Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Beer of the Week: Theakston Old Peculier, echoes of long ago

WILLIAM BRAND: WHAT’S ON TAP

Peculier English story has a fortunate finish

The once-tidy world of English brewing has been turned on its ear in recent years: Coors owns the Bass brewery, InBev owns a big chunk of UK brewing and much of the charm and funk of English beer is fading. InBev even closed the where Boddington’s was made. But there’s still at least one unusually named beer left in England: It’s Old Peculier (***+), and it’s our Beer of the Week.

When I first tasted Theakston Old Peculier, I was thunderstruck. True, I was a new beer drinker, and the only thing decent I’d ever tasted at that point was a German lager. Well, Dorothy, Old Peculier is in no way German.

This is a fine English beer in the style of an old ale. It’s 5.6 percent alcohol by volume, strong for a British pub beer. It’s truly unforgettable. A dark brown ale with a big head of foam that slowly fades, the aroma is intense: ripe fruit, raisins, dark malt, wet earth and, so help me, a snatch of sulfur. The taste is initially dry, with a rising sweetness that lasts through a gently hoppy follow.

The other quality is the yeast. It’s very different, and combined with the roasted malt, Target and Challenger bittering hops and Fuggles finishing hops, there’s a unique, earthy, herbal background. It’s so very different from your standard blah lager that the beer has many friends, and many others who find it off-putting.

Obviously, I love Old Peculier. The beer is named, according to Ted Bruning of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), for a parish given to the Archbishop of York by a landowner in the mid-12th century as a thanks-offering for the landowner’s safe return from the Crusades. Theakston, of course, is located in Yorkshire. The beer was first brewed more than a century ago as a winter beer, and has long been a national favorite in the UK.

Like the rest of UK brewing, Theakston and Old Peculier have had a rocky time in the last 20 years. The Theakston family, some members reluctantly, sold the brewery in 1987, and it wound up owned by giant Scottish & Newcastle.

CAMRA (www.camra.org.uk) says the big brewer reduced the alcohol and changed the beer. Feelings about the sale were so bitter that one family member founded his own brewery, the prize-winning Black Sheep.

Finally, in 2003, the present generation of Theakstons — aware of the family brewing heritage — bought the brewery back, and restored Old Peculier’s formula. I love happy endings, and I cherish Old Peculier.

Photo: Glass of Old Peculier, by Chris Brooker.