Tag Archives: Burton-upon-Trent

Ale Conners* and Saggar-Makers Bottom Knockers**

Today, it’s perfectly reasonable to challenge the assumption that the future of British manufacturing is abroad. A conversation with a former colleague, now working in the pottery industry confirmed this.

It’s a subject very much alive and relevant when you live in a county that to a large degree defined the Industrial Revolution: Staffordshire. Stoke-on-Trent was and is synonymous with pottery of course. Through the trade network of the British Empire, it supplied the world. The Five Towns tend to get talked down and are seen as a victim of deindustrialisation nowadays. The truth though is that the pottery industry is not on life support; the pot banks still fire, they’re just a different shape from the ones of old. And beer came from Burton-on-Trent, still a town shaped by its malty legacy and still the home of one of Europe’s largest breweries, the majestic Burton Union sets at Marston’s and a small crop of craft brewers – but like Stoke, Burton too has seen decline and deindustrialisation as its rather scratty appearance is testament to. And this is to say nothing about the nails and screws and rivets and tools from the Black Country’s ‘workshop of the World’.

Why then is there hope – and why are skilled brand builders at the heart of this?

Added value skills – the base to work from. Whilst there is always of risk of losing skills during deindustrialisation, British manufacturers are getting their heads round relearning the added value skills. We may not need ale conners (*beer quality inspection officials) or saggar-makers bottom knockers (**the ceramic case used for protecting the fired pottery) any more, but there are skills that can’t just be outsourced and commoditised. Designers, brewers, painters…

And an onerous responsibility lies with these individuals. The responsibility to create the sustainable value that allows manufacturing to stay at home. Take Emma Bridgewater. You can argue, it’s just a range of pottery. Yet it is so much more. The brand value is in the consistent application of an appealing look, values you aspire to, a fit with your lifestyle. And where is the Emma Bridgewater range made? Stoke-on-Trent.   And there’s an increasing range to choose from Denby, Portmeirion, Burleigh (located at Middleport, home of ‘The Great Pottery Throw Down’.)

The future is bright, the future is branded. In our “Millennial” infatuated marketing world, there’s a tendency to think that only products that eschew ‘marketing’ and tell an authentic story are the ones that will win. No. Brands that decide to use their truth in their positioning and communicate it single-mindedly have the better chance of winning. At the end of the day, the brand is where the value is. Take Camden Town Brewery, only 6 years old, but just sold to brewing giant Anheuser-Busch Inbev for £86m. “Brewery”? Well not really, for Camden Town doesn’t have a significant brewery at all – just some small mash tuns and fermenters under the railway arches, with the rest of their beer made in Belgium. Does that diminish it? Of course not, because it’s the brand that’s been bought. An instantly recognisable brand and tone of voice rooted in London (the larger brewery in London is to follow). A brand expandable here and highly exportable too.

Beyond the green and pleasant brand. British brands often struggle to use ‘Britishness’ domestically, yet it’s a real asset internationally and according to a recent piece in The Telegraph, there’s a premium of £2.1bn to be had by more clearly marketing a brand as ‘Made in Britain’. And it’s the brand that’s important: the quality conveyed by being manufactured in Britain is important, but it’s a point of parity, it’s expected. Today, we have so much more than just our ‘green and pleasant land’ perceptions of Britishness to leverage abroad. There’s more to how we’re perceived, brands like Mini have a contemporary edge that’s informed by our past yet fired up by our present, the edge from our music and creative industries – from our very culture in fact.

Category reinvention. Beer paints a stark picture of how British brewers failed to leverage their native beer styles to their advantage.   It’s not that long ago – 15 years, no more – that British ale was a holed ship, sinking fast with the rats exiting at speed. It’s the reinterpretation of British beer styles – Pale Ale, India Pale Ale (IPA), Porter, Mild, Brown Ale, Stout – by American craft brewers that’s rekindled the brewing scene over here. IPA is now the second most widely consumed and recognised beer style after lager globally. The US craft brewers have shown that it’s possible to reinvent categories in a relatively short period of time – and with it, even towns, regions. But bravery and imagination are needed. The bravery to inspirationally re-purpose the past and the imagination to paint a view of what the future can be.

In this post-industrial world, where we increasingly define ourselves by what we buy and consume, it’s these brand-building skills that can fuel British manufacturing again.

Plug: originally posted by David Preston at The Crow Flies. It’s his ‘real job’. If you’re interested in beer and brands and how they interact get in touch. david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 246260 

The Session #87: Local Beer History

the session beer blogging fridayThe Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts The Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing of all the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry (see link, posted to comments in due course). This month’s Session is by Reuben Gray at The Tale Of Ale (http://www.taleofale.com) on the topic of Local Brewery History – Reuben wants us to give a history of a local brewery – one that’s more than 20 years old. It may be alive; it may be dead or it may be the living dead…

 “To me, beer is much more a liquid in a glass. It’s about people, places and increasingly, terroir”  Ben Keene, ‘The Great Northeast Brewery Tour’

I am a beer writer who has lived and worked in one of the world’s great brewing capitals for over 20 years. I am also a historian or, as a friend put it, a ‘socio-geographer’ looking for the connections between people and place. To me, just as for Ben Keene who wrote in the preface to his brewery guide to the Northeast of the U.S., beer is much more than a liquid in a glass. It is much more than a way of easy inebriation. It is a connection – particularly, that is, if it is a local beer, brewed with locally sourced ingredients, by people who know people you know. This month’s Session weaves these strands: of place; of people; of time.

This piece is also something of a personal crossing of the rubicon. I will write about a subject I have carefully avoided to date.  I will write about a brewery where I still have connections, having worked there for almost 20 years – and therefore risk upsetting people I know. It is not however a wistful or nostalgic piece about great times gone by (certainly, it is not intended to be) – but it is a tail of a tragedy. A tragedy hardly befitting not just any old brand, but arguably one of the greatest ever brands. Not just beer brands. All brands.

This is the story of Bass.   This is the story of the first and once, most recognisable, trademark in the world. This is the story of its shockingly recent, quick and preventable decline.

The history. Unlike other writers in this month’s session, there’s not a lot I can add to what has been written about the story of Burton and Bass – painstakingly researched and recorded by Roger Protz in his terrific ‘The Story of Brewing in Burton on Trent’ (The History Press, 2011). In a nutshell, the history of Bass is interwoven with the history of British Empire and industrialisation.  William Bass was a local brewer, but successive generations expanded the brewery riding on the coat tails of the rise of the empire in India and coinciding with leaps forward in brewing science and chemical understanding.  Just as the first pale lagers were catalysed by the industrial manufacture of crystal and clear glassware, so Burton ales stole a competitive march on other British brewers through the understanding of malting (new paler & crystals malts that both gave up their fermentable sugars more easily & delivered a paler colour), of new fermentation techniques (in particular, the Burton Union system which allowed for both clarity in presentation and whilst leaving sufficient yeast in cask to allow for secondary fermentation) and embracing steam power which allowed them to brew consistently on a mass scale for the first time and also deliver more quickly to wherever their markets were established.  Go to St Pancras station in London today: as you sip your Cappuccino in Benugos, or buy a Thomas Pink shirt, enjoy the magnificent cellars. They are beer cellars, with columns one Beer-Butt wide. They are in fact, Bass cellars.  And when the Indian trade declined, brewers such as Allsopp and Bass revolutionised domestic beer, using their international brand reputations to effectively exploit the trend for paler, lighter beer styles (pale ale and bitter in particular), coming up with new classics in their own right.

IMG_1396

Bass, of course, was only one of many Burton brewers. At the start of the twentieth century, there were 29 brewers in Burton on Trent. The architectural and logistical legacy still exists today – with some stately architecture and even, roads – Guild Street for example, one of the main routes connecting central Burton to Derby and the north, was built by Bass, and is leased by their successors to the local council today (plus it’s home to The Manzil curry house & The National Brewery Centre – a double whammy).  Elsewhere the former Everards Oast House still looks down goatily on the town, waiting for someone to raise the funds to restore it and appear on Grand Designs.

But Bass survived them all.  Commentators tend to agree that it did so because it diversified into lager earlier; it acquired public houses faster and was incrementally better-run that its competitors.  And it made good decisions along the way.  One in particular was fundamental – history will record Bass as owning the world’s first registered trademark – the red triangle – registered in 1876. Along with Allsopp, Bass moved quickly on the decline of the Baltic trade to establish trade with India and elsewhere in the British empire.  And where the liquid went so went the red triangle – growing the reputation of the company and brand.  The red triangle sold not only within the empire but across continental Europe and across North America. The red triangle got painted by impressionists.

Recent times. The troubles for Bass as a British brewers began with The Beer Orders.  The Orders demonstrated that the British Government was more than rationally interested in the structure of the British brewing and pub retailing industry – it believed that the price of a pint was a vote winner / loser and was desperate to retain a high level of competition in the UK.  Every brewery merger would be investigated – for Bass, when the first major attempt failed (a UK joint venture with Allied – now Carlsberg), the writing was on the wall.  Why would the Bass plc management stay in what they perceived as a low growth, low margin business with active government interest, when they could invest in higher growth, higher value businesses, like hotels?  History was cast aside. The brewing business was put up for sale and ultimately sold unconditionally to Interbrew of Belgium. Many executives ordered a new Aston Martin that day (I met one of the merchant bankers representing Bass plc and they could not believe that they received an unconditional offer). Yet, the government intervened again and ordered the new business to be split – in the end between Interbrew and Coors of the U.S.

And here were the seeds of demise of Bass, the brand.  Interbrew kept the name & red triangle trademark; but the breweries and brewing assets in Burton went to Coors. With Interbrew breweries throughout the UK and in Europe it was inevitable that Bass would have to cut ties with its home.  Perhaps a deal could have been struck between Coors and Interbrew to prevent this: but why would Coors help Interbrew protect one of the inherent strengths of a now-competitor brand? And why would Interbrew pay a premium to do so?

Bass & me. It was hard as someone who cares about these things to witness the company and the brand unfold as it did. From being someone who had worked on and sold the Bass brand to see it go was tough.  But my history stems from before I joined Bass. Indeed, I fought hard to join Bass Brewers because of draught Bass.  Me and my University mate Duncan, enjoyed a pint or three in ‘Ye Olde Shippe’ just off Exeter’s Cathedral Close, or in the Great Western near the station or best of all, at The Bridge in Topsham. Oh, there were good beers available from smaller brewers, but draught Bass was the daddy. Story goes that Bass was strong near the railway stations – being on a direct line from Burton the beer was always as fresh as it could be even with the distance covered.  It was a lovely quaffable ABV, 4.4%, with a bit of everything: a snappy, struck match, sulphurey aroma, an off-white creamy head and that lovely nutty flavour from the two strain Bass yeast. My brother always summarised it well: whereas Pedigree and Bass were both great beers, Pedigree is that bit agricultural – a bit farmyardy. Bass though, whilst also enjoying the Burton character, had better balance, a touch of sophistication.  If a beer could be this good, it must be a good company, I thought.

IMG_1570IMG_1573

IMG_1572

**Fiddling: One bottle, three triangles.  Today, Bass can’t seem to make its mind up on even how to represent the red triangle – or indeed Bass’ signature – on its bottle.

Long term, there have been two big losers. The first were the people of Burton who had to endure seeing the Bass name, of which so many were proud, disappear (topping off a list of all the other great Burton beers – in particular, Draught Burton Ale (Pedigree is the exception, thankfully)).  Down came the red triangle. Off the brewery. Off the maltings. Off the trucks. Off the sheds. Even off the (Bass) Museum (it’s like Prince: ‘The Museum formally known as Bass’). Even off the wretched little brown signs that point to Burton’s brewing heritage*.  Second and tragically was the beer. Draught Bass and Bass Pale Ale have, to mis-coin a wartime expression, ‘Gone for a Burton’.  Sure, draught Bass is still brewed (ironically, by its long time competitor, Marstons). And cans and bottles are brewed by ABInbev up in Salmesbury. Bass Pale Ale for the U.S. is now brewed overseas (Belgium I believe, so it can still claim ‘imported’). But, unlike other Burton breweries – Thomas Salt, James Eadie, Allsopps, the list is long – which are properly dead, Bass has to endure a living dead status. Shorn of its home ties, brewed where convenient, unloved by its new parents (it has apparently been up for sale by ABInbev since 2010) it now stumbles along, all the while withering on the vine.  Commercially I understand that ABI has to prioritise, yet in the U.S., not so long ago Bass was the largest imported ale (800k U.S barrels a year); today it is less than a quarter of that – and on their watch. From being the U.K’s largest cask ale at the turn of this century (180k UK barrels) today, it gets lost in the rounding, with a parent who makes some noise about the brand but isn’t really doing anything other than fiddling** (Molson Coors, ironically, have now acquired Cornwall’s Doom Bar which is the UK’s largest cask brand – done, it must be said, for balance, on their watch).  Today seeing draught Bass in Burton is a rare sighting indeed – in fact, not so long ago, the new owners insulted Burton drinkers by insisting it came out of many pubs to be replaced with a keg version. Piss on my chips why don’t you?

Yet, it’s not nostalgia or wistfulness that makes me angry. What hacks me off is that today, premium UK brands are so exportable. Look at our car industry – a laughing stock 10 years ago, today Land Rover can’t keep up with demand – Jaguars, seemingly, are becoming as common as BMW 3 series. Or clothes brands – not just luxury brands, but ‘British look’ brands like FatFace or Boden are successfully building their businesses abroad. And over the last twenty years, ale’s time has not only come again at home, but in so many markets worldwide too.  This should be a new frontier for Bass. Indeed the beer is still great – a tad sweeter in the palate perhaps, but still the delightful aroma; still the restraint, the balance. But no new frontier. Rather, it languishes in a long tail; slighted and suffering due to the greed of Executives and the bodged intervention of government Civil Servants.

The tradition and memory of Burton, Pale Ale drinkers, brewing history and Bass deserves better.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

*One still persists, A38 northbound, just south of Branston.

Capital Idea

1989 was an auspicious year. First year at Uni and loving the new life away, it was a time of tremendous discovery – about myself and about life in general – much of it quite mundane, like how to actually make some food. It was also the start of my real years of beer discovery – living in the south west, enjoying pubs like the Drewe Arms at Drewsteignton, The Nobody Inn at Doddiscombleigh, The Warren House Inn right in the middle of Dartmoor and the pubs by the river and canal in Exeter – the Double Locks, The Turf and The Bridge in Topsham.

Against this rural setting of beer swigging idyllic yokels, three of us made a trip during a holiday to Burton upon Trent. Rumour had it, this was the ‘home of British brewing’ but we knew little of it truth be told. There were breweries, there were pubs and it wasn’t that long a drive from our home town in the north west. My brother, Wilko and I made the trip. We tossed for designated driver, but we planned a long enough day trip to allow for a couple of guilt free pints early doors.  The details are unimportant – we visited the Bass Museum, The Burton Bridge Brewery, the now defunct Thomas Sykes brew pub in the grounds of the recently close Everards brewery and otherwise took in the ambience of the town. The ambience being rough round the edges and distinctly whiffy, with the sharp tang of Marmite, meat processing, coffee from a nearby Nestle factory and beer all mixing together to form an aroma that gagged in the throat and flared your nostrils wide as they flapped on autopilot attempting to beat back the nasal assault.

Twenty or so years on the town has changed a little.  Few nasty niffs today but still the sense of brewing nobility; in fact a sign outside Molson Coors (then Bass) is supported by the words ‘Burton on Trent: World Brewing Capital’.  Which got me wondering: because let’s face it. It isn’t is it?  It was, sure; and yes, there’s no denying a lot of beer is produced each year across the different breweries in the town, but the truth is, this innocuous phrase is puffery, a product of our heritage mentality.  It’s so easy to revere the past above all else and as our Primary Industry – manufacturing – declines, so our Quaternary Industry – Nostalgia – booms.

What is a ‘capital’?  What do you need?  Power is one:  government, authority, bureaucracy.  Culture another – museums, art, music. Industry – or business power, not necessarily the manufacturing.  Creativity, influence…  collisions that throw off opportunities, possibilities.  Burton as a place of brewing influence had these once. Not today.  You can level the same at other brewing ‘capitals’ – Milwaukee; Berlin; St Louis.

Today it seems there’s emerging a new array of brewing hearths – cities, towns, regions, that can lay claim to the title of ‘world brewing capital’.  The strongest for me is the west coast USA – from San Diego in the south of California up through the sequoias to Portland, Oregon and beyond. Brewers united by being unfettered by ‘rules’ of the past;  pushing at the edges and in some cases long-jumping into a new space altogether.  And these aren’t just micros here – Widmer, Sierra Nevada, Anchor, Stone – all have scale – big enough I’m sure to be on the radar as potential acquisition targets for the global brewing concerns.  Only here, I would contend is there a culture of experimentation, trial, listen, tweak, improve.

Watch for the future, my vote would have to go to Italy. Craft brewed beer is about 2% of the market in Italy but it is growing in double figures year on year – with again, the spirit of curiosity, of discovery driving it forward – free from a burdensome legacy assisting a vibrant brewing scene. So too in parts of Scandinavia where brewers, fuelled in part by a healthy food movement are beginning to push into rediscovering and experimenting with indigenous raw materials, styles and ingredients.

The old capitals, Belgium, Germany (Munich in particular) and the Czech Republic are on a watching brief.  Belgium in particular has always had a culture of inventiveness but it remains to be seen if the domination by ABI and Heineken of the local brewing scene will create a market structure that stifles or creates the next wave. Likewise Czech, with so many of the big brands in the hands of multinationals and an industry structure whereby water is more profitable than beer, signals warnings for the future. Consolidation, focus, scale will be the watch words – the space for small scale, inventive brewers will be there to take.

Where does that leave Blighty?  Well, we seem to have come full circle. The big brewers and big retailers have managed to fight over the train set and break it.  The flair, the Heath-Robinson Garden Shedness, has passed elsewhere.  Far from being concentrated in one town, inventive brewing is scattered again across our towns, cities and villages.   Burton’s particular challenge is to grab this mantle back – but even if it doesn’t, the future is beginning to look bright again.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, October 2012

Extra mature.

There was a case of it dustily resting behind a shabby curtain in a rented house. Not an old suitcase but a proper case of old beer; thick, corrugated card on the inside with dividers between the bottles and brightly decorated, old-school style decoration on the outside. On opening, red and silver crowns looked up at us like baby birds expectantly waiting for the next worm from their mother.  This was a beer I hadn’t heard of at the time and was long out of date: Worthington’s White Shield.  It was the early ‘90s, but the beer had gone out of date in the late ‘80s.  Back then, my brother worked in beer distribution and when they closed an old warehouse in Wolverhampton or Grimsby or some such place, a few pallets of mysterious, out of date products had been found – in the days before SAP operating systems this sort of thing could actually happen.  It seems that they were products returned by customers because they had damaged labels, but as far as my brother could see, only one bottle in the 24 had a scuff.  So he happily handed over a couple of blue notes and carefully sat two cases of the beer in his boot.  From there, the last leg to his ‘cellar’ behind the dusty curtain could be transacted.

IMG_2287

Not quite the label on the mystery bottles, but not far off.

My brother you see, was in the know.  Not only did he know about White Shield at the time, a beer often referred to in hushed reverential tones, but he also knew that on big beers, proper beers, a sell by date was misinformation.  That’s why he had tiny nips of Thomas Hardy’s Ale uncomfortably lying at funny angles in his wine rack – decorated with thick gold foil and wire and string wraps over their crowns.

White Shield has travelled, in many senses of the word.  Born out of one of the Worthington brewery’s original India Pale Ales, it fell out of favour after Bass and Worthington merged in the 1920s as gradually focus fell onto the red triangle.  But for years, decades in fact, the beers were kept separate, Bass becoming predominantly a draught beer (red triangle on draught, blue in bottles) whilst Worthington’s India Pale Ale got renamed ‘White Shield’ and stayed in bottles. It also retained its secondary bottle conditioning – the art of adding a small glug of yeast before sealing the bottle. This seemingly inconsequential but tricky act is the key to bottle aging.  White Shield was also travelled during its many unloved years, being brewed by King & Barnes and Shepherd Neame if I recall correctly. Today it is brewed back in Burton at the National Brewery Centre and bottled by Fuller’s (who have the kit to add yeast for bottle conditioning).

Sadly I don’t remember the taste of the bottles found behind the curtain. I do know that they were 7 years past their drink by date, that the colour had a canal murkiness but the beer got drunk.  And it did leave a mark, as to this day, I age White Shield…and just last week I broached a case of 2007 ‘vintage’.  White Shield tasting notes normally conjure up cake. Not Victoria Sponge with cream and strawberry jam but deep, dark fruit cake, all raisiney & packed full of currants, glace cherries and shavings of almonds.  I always consider it a malt led beer with just an edge of oranges or citrus fruits. When young, it also has a distinct sharp, metallic character, is a bright red brown and tastes strongly alcoholic despite its modest strength (5.6% ABV). So it’s a cracker, no doubt.

Yet it’s a cracker that gets better with age.  The beer I drank last week would have been brewed in January 2005, its use by was July 2007, so that means it had over 5 years of additional bottle aging, 6½ in all.  And it drank much softer, with just a slight vinous character like Madeira or sherry. Its colour had darkened substantially, conker-brown now like Tudor furniture. Hop character was virtually non-existent but the malt complexity was as pronounced as ever – with none of the harsh metallic edges. Still a cracker, but a cracker of a different kind.  We’ll see how it stands up to another few years.  The only rub is the yeast, or lack of it. When my brother and I drank the beer from behind the curtain it had a centimetre of yeast at the bottom.  You had to pour with a steady hand which given the murkiness, we failed to do well enough.  But the 2007 vintage has a mere dusting across the bottom of the bottle – less yeast, less secondary fermentation, less potential to develop character.

IMG_2262Proof of the fruit pudding is in the drinking

Saying all that, a famous beer brand stoutly advertised for many years that ‘Good things come to those who wait’. Right message. Wrong brand.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, October 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

Lager, Part 2. Czeching out the Reinheitsgeboat on the Danube.

The traditional place to start with an understanding of lager is to say the following:

The word ‘Lager’ comes from the German verb, lagern, which means to store.

I however, am going to break with that convention.  The place I started my appreciation of lager, was on the A38, just outside Burton–upon-Trent.  Up to that point, (April 1992 from memory), I had been an ale drinker, an ale proponent, an ale espouser, possible an ale zealot…although, I’m not sure ale was consumed in great quantities in second Century Judea (I could be wrong there, go with me). It is no coincidence that this journey started in Burton -upon –Trent, ‘home of British beer’. After leaving University in Exeter, I applied to a number of brewers for a job through the Milk Round scheme, but my preference was for Bass. There were two reasons. Firstly, my drink of choice of the time was Draught Bass (I shall return to the topic of this beer another day). Secondly,  amongst a room of snappily-suited Personnel and Sales executives from the likes of Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Esso and so on,  Bass sent a couple of distribution managers from Huyton in Liverpool. The spit of Cannon and Ball, they looked utterly fed up.  Me being a student from the North West in a predominantly southern catchment university I engaged them in conversation and we laughed for an hour.  My biased view of the greatness of English ale was strengthened further – if this company can brew such a great beer, and be staffed with such funny, honest and down to earth people, then it’s for me.  The interview process was a test in itself, narrowly less stressful than the return journey from Sunderland to Exeter in my brother’s Polo during, which the windscreen wiper came off the side and almost removed the wing mirror during a monsoon, Yorkshire-style, on the A1.

Forgive me, I digress. The point is, my relatively sheltered life up to this point had been defined by knowingly and playfully holding on to opinions utterly unsupported by fact, reason or logic. Great pub talk and conversation starters. North better than South, ale better than lager – and the Milk Round just cemented these views firmly in place.

My brother and I had a plan. To drive to Prague and experience ‘proper’ lager, given that all the stuff on sale in Britain was clearly the bye-product of a Middlesbrough chemical plant,  and then return via a beer holiday of Bavaria and Franconia where we would hunt out all sorts of weird concoctions that only men who gladly wander around in leather chaps could conceive.  It would be great, made better by the fact that I wasn’t insured, so I would be chief map reader and daytime beer taster.

It was also the first holiday where I was frequently genuinely scared.  We got to Prague uneventfully enough.  It was particularly pleasing to be greeted by the Czech border guards as long lost friends as they waved us past a queue of German cars at the Border which snaked through the forest for over a mile.  ‘See that Fritzy?? That’s what invading your Neighbours does for you!’  we barked as we waved our blue-backed passports in that classically superior British way at the Border Guards and gunned the Bentley through the check point*.

First point of call. Pilsen or Plžen. Here we parked up and queued outside the Pilsner Urquell brewery with bemused locals who were waiting with crockery jugs for their evening’s supply of beer.  No 4-packs of cans here.  It actually took so long, that we never made it to the end of the queue and headed for Prague.  On arrival we realised that we had rented a sub-let flat in a suburb of Prague that was absolutely everything you would expect from a Cold War thriller. Grim concrete brutalist chic buildings, and old Czech ladies peeking out from behind their doors eyeing us as if we had arrived from Pluto. A paternoster lift creaked and cranked throughout the day and night, beating out a rhythm that I fell asleep to on the sofa.  The furniture was all velour fabrics and formica TV sets. On reflection it was magic, but at the time, we genuinely thought we would get done over by a swarthy Slav in a full length leather overcoat.

Yet it was the start of my lager conversion.  I can’t pin the exact time or place down.  There were a range of highlights. U Fleku was one (U = ‘at the sign of’, Fleku = ‘the Flek family).  I have been back to this brewpub since, and noticed that beer writers have started to snobbishly refer to it as a ‘tourist attraction’ determined to tarnish its reputation because it’s successful with non Czech. This is entirely undeserved, and if you go to Prague you must go – and sit with the locals if it makes you feel better.  It will be full of many nationalities besides, and perhaps now, it is a little more expensive than other bars in Prague, but I can reassure you that in the intervening 18 years since I first went and when I returned, it had not changed one bit.  It was a well run business after the fall of the iron curtain and it’s a well run business today appealing to a broad wash of humankind as only great beer can.  But forget that. It was the beer. Dark as a hearse yet with a subtle inner glow enhanced by a cream head so thick you could pass it off as a cappuccino.  Gravity fed from a copper vat above the bar into simple handled glasses and glistening with natural condensation – it was a revelation.  We drank it with the simple food: dumplings, meat stewed on the bone and a thick, oozing gravy that set you up for the day. And this beer, this beer, darker than stout or porter, is a lagered beer.  Lager. No clear, golden hue. No blinding white head; no aggressive carbonation. Dark lager, soft, gently flavoured yet cosseting to the taste buds like the touch of velvet to hand.

And U Zlathého Tygra. The Golden Tiger.  We drank Pilsner Urquell on rough trestle tables from the most ornately decorated beer font I can remember and conversing with the Czechs in signs, grunts, and nodding at the beer with smiles and twinkling eyes. It was all you needed to know.   It was one of the few (two) places we found Pilsner Urquell – today it’s everywhere.  Otherwise we drank a beers that at the time were unheard of in the UK, Staropramen, Gambrinus, Kozel.  We hunted out a Czech dark lager in the back streets of an industrial quarter – alas, I had forgotten what it was but it drank like liquid dream.

We returned through Bavaria and Franconia. Unencumbered by driving as I was, I could enjoy my first beer not long after breakfast whilst my increasingly frustrated brother pushed us on to the next location. At Regensburg – sitting in a beer garden by the Danube, we ate vegetables after a week without, in the Czech Republic and slowly regained our….. composure – and smoked sausages washed down with Thurn und Taxis beers.  Compared with the Czech pilsners we had been drinking, the German lagered beers were straighter, less rounded perhaps, more austere yet equally compelling.  Then Bamberg.  Beautiful Bamberg, with medieval architecture more enchanting than anything Disney could conjure up. We visited the Spezial Brewery where we drank the smoked beers on draught in wood lined rooms with elderly Franconians playing dominoes and card game whilst eating Dampfnudeln. These smoked beers blow your senses, with flavours ranging from spicy salami sausage, caramel and wood smoke yet with a surprising lightness of body and gently malty sweetness that makes them intriguing and moreish.  And in most cases, these are lagered beers – either a dunkel (dark) or Märzen (March) beer (there are also some top fermenting smoked beers).  You couldn’t get much further from the typical perception of lager if you were given free National Express tickets with every glass.  Finally  Würzburg, where we stopped to drink Franconian wine, but found delicious beers from the independent Würzburger Hofbrau Brauerei  – in Bavaria, arguably nothing out of the ordinary, but as  we drank these beers with a meal of smoked eel, onions and potatoes in a rather posh restaurant underneath the Rathaus – I realised that my eyes had been opened, and my opinions altered, forever.

 

*Some facts within this post may have skewed with time.  I think we were on the maroon passports by then.

David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles © March 2012