FOOD & DRINK / Best beer in Britain, probably: Forget fancy foreign imports. Traditional British bottled beers are making a comeback, says Graham Coster

DIRK BOGARDE, playing the butler in that seminal Sixties film The Servant, is sitting below stairs at the kitchen table with a bottle of beer. It looks as if it might be a Double Diamond - we can't quite see the label - but one thing is certain, it is not a bottle of taste-free Sol lager with a bit of lime stuck in the top. And later in the film, when his master, James Fox, fancies some beer, what does Dirk Bogarde bring back from the off-licence? A 12-pack of canned Stella Artois? No, six bottles of brown ale.

'Eating and drinking should be sensuous experiences,' says Michael Jackson, author of The Beer Companion. 'I don't mind a can of beans on toast once in a while - but there's something horribly unsensuous about opening a can of beer.' A bottle of beer, then. Not lager. Not Mexican or American or Singapore beer. Not the arcanely strong brews in small bottles that little old men sit nurturing in the corners of pubs, but the best English beer, a bitter or a pale ale, in a nice bottle, to stow in the cool-box and take to a county cricket match on a hot day, or to drink in the garden after virtuously mowing the lawn. Why not?

Because for the last 30 years it hasn't been possible, that's why. This may have been the way beer was drunk when The Servant was made, but since then bitters and pale ales have gone into cans, and lagers - especially the trendy, exotic brands of the last few years - have been what people drink in bottles. Now, a change is coming, and it's coming fast. These days Oddbins doesn't stock Mexican Sol, but it does sell bottles of King and Barnes' Festive Ale, Caledonian 80/- and many others. The most popular ales sell in quantities comparable to the top foreign lagers a few years ago, and beer tasting has now been added to Oddbins' customary Saturday wines tastings.

Sainsbury's, Safeway and Tesco, too, are stocking fine English bottled beers such as Black Sheep and Old Speckled Hen - and regional brewers such as Bateman's in Lincolnshire and Marston's of Burton-on-Trent are bottling own-label brands for them. The premium bottled ales market is growing at 26 per cent a year - from virtually a standing start, admittedly, but it's still the fastest-growing sector of the beer market.

The best reason for putting beer in a bottle, of course, is because it tastes better. The 'widget' technology, made famous by Jack Dee in the John Smith's advertising campaign but pioneered by Boddingtons, can give canned beer the creamy texture of a draught pint when you pour it out - but the harder flavour of draught beer, the full bite that tingles in the mouth, is more authentically replicated by bottling.

Today all canned beer and most bottled beer is pasteurised, heated in its container to produce a sterile product. Because glass heats up and cools more slowly than metal, pasteurising beer in bottles is a gentler process, boiling out less of the flavour than in cans. The narrow neck of a bottle also limits oxidation - the other main reason why the rich, hoppy taste of cask beer is lost. In canning the whole can, with its broader top, is only capped at the end of the line, allowing more air in.

There is another big advantage in bottling

rather than canning. Much of the character and flavour of a traditional beer comes from

its continuing fermentation in the cask. This

process can to some extent be replicated in bottles, by leaving some of the yeast sediment in them. But bottle-conditioned beers aren't new: before the perfection of filtration, all beer came in a bottle with sediment at the bottom.

For the last quarter of a century, however, good beer in a bottle was about as easy to find as coal tar soap or Player's Navy Cut cigarettes. Moreover, the ultimate prize - a dusty bottle with a peeling label - never seemed quite worth the nostalgic treasure hunt it had prompted. Now, Worthington has relaunched its venerable White Shield pale ale in a larger size. Other classic beers such as Greene King's Abbot have started appearing in glass again. Newcastle Brown is the subject of an extensive advertising campaign to remind us of its position as the biggest-selling beer in a bottle.

Brewery marketing departments are now talking in all seriousness about the 'glug effect', achieved by designing the necks of their new bottles so that they pour with maximum voluptuousness. The reason for all this is the sudden and burgeoning success of Britain's local brewers in giving us their best ales to drink in a smart bottle.

'Until two or three years ago,' says Mark McJennett, marketing director of Kent brewers Shepherd Neame, 'all regional brewers thought the way to compete with the nationals was to make beer as cheap and cheerful as possible.' That was when pub sales were in decline and the off-licence trade was relatively healthy, but now there is another key player in the game. The Calais hypermarkets are where people go for the impossibly cheap and cheerful stuff; the British off-licence customer is looking for something more upmarket.

Even before this cross-Channel sea change, brewers - and drinkers - of classic English beers had been helped by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. It ruled that the national breweries had to open up their pub chains to guest beers, enabling people to gain a taste for Shepherd Neame's Spitfire bitter, say, or the Old Speckled Hen brewed by Morland's in Oxfordshire. If you didn't want to go to the pub, it was a different story. There was, as there had been for decades, only one bottled beer at the off-licence - and that was Newcastle Brown ('It's either cloth cap or student,' says Mark McJennett, 'there is no middle of the road').

Now that it has been joined by others, it seems impossible that there can ever have been such a lack of choice. 'Putting classic beers in bottles is such a blindingly simple, obvious idea,' says Oddbins' beer buyer Nick Blacknell, 'that there must have been a bit of the British disease going on for it not to have happened before.'

Looking at it another way, we are - as in so many things - only catching up with the Americans. They have been drinking Belhaven and Bateman's from bottles for years, in places such as the Waldorf Astoria. When Oddbins first approached the redoubtable Yorkshire brewers Samuel Smith to ask about stocking its full bottled range, it was at first refused: only the export market was to be privileged with such good beers. Cajoling eventually elicited a begrudging 'Oh, all right, then.' Now we can all get stuck into solid half-litre bottles of anything from Eldridge Pope's Thomas Hardy Country Ale to Marston's India Export Pale Ale for around pounds 1.40 a time.

These 500ml bottles give you a kind of metric pint: some beers such as Marston's Pedigree have even been given an imperial pint bottle, with a label saying 'heritage'. This, says Gary Wells, Marston's take-home manager, replicates 'exactly what you'd see on the pub clip in front of the pump'. Shepherd Neame's bottled range has won plaudits for its smart design: 'These beers should be in nice-looking bottles,' says Michael Jackson 'which are good enough to put on the dinner table.'

'Chunky' is the new, roll-up-your-sleeves buzzword that crops up more and more in product descriptions - 'almost manly, I suppose', muses Marston's Gary Wells. The stocky, fire-hydrant solidity of a Shepherd Neame ('The weight says quality,' avows Mark McJennett), symbolic of British brewers belatedly pumping iron and squaring up to all-comers, is as reassuring as Ray Illingworth taking over the England cricket team.

Even if some of us agree with Mark McJennett that most foreign beers are 'filthy things that no serious drinker would touch' (though not many can say, hand on heart, that they never posed with a slice of lime), bottled lagers were something of an egalitarian trend: women and men would sit down in a bar with a bottle of Sol. But what about Spitfire - named to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain around the airfields of Kent - or Old Speckled Hen (originally the name of a special limited edition of the MG sports car), or Bateman's new Valiant (connotations of boy's comic and V-bomber)?

For an opinion I sought out Jill Gordon, assistant manager at London's fashionable Soho Brasserie. Would she drink any of them? 'I've never heard of them in my life,' she said. 'They would be more of a . . . man's drink, I'd have thought.' The most popular bottled beverages at the Soho Brasserie are still Beck's and Molson Dry; a survey of other trendy hang-outs shows the Dome in Hampstead with Beck's and Budweiser at the top of its list, and the Hard Rock Cafe in Piccadilly agrees.

But Jackie Bateman, marketing and export director of Bateman's brewery, disagrees that the new-found enthusiasm for British beer is a male, macho preserve. 'I spend a lot of time in America,' she says, 'and there you see a lot of women solicitors and accountants in the bars and pubs with a bottle of English ale. We'll soon be seeing more of that in Britain.'

She may be right. The Hard Rock Cafe, 80 per cent of whose customers are American, has just added bottles of Fuller's London Pride to its menu. The Dome also acknowledges that 'people want the better-quality beers these days, the Belgian and the better white beers'; when it changes its range in a month or two, it will probably include some English beers.

But there is a long way to go. Though Sainsbury's 'beers of distinction' range is selling in 107 of its branches, sales of premium bottled ales such as Black Sheep and its own bottle-conditioned ale still account for only one per cent of its total drinks turnover. But Nick Blacknell of Oddbins is convinced that this is not just another 'new-trend-to-replace-

the-lagers-trend'. 'There is no magic story here,' he says. 'These beers are real, they've got a taste, they're intrinsically interesting. What I've noticed is all the people who come in to Oddbins to taste wine and end up buying beer. Suddenly there's a whole new world out there. It's not just a change over from lagers to dark beers: it's a whole new raft of consumers.'

Michael Jackson thinks the change hasn't come a moment too soon. 'It's about bloody time,' he says. 'These great British brewers are making the chateau-bottled claret of the beer world. It's just a huge shame they haven't made them available in bottles before.'

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