, and every spring run a campaign encouraging people to drink it, imaginatively called “May Month of Mild”. For younger beer drinkers, who came of age during the reign of the American IPA, a cask mild possesses all of the characteristics of a beer to be rallied against. Low ABV and malt-led, usually using British hops (which have been very unfairly maligned in recent years), it’s the opposite of the aggressively hopped beers that have become so prevalent. 

As the summer became more oppressively hot, and the nation began to think that rain was actually just a mass hallucination that had never truly existed, every brewery was rushing to create mild, bitters, and other beers that a year ago would have been met with, at best, amused confusion and at worst online derision. This hasn’t slowed down, and brewers are still actively researching and creating these beers that wouldn’t have even been considered pre-pandemic. 

Whilst a lot of this was driven by the perpetual hype-machine of Beer Twitter, it actually makes a lot of sense for breweries, even ones that you’d not expect a mild from, to make them. Making a well-balanced, malt-led cask beer requires a lot of skill from a brewer, without the curtain of uncompromising dry hopping to hide behind, all faults are out in the open, and since cask beer is a living drink, you have much less time to adjust and fix things. 

Making a well-balanced, malt-led cask beer requires a lot of skill from a brewer

British hops are generally less expensive than their American counterparts and supporting British farmers and helping to change the misconception that British hops are somehow lower quality or less appealing than their New World cousins is beneficial for the whole industry. Equally, challenging the convention that craft brewers are only interested in what’s beyond the horizon and have little interest in appealing to a wider swathe of society is worthwhile, as craft beer has struggled to shift its image as a product only for people who look good in hats and know lots about coffee.

That craft brewers have spent the past decade trying to come up with The Next Big Thing, it does make sense that the chance to look backwards and take inspiration from the past is tempting. Very few brewers will have cut their teeth on craft beer, it will have been sips of beer stolen from parents at the pub, or a pilfered bottle from someone’s garage, and in times of uncertainty for the industry, the chance to envelop yourself in a beery blanket of nostalgic taste is appealing. 

While I don’t envisage a wholesale return to the days of best bitter, to see these styles being championed is refreshing and gives me confidence that brewing isn’t blindly hurtling into a black hole of marshmallow infused ethanol bombs that promise to wreck your pancreas and liver in equal measure. These might be the least sexy beers out there, but fishnets and bustiers never appealed to me anyway.

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