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