“Barman, a pint of bitter if you please.” Ah, the quintessential order in an English pub, where almost every cask and every pint glass is filled with a beer called bitter. (In fact, our hypothetical order would have to be considerably more specific, since most of the real ale served at pubs falls into the bitter category.) Bitter … it just may be the perfect all-around, any-occasion beer. The malt and the hops are held in perfect balance. It’s thirst-quenching and sessionable, but packed with flavor.
There are those who believe that bitter is the greatest English contribution to world culture (well, at least the world of beer). It turns out it’s not one of the older beers from England. It took improved malt kilning techniques to achieve the control necessary for pale malts, which also tend to be higher in fermentable sugars than darker malts. They were popular from the start, but it wasn’t until mid-twentieth century that bitter became the most commonly ordered beer in England.
At first, brewers called these hoppier beers brewed mostly with pale malt “pale ales.” Drinkers quickly started calling such beers bitters to differentiate them from the sweeter, less-hopped, often darker mild ales. Almost every older brand of these English beers once referred to as “pale ale” is now called “bitter” by the Brits who quaff down pint after pint of the stuff.
In other words, “English Pale Ale” and “British Bitter” are the same thing.
“Well then, make up your minds,” the less civil among you may be saying, “are you going to change the name of it every month?” The answer, according to our fearless barley ship captain Jake Hafner, is … if need be, yes. Whatever it takes to keep people talking about this most excellent beer, we will do. Twenty years ago, every bar in Saint Louis had Budweiser on draught. Twenty years hence, every bar in Saint Louis will have Civil Life British Bitter on tap (and American Brown Ale of course).
Civil old timers will recall that when we opened, way back in September of 2011, we had four beers on tap: American Brown, German Wheat, British Best (a “best bitter” to be precise), and British Bitter. Since then, we have brewed several different extra special bitters, an ordinary bitter, a premium bitter, as well as the “Proper Pint” and the Angel and the Sword, which are both part of the same general family.
We are committed to bitters! Most of you know that Civil Life British Bitter is not bitter tasting, but occasionally we get a newcomer who says with a look of repugnance, “Bitter … I hate bitter beer. Give me an IPA.” Well friend, IPA is just about the bitterest beer out there.
Back in the 1990s a “beer” called Keystone Light was the product of advanced scientific breakthroughs that allowed the very last traces of flavor to be extracted from American light lager. They launched a massive ad campaign against beers that still retained any flavor (though God knows there were precious few back then, compared to these heady days). They warned drinkers of a serious condition called “Bitter Beer Face,” which contorted the drinker’s face into a misshapen grimace if he or she should be so unfortunate as to take a drink of “bitter” beer. This is why a certain uneducated beer drinker still associates the word “bitter” with an undesirable beer. Disappointed with lackluster sales of our bitter around town, we changed the name to English Pale Ale, hoping it would sell better out in the world, without the benefit of a civil barman providing education on the style when appropriate.
Well, we’ve changed it back. We’re very proud of this beer and we also want to honor its heritage.
The fact is, even before hops were used, brewers used naturally bitter herbs to balance the sweetness of malt to keep beers from being cloyingly sweet. It’s all about balance. Trust us, we’ll never release a one thousand IBU monster called Hopfist IPA.
What we’ll keep brewing is our outstanding British Bitter, which English customers have told us rivals many a traditional bitter back home. And it should, as we use a very traditional English base malt called Maris Otter, an English yeast strain, and two of the oldest and most popular English hop varieties, Fuggles and East Kent Goldings.
The taste of our British bitter is superb. It has a malt richness that is round without being too full. It has bread and biscuit characteristics with a hint of nuttiness. The hop is lemon and floral with some woodsy, herbaceous, and spicy notes. Our own barman and brewery factotum Joe Mooney (whose palate is insured with Lloyd’s of London for one million dollars) describes the characteristic flavors of our bitter as brewed tea and bright lemon citrus.
At 4.2% alcohol, it is eminently sessionable. It’s food friendly and drinks well in all climates. Real ale fans rejoice—it’ll be back on cask by late February, though we generally have it available on draught. Come down to the pub and order a pint of bitter—pronounce it boldly and proudly. After your first sip, you’ll be the beneficiary of what you might call Civil beer face. It’s the look of perfect contentment. ~ Dr. Patrick Hurley of Tower Grove South.
Patrick can be found at the Civil Life tending bar on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
It’s going to be another great year of selections for the Civil Readers, with six great titles chosen, as always, after careful consultation with our members. This year I’ve mapped out all six meetings in advance so you can plan accordingly. Come to any or all the meetings for civil pints and lively discussion at what has been called by member Marty Daly “the most democratic book club in North America.”
Please note that all meetings take place from seven until nine pm on Mondays at the Civil Life.
The Circle by Dave Eggers.
Published just two years ago, The Circle is the 1984 or the Brave New World for our era. It tells the story of a bright young woman who gets to work at a powerful Internet company (think Google, Facebook, and Twitter rolled into one) whose benevolent founders want to use technology to improve the lives of everyone … except there’s a darker underside to the Circle.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
Essays covering everything from tennis to television and the Illinois State Fair to a Caribbean cruise show Wallace was just as brilliant, funny, and engaging writing non-fiction as he was in Infinite Jest (one of the greatest novels of the last fifty years).
The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye
An arrogant European is shipwrecked off of Africa where he is forced to confront his preconceived notions as he travels with two young boys and a beggar in search of the king. The story is told in increasingly hypnotic, lush, impressionistic prose by a Guinean author who should be much better known than he is.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
Chilean-born Bolaño writes a telescoping and complex narrative focused on two poets in search of an older poet who has disappeared. Their decades-long odyssey is told from multiple perspectives and jumps back and forth in time. Bolaño called the work “a love letter to my generation.”
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
For those of you who think you hate poetry or cannot understand it, think again. This earthy, lusty work told with a powerful rhythmic drive is the birth of American poetry. It is as engaging and relevant as it ever was.
You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There by Elizabeth Taylor
No, not that Elizabeth Taylor. After years of neglect, this less-well-known Elizabeth Taylor is finally getting the recognition she deserves, especially for her exquisite short stories, many of which first appeared in the New Yorker. Nearly plotless, many deal with the daily activities of suburban housewives, but there is so much more beneath the surface.
Some time in the early eighteenth century a dark brown beer (probably not yet called porter) was first brewed in London. The exact origin is unclear, but what is certain is that this complex, roasty beer became hugely popular throughout England. This delicious style’s popularity spread to the colonies, including Ireland, Australia, and America. It is said to have been George Washington’s favorite style of beer.
One of the many theories about the origin of porter is that it was first brewed as an alternative to the hoppy light beers brought to the city by visiting gentry. (So you see why the malt-driven madmen at the Civil Life love this style so much!) The porters were pretty well hopped, but the primary defining flavors were (and are) roasted malt ones.
Bittersweet cocoa characteristics dominate our porter, with a subtle earthier note of licorice coming through. Northdown hops balance those lashings of roasted malt and provide a pleasant woodsy spice note.
That’s the beer. The name came a little later. The story goes that this style of beer became an immediate favorite among porters, those who earned their livelihood carrying heavy things. During more civil times, hard-working laborers would take periodic breaks to down a restorative pint of porter. These days, most employers take a dim view of this time-honored practice, preferring that their weak-looking employees sip at glasses of tepid tea with limp lemon slices floating about in that decidedly unrestorative substance.
At the Civil Life we still champion restorative pints, and we still brew a traditional porter like those first brewed in London. Some say the style was first brewed in the Shoreditch neighborhood. While many dispute this tale, you can still find an excellent porter there. In late September of 2013, while conducting important research for the Civil Life in London, I repaired to the Crown and Shuttle Pub on Shoreditch High Street where I immediately ordered a pint of Redemption Fellowship Porter. London craft brewery Redemption is just a year older than the Civil Life, and like us they make great versions of classic styles.
Soon, I was back home, and though I missed London, I was happy to be back at the Civil Life, where I could drink the world’s finest porter. It is astonishingly good on cask. Come down and have a pint. Don’t be surprised if it fills you with the strength of ten stevedores. ~ Dr. Patrick Hurley of Tower Grove South
People associate London’s workers with porter (and rightly so), but by the late nineteenth century, beer drinkers throughout England were gravitating to an ale called mild, in part because it was cheaper. Mild ale’s popularity grew into the twentieth century. According to Martyn Cornell “The continuing popularity of mild meant that even after the Second World War it made up close to 70 per cent of draught beer sales” yet by the late 90s, mild ale accounted for just three per cent of draught beer sales in England. What could explain this precipitous drop in popularity and what exactly was mild ale anyway?
Mild is notoriously difficult to pinpoint. Some were light and some were dark, some were strong and some were weak. Some were even well-hopped, though the style typically was not. Originally a mild was just a fresh beer (frequently consumed before it was even two weeks old). This differentiated it from the old or stale (meaning aged) ales with which mild was often mixed. Indeed, patrons often ordered their mild blended with another beer, both bitter and brown ale being popular choices. In the winter, mild was often served mixed with Burton ale.
Though they could be light, the darker slightly sweet style of mild became dominant by the start of the twentieth century, with colors ranging from reddish brown to black. The Civil Life British mild ale fits into this category, though it is dry. At 3.8% alcohol, it is a true session beer, but it’s not short on flavor, having some beautiful earthy roast character. We serve it in a traditional 20 imperial ounce Nonic pint glass, but originally it was served in a ten-sided handled mug. As taste in beer changed, so did the glasses. The dimpled pint mug soon became the norm, but it quickly lost favor to the tall, thin Nonic glasses used today at most better pubs. An article in the Guardian a few years back explained the changes in beer tastes as well as glassware: “This design change fitted in with changing drinking habits: dark mild had acquired an unfashionable image as an old working-class man's drink, and its substitute, amber bitter, looks lovely in the refracted light of a dimpled glass.”
And that’s basically it. The young generation in England in the 50s and 60s viewed mild disdainfully and shifted to beers they associated with aspiration and success, namely bitter, but also lager.
Mild ale certainly didn’t deserve such an ignominious fate. Many people forgot how good it was. At the Civil Life, we brew an excellent dark mild ale. We also make a classic British bitter. Support class solidarity and civility! Drink good beer. No matter what style of beer you choose, drink civil and be civil. ~ Esteemed Barman, Dr. Patrick Hurley of Tower Grove South
The rumors are true! The Big Year Brown is back and can be consumed at our brewery pub. It will also be making it's way to some of our regions finest bars and restaurants over the next few weeks.
If you recall this is the first release in the "Big Series" our 6.5% beers that are meant to showcase some of our favorite malts but in a bigger richer rounder style. Our "Big Series" focuses on the sweet point in beer when increased alcohol adds more depth to the flavor but you can still sit down and have a pint or two...three could be a bit much. Don't forget we at the Civil Life serve Imperial Pints! We, at the Civil Life, find it quite hilarious that our "Big Series" is a whopping 6.5%. We hope you find it har-dee-har-har funny as well. Many micro-breweries seem to start at 6.5% and go up. We seem to stop at 6.5%. It's a to each his or her own drink world in our book.
The Big Year Brown is a big version of our American Brown and has been widely thought of to be one of our top beers.
The following two beers in this years "Big Series" are the Big American Stout and a new to the market "Belgian Blonde." Both will be in exceptionally limited supply this year in the market.
The Big Year Brown was first named 3 years ago when I thought our sales were going to go through the roof and we would be flush with so much money, gold bars and bling that we could add on the building and also add the often requested canning line. We still haven't lost that sense of optimism as we approach this year and every year with a renewed sense of optimism in an increasingly competitive market. We did make good progress towards this goal last year with the purchase of the St. Louis Auto-Body shop next door which prompted many people to believe we were going to start fixing your car while you drink in our pub. Our lawyer and our insurance agent nixed this idea along with our day care idea. Looks like we are sticking to beer and that's good because as you know, Genuine Civil Life beers are the finest beers to ever come out of Tower Grove South. We are proudly Tower Grove's first brewery!
We would like to wish you the best in 2016! It will no doubt be our best year as a brewery because honestly an eternal sense of optimism works well for us. We want to whole heartedly thank you for drinking Civil Life beer at the brewery and MOST IMPORTANTLY, asking for it and drinking it at your favorite restaurant and bar...even at your not so favorite restaurants and bars. A Civil Life beer consumed at a restaurant or bar is as good as drinking it at the brewery as if people don't ask for our beers or order them when out we will no doubt go quietly and Civilly into the night.
It's you who seek out our beers and believe in what we do that make running this place worthwhile. People like Dan that go into bars and immediately order American Brown and then wonder out-loud when it isn't available. Or Sean that goes into pubs asking for "The Angel and the Sword." Or Mike and Lindsey, who calls the brewery their downstairs. They moved up the street this year. The Tower Grove South neighborhood has had an influx of Civil Life customers moving with-in walking distance of the brewery. A coincidence...I think not. We appreciate everyone's support more than you would ever imagine.
People often don't understand why we haven't grown faster as if this is some sort of race. Racing just isn't for me, I suppose. The truth is we are a small company and 9 full-time (3 part-time) of us (Now including Mike, who returned to Florida!) run not only the whole brewery but also the pub. We are small and nimble in business turns. People often ask, "Who owns this place?" To which my stock answer is, "the bank, and under a 200 page agreement and 40 of my signatures I am able to continue working here 80 to 90 hours a week as long as I make a substantial payment to them each month." I tell people, "We are growing the old-fashioned way by using money coming in to grow our business." This too is an each to their own sort of world and I find no fault in other approaches I just know they just don't work for us. This year we are considering taking on debt to grow and I no doubt will be spending the next 4 months trying to figure if it is the right thing to do.
Any Civil Life beer consumed during this time helps me decide... it's kind of like a vote for expansion. More drinks at bars and restaurants and the percentage chance we add a canning line goes up. More drinks at our pub and the percentage chance goes up that we move on the parking lot and expanding our premises. It's the drink caucus we wish they'd have in Iowa. But drink our beer not because you want us to grow but because you know we are putting out some of the finest beers in the country at a price you can afford. Prices that allow you to have a pint or two or three and also save for retirement.
So what does 2016 bring? That's a good question...here's the current odds. A new parking lot (80% chance)? A larger pub (60% chance) ? A canning line (41.9% chance)? A phone number? (.011% chance) A big advertising budget? (.005% chance) A buyout by a large multi-national brewery operation? (-2598% chance)
I'd say it be best to keep your ear to the ground and keep drinking Civil Life but not at the same time.
Thanks for reading, thanks for drinking and all the best to you in 2016.
Jake of Tower Grove South
Captain of the Barley Ship
The Civil Blog has returned. It is predominantly authored by Civil Life Barman, Dr. Patrick Hurley, who can be found tending to our bar patrons on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He is also responsible for tending to our draft lines, which is recognized as one of our most important tasks. Special guest writers will appear from time to time. We hope reading this blog will give you much insight about the Civil Life and most importantly help you understand a bit more about all of us that work here and the beers we put our hearts into.