Category Archives: buying beer

Bottle Milds 4: Old & Dark

This time, we’re tasting two beers that weren’t on our original list, one from Glamorganshire, the other from Sussex.

There was a bit of angst on Twitter and elsewhere when we said we hadn’t been able to get Brain’s Dark for this tasting. We really did try, checking six or seven different supermarkets, and online. We’d given up and moved on when, suddenly, it appeared in our local Tesco. It wasn’t on display proper but hidden in a plastic-wrapped slab on top of the shelving from where a chap with a ladder had to retrieve two bottles. We paid £1.50 per 500ml in a four-for-six deal.

Despite the cryptic name the label trumpets a ‘best mild ale’ award from the World Beer Awards. The ABV is 4.1%, nudging above where most milds sit. It’s not bottle-conditioned or self-consciously artisanal so there were no gushes or quirks on pouring and it produced a glass of black topped with a thick wedge of beige without fuss. This is the blackest mild we’ve tasted so far — a real light-stopper.

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Retro Bottles from Harvey’s

A £37.50 mixed case from Harvey’s of Lewes brought us a selection of 24 gloriously old school beers in tiny 275ml bottles.

They look as if they’ve been pulled from a dusty shelf behind the bar at a pub that closed in 1983 — not ‘faux-vintage’ but evidence that, if you wait long enough, most graphic design starts to look cool again. Here, we’ve focused on four that belong to styles popular in the mid-20th century but which have long been abandoned by most other breweries.

Blue Label (3.6%) sends all the signals of ‘light ale’ — a type of beer that all but disappeared with the arrival of ‘premium bottled ales’ in the 1990s. Being based, however, on the almost universally adored Sussex Best — the brown bitter even the most desperate hop-hounds conceded isn’t boring — turns out to be rather good. The carbonation is arguably too low — getting a head on the beer was tough and it slipped away instantly — except that this seems to give it a hop-oily, tongue-coating richness. The core flavour is toffee, yes, but it’s heavily seasoned with drying, grassy hops that leave a final twist of medicinal bitterness on the tongue. In short, it’s good beer in its own right, and much better, or at least more interesting, than many over-cooked bottled bitters available in supermarkets.

India Pale Ale (3.2%) is similar — amber-gold, caramelised sugar, stewed tea hoppiness — but watery with it. We reckon it’s a pretty good example of what IPA meant to British pub drinkers 30 or 40 years ago but how many beer geeks trained on Goose Island and BrewDog Punk have been let down by it in the last five years? It wasn’t any effort to drink but we’ll have another Blue Label next time, thanks.

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Bottled Milds 3: Fenland &c.

The third batch of milds in our taste-off are from Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Lincolnshire and we bought all three from Beers of Europe.

All three are traditional dark milds without twists or special ingredients:

  • 8 Sail Brewery Millwright Mild (3.5%, 500ml, £2.29)
  • Elgood’s Black Dog (3.6%, 500ml, £1.99)
  • St Peter’s Mild (3.7%, 500ml, £1.99)

8 Sail Brewery Millwright's Mild.

The label for 8 Sail’s Millwright Mild (Lincs) isn’t slickly designed and has the look about it of what we call ‘gift shop beer’. Popping the cap released a fierce hiss and we braced for a gusher but, fortunately, it behaved. The carbonation was notably high producing a tall, foamy head of tight bubbles. (It had dropped back a bit by the time we took the photo above.) It had what we’re beginning to think of as the classic look for dark mild: red against the light, almost black in the glass.

That high carbonation and fizz was a harbinger, though: something in this bottle had eaten through every last bit of sugar and turned the beer sour. Once we’d got over its failure as easy-drinking mild this presumably accidental result made for a beer that was interesting in its own right. It was a kind of dark gueuze — a Black Forest gateaux of cherry and cocoa flavours, with a dab of tar-like treacle. Unfortunately, all that was too much complexity for the relatively light body to bear. This isn’t a contender but we might try blending the second bottle with, say, Mann’s Brown, to mellow it out.

Elgood's Black Dog.

Elgood’s Black Dog (Cambs) gave off a surprisingly intense aroma on opening — a puff of greenhouse strawberries, or of Nesquik milkshake powder. It occupies the red-black borderlands and is topped with a tan head.

It has a relatively powerful flavour, too — traditional, yes, but with everything turned up a notch. Roastiness, a touch of plummy red wine and rich, dark chocolate bitterness bring to mind a general impression of the porters we tasted last year. Dark mild may not historically be ‘baby porter’ but that is clearly how some modern brewers approach it.

Unfortunately, we could not agree on this beer. The sticking point was an overripe fruit aroma that Bailey could barely detect but which Boak found distracting and off-putting: ‘Like cheap foam banana sweets.’ Though we are trying to narrow the field, we think it deserves a second chance and so (only just) it’s a contender.

St Peter's Brewery Mild.
Another brewery which has always divided us is St Peter’s (Suffolk). In the early days of our interest in beer, their distinctive oval green bottles were easy to find in supermarkets and corner shops and gave us access to a wide range of historic and quirky styles such as porter and fruit beer. Boak has always been a fan, Bailey has not.

Once again, we found ourselves with glasses of red-brown-black, topped with well-behaved, just-off-white foam.

The aroma was restrained — just a touch of charred malt — and it tasted like another session stout with severe bitterness and a suggestion of burnt-toast. There was a balancing sweetness, though, enhanced by a sort of almond essence nuttiness. That might, we though, become cloying over a session, but we both enjoyed it a lot (lots of ‘Mmmmmmm!’ and ‘Ooh!’) so it’s a definite contender.

UPDATE: We posted this in a rush while heading off to work and got the geography wrong. Apologies.

Bottled Milds 2: The Midlands

This time, we tasted three bottled milds from Dudley, Nottingham and Wolverhampton, the latter from both can and bottle.

The Midlands is a part of the UK where (in our admittedly limited experience) mild still feels alive — where ‘pubby’ pubs seem to have one on draught and might even offer a choice of different brands, or different types of mild. (See Barm’s 2014 account of exploring ‘England’s Franconia‘ for more on this.)

Unfortunately — or, actually, maybe we mean fortunately? — lots of Midlands milds are cask beers by definition and either don’t seem to make it into bottles, or the bottles are hard to come by. The selection we managed to scrape together includes something from the supermarket mainstream, a mild with something of a cult reputation, and an outlying ‘crafty’-looking beer that isn’t sure exactly what it is.

We purchased all of these from Beers of Europe online:

  • Banks’s Mild (can, 3.5%, £1.49, 500ml)
  • Bank’s Mild (bottle, 3.5%, £1.69, 500ml)
  • Holden’s Black Country Mild (£2.09, 3.7%, £2.09, 500ml)
  • Blue Monkey 99 Red Baboons (£2.99, 4.2%, 500ml)

Taking them in order of ABV, we started with Banks’s (part of the Marston’s empire but still brewed in Wolverhampton, as far as we can tell) and decided to drink the can and bottle side by side in pint glasses.

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Bottled Milds 1: Norfolk

It’s odd that we should end up with enough bottled milds from Norfolk to justify giving them their own post in this series.

As people keep telling us in comments, draught mild has a lingering popularity in the Cambridge area and there were lots of people happily drinking Adnams Old Ale (a mild, to all intents and purposes) when we visited Southwold last year. So perhaps the East Country is mild territory after all?

Or perhaps it’s just because Beers of Europe, the online retailer with the largest selection of bottled milds, from which we bought most of the beers for this project, is based in Norfolk?

The three beers we tasted, in ascending order of alcoholic strength, were:

  • Panther Brewery Mild Panther (3.3%, £2.95, 500ml)
  • Norfolk Brewhouse Moon Gazer Dark Mild (4.9%, £2.79, 500ml)
  • Elmtree Nightlight Mild (5.7%, £3.19, 500ml)

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