Historical Cloned Beer Reviews: Boddingtons Bitter (1945 edition)

Published on 5 December 2022 in , , ,

A can of Boddington's Draught Bitter next o a stemmed glass containing some of the beer.
A glass of Boddingtons Bitter.

In the 1990s it was hard to go into a pub in Greater Manchester and not find one beer on the bar.  Boddingtons. 

Okay, it wasn’t that hard.  All you had to do was go to a pub owned by a local brewery like Robinsons, Hydes, Holts, or Lees.  But in other pubs and bars, you’d be hard pushed not to find Boddies on the bar.

Boddies was a popular brew, its brand on a particular high in the 1990s after those successful Cream of Manchester adverts featuring Melanie Sykes. But even before that, it was a well known beer with a proud local history and heritage. It could be found across the world.  I remember seeing cans of it in supermarkets in France.  In 2013 I spotted it in a convenience store in Seattle.

But after the Strangeways brewery closed, Boddies was moved out of Manchester.  It ended up in the hands of the massive beer empire, Anheuser-Busch InBevIt lost its marketing support, and became an irrelevance to a company focused on brands like Budweiser, Stella Artois. Slowly but surely began a decline to the extent that you’ll be hard to find the Cream of Manchester anywhere in pubs in its home city. If there’s a keg bitter on the bar, it’s far more likely to be John Smiths more than anything else.

Now I can’t say that I’m massively worried about this because as an ale drinker, I never really liked Boddingtons.  At least I didn’t when I started drinking ale and bitter in the late 1990s, and I never had much inclination to retry it over the years. I found the keg stuff bland, and even the cask version seemed a bit on the dull side.

Yet there was a time that Boddingtons was held up in hushed, reverential tones. That Boddingtons was once one of the true classics. Although of those that held it up to such high levels, all generally seem to agree it went downhill some point in the 1970s or 1980s.

Why am I telling you this?  Well because I recently got pointed to a website containing historical brewing records and recipes.  A lot of the detail on there goes way over my head, but the idea of brewing a beer from history felt very compelling.  The question was, which one?  There’s hundreds of recipes on there. 

But it just so happened that when I first came across the site, it was having a bit of a Boddingtons season.  Recipes for beers long gone like Boddingtons Mild and Boddingtons Stout.  Boddingtons IPA.  Boddingtons CC (curiously the name for a strong ale.)  And then one day a recipe popped up for “Boddingtons IP”.  IP, it turns out, was the brewery’s internal name for its best known bitter; a beer still brewed to this day.  Although no longer in Manchester.

Boddingtons.  A local beer.  A beer I’ve never been that fond of. But when I looked at those old recipes, and knowing a little bit about beer brewing, they looked as if the result would be pretty good,

I decided to step back in time and see if I could recreate Boddingtons as it once was.  Or at least, as close as I could.  See, ingredients have changed over time.  Malts and hops used in brewing have been bread to make them more efficient.  Brewing equipment has also improved.  And then there’s the matter of yeast.  The strain of yeast used can make a big impact on the taste and mouth feel of a beer. 

The yeast is an interesting one. Some history. The Boddingtons brewery was bombed during World War II, and needed to be rebuilt.  When they restarted brewing again, months later, the yeast listed in the brewing records was marked as “Tadcaster”. The theory is that as a result of their bombing, they lost their house strain of yeast and had to source another. It’s suggested the replacement came from the John Smiths brewery.  How did that vary from the yeast they used previously?  We don’t know, although presumably it was selected because it gave similar results.

There’s also rumours that in the 1980s, Boddingtons “lost” their yeast.  Because of the impact yeast can have, most breweries guard their yeast strains very carefully.  Yeast is a living organism that needs to be looked after.  And it can mutate, or die.  No one really knows if the Boddies yeast was lost or not, but lots of people believe that Boddingtons had to source a new yeast in the 1980s, and they got it from the Courage Brewery in London. Whether they actually did or not, is not publicly known. But it is known that lots of breweries “tidied” and “cleaned” their yeasts in the 1980s, so it may also have been related to that.

Given all that, and and a complete lack of a time machine to go back and get a fresh pint, we’ve no real way of knowing how close our recreated beer will be.  So I decided if I was to compare it with anything, it would have to be against modern Boddingtons.  How would my recreated historical Boddies compare with what you will find in a supermarket now (which is mostly where the stuff now seems to be sold)?  Does it taste better?  If they went back to an older recipe, would they – in my mind anyway – be brewing a better beer, even given all the caveats on recreating stuff.

That was the plan.  All I needed to do was pick a Boddies from history and see what happened….  The only question was, when to go back in time for?

The recipe

There were many to choose from, but I narrowed it down to three choices.  One was from 1913.  Another from 1945.  And the third from 1966.  All of them sounded – on paper – like a good quality English ale. In the end 1945 won for purely pragmatic reasons that the other two would require me to purchase some additional ingredients, where as the 1945 recipe could be brewed with ingredients I had in stock.  It would also give a bit of an insight into how beer from the war period tasted.

I did have to make a couple of alterations.  Firstly the recipe required flaked barley.  I had some left over from my brewing of the Guinness clone, but annoyingly, not quite enough.  I was 70g short.  I opted to substitute it with some left over torrified wheat in the hope it would achieve a similar goal to whatever they’d added barley for.  Barley appeared to be a war time substitution as post war recipes looked like they featured wheat malt in some variation instead so it felt like a good swap. And it was only a small amount so the impact would be relatively low.

The second substitution was “Invert Sugar number 2”.  After a lot of hunting of the internet it transpired that brewers often used invert sugar, but you can’t buy the stuff for homebrewing.  It’s only available in bulk. This left two choices.  Either make my own invert sugar, or I could find a substitute.  Apparently golden syrup (which is a form of partially inverted sugar) is a good substitute for Invert Sugar number 1.  Adding a tiny amount of molasses into the mix makes a fair invert sugar number 2 substitute.  It would do. 

The recipe also called for malt extract – not a normal ingredient used in breweries at the time so again probably another wartime shortage thing.  Malt extract can either be dried or liquid.  I went with liquid as I assumed this would be more common in World War II. In fact, I didn’t even use normal homebrewers liquid malt extract, but Potters Malt Extract, which is the sort of thing you’ll find in health stores. Potters as a company have been around for 200 years. Felt like a good nod to history if nothing else.

Finally there was the question of the yeast.  The recipe recommended WYeast 1318 London Ale III – a liquid yeast that, despite the name, many believe was derived from the Boddingtons brewery.  If Boddies really did lose their yeast in the 1970s or 1980s, then it’s probably not what they would have used in 1945.  But I went with the recipe anyway.

With all that decided, I set to brewing. And many weeks later, it was time to sample.

The results

A beer fridge in a Seattle convenience, store, displaying bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale, and cans of Youngs Double Chocolate Stout and Boddingtons Pub Ale
Boddingtons Pub Ale (and some other beers) on sale in Seattle, USA.

As I mentioned, my plan was to compare against a modern Boddingtons. Which in this country is Boddingtons Draught Bitter. It only comes in cans with widgets, which is something I’d never be able to truly replicate. But I put my beer in a pressure barrel rather than a bottle. Serving from the barrel gives results not too dissimilar to a handpulled ale, so seemed like it would be the best bet. There was one other noticeable difference with my beers. Modern Boddies is 3.5%. My recipe came in at 4.1%. I did wonder if it would be better to compare against Boddingtons Pub Ale – which used to be known as Boddingtons Export or Boddingtons Gold in the UK. But it’s almost impossible to purchase in this country. I did try looking for it whilst abroad over the summer, but to no avail. So against standard Boddies it was.

Pouring out a serving of each, there was a noticeable difference in colour in the two beers. Proper Boddies is more golden coloured, whilst my brew is paler, more yellow. It’s very much akin to some of the really pale ales you now get from craft breweries. Or indeed, not much darker than a lager. We think of really pale ales as a very modern thing, but this recipe shows brewers were brewing beers of that colour eighty years ago. Some time later I read in a book that around this time in history, brewers would often brew their beer paler than they wanted, then colour them with caramel. Homebrewers can do this now with Sarson’s Browning Sauce, which most people use for gravy browning. Whether this colouring was going on in 1945, I don’t know. It could have been that. It could have been the result of a war-time shortage. Or it could be my malt extract wasn’t dark enough. Pass, don’t know.

Two glasses of beer - a lighter beer on the left, a more golden beer on the right.
My Boddies 1945 clone (left) and modern Boddingtons Bitter (right).

Aroma next. Boddies definitely has some smell to it. I am not sure what, but it almost smells a bit grassy. Maybe herbal. Perhaps even medicinal. It’s quite strong. My 1945 clone is softer, more gentle. More floral, and definitely sweeter.

Taste then.

Proper Boddies isn’t as dull as I remember it. But there’s maltiness, and even a slight metallicness to it. And again, a hint of medicinal. I don’t get much out of the hops. It’s more the malt coming through I think. The hops seem quite muted. But notably the burst of flavour seems to dissipate quickly leaving a bit of dryness on the tongue.

Right. Onto the 1945 clone. Not quite as dry, although there is still a dryness on the tongue afterwards. Reading around, a lot of people comment on the dryness of old Boddies. But what’s noticeable is the flavour. This is sweeter, and more floral and fruity. Again, it reminds me of a lot of the modern pale ales you’ll get from smaller craft ales. You could put this on in a pub under a different name and I reckon people would be flocking to drink it. It’s moreish. Very moreish.

There’s another difference too. It takes me a while, but switching between the two, I realise what it is. The 1945 clone flows. Everything seems to work together, in harmony, to create a rather tasty ale. I put the glass down and immediately I want to drink some more. But with proper Boddies, it’s like the ingredients are fighting against each other. It’s a bit harsh. Abrupt. I put the glass down and am not immediately wanting to pick it up.

I won’t say it’s the worst beer in the world. Not as dull as I remember, although I still don’t think it would be my number one choice of beer. In contrast the 1945 recipe, I can imagine brewing, and drinking, again.

Summing it all up

A can of Boddingtons, a glass of Boddingtons and a glass of 1945 Cloned Boddies
Beer, beer, everywhere. But which to drink?

As I said from the outset, I’d never be able to know how accurate my 1945 clone was. Unless someone builds a time machine and can get me a cask of the stuff from back then, well I’ll never know. There will be differences in what I’ve brewed. So I set myself a different question. If Boddies went back to an older recipe, would they brew a better beer?

Well these things are subjective. Your views may vary to mine. But in my own opinion, the 1945 Boddingtons is far superior to what I poured out of the can tonight. It just is. It’s a very pleasant, highly drinkable ale with some beautiful flavours. It’s light, refreshing, and would be a perfect summer ale.

Here’s an interesting point though. Boddingtons is the sixth best selling bitter in the country. Would my 1945 clone be that popular? I’d like to think it could be. We’re in an era of high quality IPAs being a feature of many a pub bar tap. This really wasn’t that far off. But even though the brand is on life support, Boddingtons still sells very well. They’re not going to go back to what it was, even if they did knew what it was it was like.

But it’s opened my eyes to what could be. After brewing my 1945 recipe, I found another recipe aiming to replicate a pre-1970s Boddingtons. I’m highly tempted to give it a go.