This week’s feature is Wells Bombardier, an English pale ale bearing the title of a cannon-operating artilleryman in the British Army. The Charles Wells Family Brewery was originally founded in 1876 but exists today as the product of a 2006 merger with Young and Co.’s Brewery. Young’s Brewery was founded in 1831 upon the purchase of a brewery previously established in the 1550s. Accordingly, Young’s claims that the site, closed after the merger, had been the oldest continuously operating brewery in Britain. Charles Wells Ltd., as it is known today, is located in Bedford, England, birthplace of the brewery’s eponymous founder. It is the largest privately owned brewery in the UK and offers thirty beers and maintains over 200 pubs throughout England.
Wells Bombardier is a member of the English pale ale family; the more colloquial designation of ‘bitter’ first appeared in the early 1840s and became synonymous with ‘pale ale’ within the space of a decade. Session bitters—those that can be easily knocked back in large amounts during a single session—comprise the majority of those served in British pubs. They sport a mild alcohol content of less than 4% for ‘ordinary’ bitter, or about 3.8-4.6% for ‘best’ bitter. There also exists a stronger version with greater bitterness and alcohol content known as ‘extra special’ bitter, a style pioneered by Fuller’s ESB in 1971. Wells Bombardier belongs to this latter style. Extra special bitter is an average strength pale ale (4.6-6.2%) with generally balanced malt and hop bitterness. In addition to toasty pale ale malt, the grain bill of all three classes traditionally includes crystal malt (also called caramel malt), which not only provides caramel sweetness but also contributes to the beer’s gold to copper hue. The hops are most often spicy, earthy, and/or floral UK varieties.
The roots of pale ale began in the early 1640s with the invention of a new method of producing pale malt, before which beers tended to be dark and smoky. Pale ale proper appeared around thirty years later and was being sold in London from the early 1700s. In 1823, brewers in the town of Burton-upon-Trent in west-central England began producing imitations of Hodgson’s pale ale, a brand that had been successful in England and among European expatriates in India. Burton pale ale soon gained popularity, particularly after the opening of a railway in 1839 greatly expedited exportation. In 1846, the quality of Burton pale ale was found to be due to the high levels of calcium sulfate discovered in local water sources, a property which mellowed the harshness of hops while yielding crisper bitterness. Pale ale became increasingly widespread as brewers outside Burton attempted to produce similar beers by incorporating sulfates into their recipes. Today, with a better understanding of the chemistry involved and employing more refined techniques, the use of sulfates continues to be an important component of the style.
Although Wells Bombardier by the bottle in the UK has an alcohol content of 4.7%, the bottle obtained for this week’s feature is the export version containing 5.2%. Breweries sometimes produce export versions for marketing purposes, compliance with local laws, or the prevention of spoilage by increasing alcohol content. Wells Bombardier uses British Fuggle hops, an aromatic, moderately bitter variety with a spicy, woody, and fruity character. The crystal malt in the grain bill is crushed to produce smaller particles that are more easily converted by enzymes, yielding a more efficient sugar extraction. The brewery also indicates that their malt is cooked at multiple temperatures, a method which boosts extraction and produces crisp, dry maltiness. Lastly, the brewery continues to this day to use water drawn from a well in Bedford first sunk in 1902 by Charles Wells himself.
Wells Bombardier pours a deep, crystal clear copper with a pale beige head. The aroma is delightfully sweet with chocolate and caramel accented with a touch of sourness and bread crust. The flavor is mildly sweet with dutch cocoa, tea-like tartness, and dried fruit. The bitterness is delicate and well incorporated. The malty aftertaste is fantastic—grainy, toasty, and chocolatey. The mouthfeel is medium-light and smooth, almost creamy, with a lingering tartness and mineral texture.
Deliciously full-flavored enough to warrant a leisurely pace. The overall impression is mildly sweet, chocolatey, tart, and crisply bitter. The tartness sticks around into the finish, alongside the very pleasant malty aftertaste. This is across the board a very flavorful and satisfying beer, an excellent companion for a quiet evening in a cozy, dimly lit pub.
Today’s beer was purchased at Nissin World Delicatessen in Azabu-Juban in Tokyo.