Badger Ales or, as they’re more properly known Hall & Woodhouse, is one of the oldest breweries in the UK. Founded in 1777, they’re certainly in the top five preceded only by the likes of Shepherd Neame (officially 1698 but likely much earlier), Samuel Smith (1758) and Young’s (whose Ram Brewery probably dates as far back as the mid 1500s).
Perhaps more interestingly, they seem to be the brewery with the longest continuous family ownership, having been managed by the Woodhouse family since 1847, when Edward Woodhouse joined as a partner – starting an ownership that’s lasted 7 generations.
I think it’s fair to say that Badger is not a ‘cool’ brand. They’ve never tried wrapping themselves in the ‘craft’ marketing coat and their range is solidly middle-of-the-road; you won’t find any Triple IPA juicy bangers with a badger on the front. However if you’re looking for something like that, you’re probably not looking at Badger anyway.
Despite this, they have earned a place in my heart. In my drunken, pre-craft student days they provided the mainstay of party booze – along with the other ancient, family-run regional breweries that offered the only “real” alternative to Big Lager. It was bottles of Tanglefoot (along with Shepherd Neame’s Bishops Finger and Wadworth’s 6X) that kept ale real for me, though I doubt CAMRA approve of the lack of bottle conditioning.
Badger earn extra points for being the creators of Panda Pops (since sold to Nichols and sadly discontinued), so it seems I’ve been a Hall & Woodhouse drinker for even longer than I realised!
Over the years, their beer range has expanded to an impressive 11 bottles, and an even bigger collection of cask beers. But can they justify such a broad range given their fairly traditional style?
The lighter side of their range is bottled in clear glass – this is always a controversial choice, because of a belief in some circles that it renders beer undrinkable due to ‘light strike‘. The truth of the matter is, of course, more complex than that – or nobody would ever use it.
Asking the brewer, it’s clearly a marketing decision – more importantly, it’s not aimed at the sort of consumer who is ever going to have heard of light strike. Head Brewer Toby Heasman says it’s “to help those who are new to beer or buying beer for others to see the ‘style’ of beer”. This makes a lot of sense, especially for lighter ales that might tempt folk away from Big Lager especially if they aren’t familiar with different types of ale.
It’s a golden ale with a fleeting, open-textured white head on top. The aroma is certainly malty – like sticking your nose in a sack of pale malt – with gentle, earthy hops and a touch of dark honey.
In the mouth, it’s light bodied and noteably fizzy. There’s a touch of honey sweetness which slowly yields to a fairly indistinct hoppy bitterness. It’s an inoffensive Best Bitter kind of beer, but there’s nothing particularly remarkable about it.
It’s a slightly paler golden ale, with a finer textured and more lingering head. The aroma is full of light, floral hops with subtle lemon citrus notes and perhaps just a little citronella oil.
It’s soft and foamy in the mouth, like champagne. There’s a little initial sugary sweetness but this is quickly overwhelmed by a significant and very drying, bitter quality reminiscent of tonic water. The lemony notes continue, and strongly remind of a shandy.
Another golden ale, this one has big rising bubbles and no head – it looks more like a cider than a beer!
The nose certainly lives up to the promise of peaches; big waves of sweet fruit sweeping away any real beeriness from the aromas.
In the mouth, the peach flavours are still there in force, but not quite as aggressively as in the nose – there’s a well rounded sweetness and a decent – if ill-defined – bitterness. The peach keeps going all the way to the finish, and if you’re a fan of fruit beers, this one is probably for you.
Looking almost identical to the Hopping Hare, the nose is oddly muted; a very faint sweet fruitiness and just a hint of citrus underneath.
The flavours are light and refreshing, with pineapple keeping it sweet and limes giving a crisp, dry finish. It’s a good summer beer but as with the aromas, the flavours are too subtle. While perfectly nice, there’s nothing to make this beer stand out.
It’s yet another golden ale with a fluffy white head that doesn’t hang around for long.
The aroma is full of caramel and green hops, with little hints of red fruit lurking in the background and perhaps some freshly cut barley.
The flavours are unexpectedly crisp and well defined; slightly sweet with sharp, fresh green fruit and a nicely rounded bitterness that comes through in the finish. There’s also a very subtle roasted spice at the end too. Classic & Rounded might be their marketing tag, but it’s a perfect summary of this very decent, drinkable bitter.
The other half of the range is in more traditional dark brown bottles containing the darker end of the range. That said, for all their different beers Badger doesn’t offer anything in the way of stouts or porters.
It’s a copper coloured ale with a deep, pillowy foam head riding on top. The nose is full of dark honey, with a touch of dank green hops and a little grain in the background.
It’s rather light in the mouth; a hint of brown sugar sweetness and some light orange fruit. There’s a nondescript bitter finish which gives the beer a dry, refreshing character. It’s nice enough, but strangely at odds with the promise of the aroma, and not really what I’d call “rich” or “hoppy“.
Pale copper in colour with another deep and rich looking head, the nose is decidedly citrus, full of lime juice and pale honey.
In the mouth it’s nicely hoppy; a decent punch of bitterness with little touches of light fruit. Lacking a little in depth, but it certainly delivers a tasty, citrussy beer.
It’s another light copper ale, with large rising bubbles and a soft but fleeting head. The nose is vaguely hoppy, but there really isn’t anything distinctive.
The flavour, too, is a little insipid – an initial hit of light malty sweetness which quickly blends with an unremarkable bitter hoppy kick. I can almost see why they’ve given it such a bland tag, because there really isn’t anything that stands out about it.
The aroma has a little more interest, with digestive biscuits, a little soft caramel and some mildly citrus hops.
In the mouth it’s foamy and has little sweetness to it. There’s a significant bitterness but the hops have failed to contribute much in the way of flavour. The finish yields an acidic dryness, and it’s telling that my tasting notes just read “ok”.
This used to be called Blandford Fly, and I’ve never really understood why Badger felt the need to change it. The nose is nicely gingery, but it’s not overplayed. There’s a little butter toffee sweetness in the background, and perhaps a touch of something metallic.
It’s soft in the mouth; a sticky honey sweetness that’s slowly joined by a subtle but distinct ginger edge – as with the aroma, it brings the flavour of ginger but not the heat. There’s a slight spiciness in the finish and just a touch of bitterness from the understated hops.
Ginger beer is a tricky thing to get right (as my Taste Test a few years ago proved!) but Blandford Flyer continues to get the balance bang on for me; a decent ginger hit without losing the fundamental beeriness.
A rich copper ale with a fine textured head, it’s the darkest of the range.
The aroma has fresh red fruits and a touch of liquorice in the background. On the tongue, there’s a rich caramel sweetness with a sharp, blackcurrant finish. It’s a full bodied, satisfying and all round nice beer, even if it is ultimately “just” a well made Best Bitter.
I think they make some damn good beers, however their safe, traditional British beers are never going to steal customers from trendy craft microbreweries. But that’s fine; there are more than enough fans of boring brown beer and for all the snobiness of the crafterati not everything has to have all its flavours turned up to 11.
No, my real problem is that despite having 11 different bottles, Badger are really only making 4 or 5 beers here. If I want a light golden ale, I’m not put off by the name of the brewery – I just struggle to remember which of the indentikit beers I like best.
I think mass-market, regional British breweries are an important – even essential – part of our brewing industry and heritage. But I do wish their marketing departments would learn a bit of restraint and focus.
Many thanks to Badger for providing samples for this huge Tour-At-Home!