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English Beer names and their origins.

Updated on July 23, 2012

The origins of English beer names. An introduction.

The first thing I’d like to say is even if you’re not the least bit interested in beer I hope that you will still find this series of articles interesting. It’s not about the process involved in making beer, the ingredients used or whether the beer is dark or has a hint of oranges; it’s all about how the beer got its name in the first place. Hopefully you’ll find the subject as fascinating as I do.

Given the bad rep of the Church in recent years you would think that Bishop’s Finger was self explanatory, but it has another far deep seated background. What is a Cornish Knocker? Who was Dorothy Goodbody and how wholesome was she? Is Nightmare a lovely pint or does it live up to its name? should you trust a Ticklebrain, or a Headcracker and why you should stay away from Snecklifters.

If it’s true that practice makes perfect then I should be an authority on beer, God knows I've had enough practice over the years and I'll be letting you know whether I like the beers featured or if they're not my cup of tea...ahem. I won't be going into great technical details about the beers, food and drink are so personal to each individual; either you like an item of food or a drink or you don't so please rememeber if I don't like the taste of one of the beers feaured it doesn't mean that you won't. Shepherd Neame 1698 for instance has won several awards, yet it's a beer that I just don't like, a statement that many beer lovers will see as sacriledge.

I know a fair bit about the process involved having first tried to brew my own beer at the tender age of seventeen. I trooped off to Boots and purchased my first home brewing kit with the proceeds from my after school job and the first mistake I made was in hearing that the more sugar you added to the mix made the beer stronger so I added twice the recommended amount. The 2nd mistake I made was putting the big plastic container in my Mum’s wardrobe when I found that you needed a warm place to let the beer ferment. The 3rd and most vital mistake I made was not replacing the lid properly, all that sugar bubbling away, do I need to say anymore. Needless to say Mum was not very happy when she had to throw half of her clothes away and smelt like a brewery for the next month or so.

That early mishap ended my brief career as a brewer and what remained tasted terrible, but it was still better that some of the beers available in the pubs in those dark troubled days. The problem back in those heady days of the late seventies was that real ale was in crisis, the new fangled continental lagers were all the rage and the small traditional breweries appeared to be in terminal decline.

I am about to admit something that I have kept hidden away from the world for years, I was a lager drinker in my teens, there I’ve said it and cannot believe that I haven't been struck down by lightning for revealing my shameful secret to the world. To be fair to the young me just about everybody who was under the age of twenty five was drinking lager in those days; beer was for old men and it was uncool to be seen with a pint of beer if you were out with your mates for the evening. In mitigation I have to say that it was pretty difficult to get a decent pint of beer in most pubs back then. Real ale was seen as a pain in the arse by most publicans and even if they did serve a decent pint, it would usually be at the wrong temperature and had been sitting there too long or the slop end of the barrel.

Then came the day that was to change my drinking habits forever. My friends told me to meet them in a new pub they had discovered just off Kensington High street called the Britannia. The Britannia used to be a brewery before the building was taken over by the famous Youngs brewery from Wandsworth, South London. This was a proper pub, with a long tradition in dealing with real ale, one of my friends asked me to have a sip of his Youngs Special and I was hooked; it was smooth, it left a lovely after taste and it wasn’t gassy.

The whole idea of the following blogs is to tell the story behind the name, some are humorous, some are sad, some are just downright daft, but that first pint of Special will always be the most significant to me as it was the catalyst to a lifelong love affair.


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