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Donkin's World: Whatever happened To Tetley Bitter?

...There was a consistency about the ale in those Leeds pubs not far from the brewery. They used to say that good beer didn’t travel well. It didn’t have far to travel then. It didn’t sit about in the barrels either and certainly not in the glass. A few gulps would see to that...

Richard Donkin misses the Yorkshire-brewed beer which he drank in his younger days.

Whatever happened to Tetley bitter? I remember when it was the best pint in Yorkshire. Nay, the best pint in the whole of England and that meant the best pint in the British Isles. Scotland was never much for beer, and drinking in Wales meant drinking in a Welsh pub when the Welsh were particular about who they drank with.

I spent most of my youth drinking Tetley’s in Joshua Tetley pubs. Your drinking youth in Yorkshire in the seventies began when you could get away with it, in my case at the age of 16 when I was just about six foot tall. I never quite made the magic height in reality but a mullet cut and blow-dry at Scissors next door to the bingo hall in Dewsbury just about did the business. Scissors was as posh as you could get for a haircut in those days. A girl washed your hair in one room before taking you to another girl - a better paid, more qualified one - for the cut itself. You’d go to the counter and ask for “a cut and blow dry” or if you were feeling cheeky a “cut and blow job.” The way that shampoo girl fondled your head, you could be forgiven the occasional teenage fantasy.

Fortified by the height-extending bouffant, a bus conductor’s navy great coat and a pair of four-inch platform shoes that had me ducking through the door, I wandered in to the Anchor Inn by the iron bridge over the Calder and ordered a half of Watney’s Red, the first time I ever got served over the counter. The beer was keg but the feeling you had from ordering your first drink in a pub, well it was better than the buzz from nicking a box of Airfix soldiers from Woolworth's. It was that good.

It took a little longer to get served in a Tetley pub. The Watney’s pubs were desperate but only real men drank in a Tetley’s establishment. The mohair waistcoat and green loon pants I wore when I walked up to the counter in the Scarborough in Boothroyd Lane didn’t quite cut the mustard. “Come back when you’re older laddie,” said the landlord. Oh, the shame of being refused.

I never did go back and never will because the pub’s no longer there. Many of those town pubs have closed their doors and most of those that remain have changed their brews because Tetley Bitter is not what it was. Mention Tetley to a real ale enthusiast today and he’ll screw his mouth up and spit out a single word: “keg.” You can still get a pint of Tetley’s cask ale but today it’s brewed in Northampton and it’s not the same.

In my day it was all cask and brewed in Leeds and there was no better pint anywhere, especially when served by a pub that knew how to look after its beer. There was plenty of choice. The trademark signs of a monocled red-coated huntsman with his raised glass were scattered all over the West Riding.

Once, when writing a feature for the Financial Times, I accompanied the leadership of CAMRA (The Campaign for real ale) on the train to Leeds for its annual beer festival. It was a short walk to the venue at the Queen’s Hall but first I took the real ale connoisseurs in to the Scarborough (a popular pub name) near Leeds railway station and ordered a round of "Joshua's". The beer was so good we didn’t want to leave. “No point judging anything else. That would win first prize,” said the president. It would have done too.

There was a consistency about the ale in those Leeds pubs not far from the brewery. They used to say that good beer didn’t travel well. It didn’t have far to travel then. It didn’t sit about in the barrels either and certainly not in the glass. A few gulps would see to that. Your glass (not a fresh glass), with remnants of the creamy head stuck to its sides, would be recharged by a - yes they were quite often busty - bar maid. The smart ones would interchange their pulling arms so as not to end up with one breast sitting higher than the other. The pubs were full of drinkers, not diners sitting down to meals. Food was a packet of crisps or a pie at most.

I’m not going to dwell on the beer’s demise, save to say that the Leeds brewery was closed after Allied Breweries, its owner, sold out to Carslberg. If Carlsberg made breweries - the irony of modern marketing. Most Tetley sales today are of a nitrogenated concoction poured from chromed smooth-flow nozzles. Such is progress.

I miss the Tetley’s pubs I enjoyed in my younger days and the conversations that rippled around the bar in a good session. Tetley’s wasn’t strong ale; it was just a fine drink. The best. There are excellent real ales today and maybe the beer has improved in my memory. But I don’t think so. Some memories linger like the taste of a good pint, the sound of the empty glass on wood, the back of your hand drying your wetted mouth, the satisfied “ahhhh” at the end of it and the familiar expectant cry ringing down the years: “Get ‘em in!”



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