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Classic Beer of the Month April 2010: Coniston Bluebird Bitter

Coniston Bluebird Bitter, 4.2% (UK)

There’s an acronym widely used in the world of design that conveys the message that the most complicated work is not always the best.

Coniston BluebirdKISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid – has also become a mantra for professionals in other fields, from business start-ups to football tactics. It wouldn’t do any harm to see it applied more widely in brewing.

While there is a rapidly increasing tendency to experiment in brewing – be it through unusual ingredients, falsely inflated strengths or aging in wooden barrels – there is a danger that the pleasures of the simple pint are being ignored.

By simple pint, I’m talking about a beer simply brewed using simple malts and simple hops. There’s no rocket science involved, just love for the product and well-honed brewing skills, but the end product is as satisfying as anything born of envelope-pushing at media-conscious breweries.

The beer I have in mind to emphasise this simplicity is Coniston Bluebird. This 3.6%, fruity session ale was first brewed in 1995, in a tiny ten-barrel brewery behind the Black Bull pub at Coniston, Cumbria.

The name is derived from the Bluebird land and water-speed machines that broke world records throughout the middle years of the 20th century for the father-and-son duo of Malcolm and Donald Campbell.

When Donald Campbell’s Bluebird flipped over on Coniston Water in 1967, the dynasty of racers came to an end. His body lay stranded at the bottom of the lake until 2001 saw retrieval and a proper burial, but local people had never forgotten the tragedy, as evidenced by the brewery’s naming the beer in the Campbells’ honour.

Supreme Champion

From such tragedy sprang an unlikely brewing success. Bluebird Bitter was entered into CAMRA’s 1998 Champion Beer of Britain contest and shocked everyone by running off with the supreme champion crown.

The attendant publicity translated into an opportunity that could not be overlooked for a fledgling business, but there was no way Coniston could hope to match the enormous demand that ensued for the beer.

The solution – in brewer Ian Bradley’s eyes – was to farm out production. He scoured the field of possible contract brewers and settled on Brakspear in Henley-on-Thames. This was a company with a reputation for producing some of the UK’s finest ales and it had recently acquired some renown as a beer bottling specialist. Bottled Bluebird Bitter was born.

The decision was made to raise the strength of the bottled version to 4.2% but otherwise the beer followed Ian’s original Coniston recipe. Sales proved strong, with supermarket listings following, and the bottled version soon began claiming awards in its own right, initially at the London International Food Festival and The Beauty of Hops contest.

The closure of Brakspear in 2002 interrupted the flow of success. The beer needed a new home. Ian’s correct move was to keep faith with Brakspear’s head brewer Peter Scholey, who was setting up on his own as a contract brewer, on the way to establishing his own Ridgeway Brewing company.

Peter, a brewer without a brewery, has built up a business using spare time at other brewhouses. Initially, he brewed Bluebird at Hepworth in Horsham, but now other breweries are used as well. The quality, however, has remained consistent, and Bluebird still retains that fresh, citrus character that endeared it to the CAMRA judges 12 years ago.

This is what can happen when things are kept simple. The recipe for Bluebird is simplicity itself: just Maris Otter pale ale malt, a little crystal malt to deepen the colour to a light copper hue, and a generous seasoning of whole-leaf Challenger hops – hops normally just classified as ‘bittering hops’ but here revealing their peppery, zesty, citrus potential.

If Bluebird really is too simple for your palate, then there’s a slightly more complex, alternative version called Bluebird XB, which is laced with American Mount Hood hops and packs a little more punch at 4.4%. But that’s as complicated as it gets.

Recognizing that they have a winning formula, Ian and Peter have kissed goodbye to anything stupid.

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