Category Archives: Brown, Mild and Old

The Brown Dog returns

For whatever reason, I’ve never really got on with Newcastle Brown Ale… but I wanted to.  There was a bit of a boom for the brand in the mid ‘90s, fuelled by a failed attempt by an Australian brewer to buy it.  For a while front labels were inverted (I hadn’t noticed until someone pointed it out) and there was a general fuss made across the north east.  So I gave it a crack again back then, but no, it just didn’t flick any switches for me… at least not on taste anyway.  I’ve always liked the bottle; I’ve always liked the schooner glass and I’ve always bought into those hard-working leg-pulling Geordie values. Taste though – didn’t get it and still don’t.

IMG_1854Yet, like with mild, there’s a bit of a general brown resurgence going on.  This was triggered this last weekend gone by a pint of ‘Milkwood’ in a local Vintage Inn. Brewed by Brain’s in commemoration of Dylan Thomas, it’s a 4.3% brown ale.  And it is brown, which is a start.  Don’t mock – one of my issues with Newkie Brown is that’s it’s not – it’s more of a deep, chestnut red.  No it is –buy one and have a look.  It’s not unattractive, just not that brown.  So anyway, Milkwood – a brown ale.  And putting to one side the less than scrupulously clean glassware, it was a decent enough pint. A tightly loose head with a thick creaminess that somehow managed to support some big bubbles, mid brown colour and a clean, malty taste with just a touch of granary crust nuttiness.  Nice lacing too which I like to see.   And selling well up against Pedigree and Everard’s Tiger.

The interest in the style is good to see, for it could have gone the way of the Dodo. Original styles, dating back 300 years or thereabouts were likely brewed with brown malt that a higher level of roast from direct fired malting. Pale malt revolutionised beer both in the UK and on the continent – but with every revolution there is a loser, and brown ale was one.  Whilst brown ale continued to be brewed, they became sourced from pale malt, or crystal malts, that add a more coating sweetness, or were pepped up with a generous pitching in of brewing sugars.  Strengths fell over time too, a trend exacerbated by two wars, until eventually only really Mann’s Brown Ale existed as a connection with the original brews from the past (Newcastle Brown Ale was a twentieth century invention, ironically by a brewer from Burton).

I wonder though how much of the recent resurgence in the style comes down to what’s going on across the pond.  Newcastle Brown itself has become that old chestnut: 15 year overnight success story – selling about 450,000 barrels of beer to the USA each year. It’s now the number one British brand over there. The once positively ubiquitous Bass has been soundly mismanaged by Anheuser and Newkie Brown has doffed its grateful hat and Dyson’ed up their business.  The American craft brewers too have copied and reinvented the style. As you would imagine, many US versions have a more distinct hop character, but are none the worse for it.  Sierra Nevada do a very drinkable Autumn Brown Ale, and the wonderfully named Dogfish Head also do an ‘Indian Brown Ale’ which I snuck into my repertoire whilst out in Denver on beer business one night. Something similar happened in Hawaii* too – where I had a brown ale from the Kona Brewing Company (which I only bought at the time because I was thinking of buying a Kona Mountain Bike and wondered if the two were linked. They weren’t – and remember folks, don’t drink and ride.) This one in particular was a smoothly drinkable version, reasonably hopped. It reminded me of the Geordie nick name for Newcastle Brown, ‘Dog’ so called because it bites your legs.  Well the Kona Indian Brown Ale certainly did, as it was secretly hiding a mid 5s alcohol.

I’m pleased the style is having a revival, particularly in the UK. Whilst I like the hoppier versions from the US, I find that there are enough IPAs and double IPAs doing the ol’ hop 1-2 full frontal.  A beer style that swings the other way as it were, with a lingering sweet character is needed in the lexicon of beers.  As well as being moreish, who knows, perhaps a brown ale will make it through to be a recommended beer with this week’s Great Beertish Menu!

*At the border, the normally serious and scary US officers were quite genial. The one who stamped my passport however was a little disbelieving: “You’re here on business.  Yeah, right”.  Alas, I was.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

Or was it Penry… the Mild mannered janitor?

At work this week, we were having that seemingly inevitable conversation that spins round with alarming regularity. “Doesn’t seem that long ago since Christmas… I can’t believe it’s May already!”  But fear not, fair dwellers of the Office World, for ‘tis May and this is a good thing. For CAMRA have proclaimed May as officially the month of Mild.

Mild. What does it conjure up for you?  If you read about this beer style there’s generally a passage or two suggesting that your memory is likely to involve people who say “Yow” not “You”, and feature, amongst other things, flat caps, looms, steel mills, 26 hour days and allusions to ‘honest working men’ or some such pap.  I mock – and perhaps without justification. Certainly for me, some of these impressions are supported by my early experiences.  Wilko, a school friend of mine, was at the root of it.  He was an interesting old fish, Wilko, being a few years older than me meant that in those impressionable years he had some traits I aspired to. He couldn’t be described as an oil painting, but he also had a remarkable knack with ladies, which was mystifying and frustrating in equal measure.  His politics were as Red as they come, and politically, only an Ultra Communist Utopia could solve the world’s ills for him.  Part of this Utopia featured a fascination with the past – not an accurate past of course, just  those elements of the past that suited his world view and crucially his arguments about the direction we should take as a country.  And strangely, Mild was part of it.

And so it was that some of my early drinking experiences with Wilko featured Mild (the ‘proper’ drinking experiences that is, not the ones that featured necking pints of fizz at the Cheshire Cat or French Connection, in a vain attempt to bolster the courage to try for a snog with assorted female classmates). And, boozers too. In back streets. Generally with the stereotypical set of old men sitting around in felt caps and grubby flasher Macs, publicly farting like it’s what you do in good company.  But the Mild was there. There’s no doubt it was deemed a starter beer.  And it needed to be. You had to keep your wits about you in the Ring O’Bells, The Midland Inn, or Iron Grey on a Thursday night and one too many pints of Greenall’s Original was enough to leave me only fit to be dragged home*.

I remember the beer being good – so much so that in later years I always kept a look out for a Mild… in fact it was buying a pint of what I thought was a dark Mild in The Well House on Exeter’s Cathedral close that introduced me to Porter.  In those days, there were a few we drank – Greenall’s did a good one, I think its gone now sadly, but I remember it being nut brown with a creamy head, and having a corresponding nutty taste. Robbo’s too did a good one – we used to drink it down the Lawton Arms, a ‘border’ pub which still to this day is the flag to me that I’m back in the North.  I think the beer is called dark smooth today and only on keg for what it’s worth.   More recently, in Burton I was in the Roebuck, a bit down on its heels, but was pleasantly surprised to see M&B Mild. It was dark, light in alcohol and…. awful. Somehow it was artificially toasty, like essence of astringency had been added as a deliberate flavouring. Plain, downright, rank. I put it down to the pipes not the beer, but I have my suspicions.

It hasn’t put me off Mild though, and the reason is very simple: the West Midlands.

In the Summer of 1990, I stayed with my friend Helen who was a house mate from Uni.  It took a while to realise that in her neck of the woods, I had to call her  ” ’Ilin” so her friends knew who I was referring to. And, she lived in one of the posh parts of the West Mids – Hagley – so posh in fact that they refer to it as ‘Worcestershire’.  Helen introduced me to some characterful pubs, and some lovely, characterful beers.  I’d never really liked Banks’ Bitter, but Bank’s Mild was and is, a cracker (although in these low confidence times for mild, it’s called ‘Original’).  I tucked into a fair few of them at The Crooked House in Gornal Wood, and was still sober enough to realise it was the pub leaning, not me.  A day later, in Chaddersley Corbett, we had a pint of Batham’s Mild .  This little brewery seems to exist in a protected niche; few know about it, and perhaps if you go into their Heartland and reveal their location, you die a painful death. Only time will tell. But in my defence, what a cracking beer – worth taking the risk for.  Ruby brown, if you know what I mean, with some hoppiness and great flavour, a bit like liquid bread and butter pudding. (Check them out: bathams.co.uk)

Yet Mild puzzles me too.  Putting my rational hat on, they seem an ideal beer for modern times. So many of us now like to enjoy a few pints, but want, or need, to remain compos mentis** for the activities of the day ahead.  Likewise, for many, beers that assault you with hoppiness are a step too far for everyday drinkability.  Yet Milds are the antidote.  Typically gently hopped, with a chewy malt character and a residual, comforting and coating sweetness that underscores their moreishness.  I love them because they offer refreshment, drinkability and rewarding taste. The holy trinity, right there.

And they provide a comforting link with the past without being nostalgic.  For the roots of mild go back much further than we think.  Their slighty tarnished reputation comes from a post-industrial time when our heavy industry was dying and sharper, lighter Bitters were on the ascendancy.  Throughputs fell, quality suffered, and associations were with generations before the war. Yet the taste profile, and indeed the strength of Mild (mid 5s not mid 3s) can trace its roots back to earlier times, when hops were prohibited, never used, or not appreciated and British beer would have typically been sweeter, maltier and darker.  I hear tell too, that those stronger milds (5 – 6%) are now making a comeback – that sounds like a pilgrimage for another day.  You certainly don’t need the month of May to drink a Mild, but you know what? It’s as good a time as any.

Crooked House

*Pints of Greenall’s Original featured in a legendary New Year’s Eve session which culminated in me running home from Wilko’s house to mine.  I can still picture it now. It was like that bit in Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddell pins back his head and takes off; the wind rushing through his hair… a vision of athletic perfection & beauty.  A friend of mine saw me, and apparently the reality was somewhat different. Uncoordinated feet flapping randomly and noisily as I dribbled home in the linear direction of the Circle Line.  Utterly pathetic and an abject lesson in the need for responsible drinking.

**There’s a Malaprop opportunity if I ever saw one. What am I saying? I need to remain Compost Menthol for tomorrow.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on Posterous, May 2012