The Loss of Local Preference as Observed in 1966

Book cover -- H.A. Monkcton: A History of Ale & Beer.

H.A. Monckton’s 1966 book A History of Ale & Beer is these days interesting mostly for what its epilogue tells us about the period of its writing, and about the tension between local and global.

That section of the book covers the rise of keg beer and the trend towards consolidation from an industry insider’s perspective (Monckton was on the board at Flower’s of Stratford-upon-Avon) but there’s a particular bit we want to zero in on here because it chimes with our Session post from last Friday which touched on the globalisation of taste:

Throughout history certain districts have favoured their own types of beer. There are definite differences between those beers brewed in the North, in the Midlands, and the South. Recently the strong preferences of certain districts have begun to weaken, not because of a change in the customer’s palate but rather because brewery amalgamations are bringing about the closure of many local breweries, which has meant the discontinuation of many local beers… In the case of bottled beers the situation was usually accepted without undue trouble, but often customer reaction to the introduction of new draught beers was strong. So strong has it been in several instances that the substituted beers have had to be changed to a type more in line with local requirements…

Unfortunately, he doesn’t break this down much further except to observe that sweeter beers were particularly popular in places like London, Birmingham and Coventry with high concentrations of manual workers, especially during and after World War II when sugar was rationed. He observes that:

All the successful beers launched on a national scale in the ten years following the last war, whether pale in colour or dark, were sweeter rather than drier. Now, some twenty years later, the situation is changing again, and full-drinking bitter beers, both in bottle and in cask, are returning to prominence. It is interesting that some premises in the Midlands are now selling increasing quantities of draught bitter beers where only mild ales have been sold for a quarter of a century.

Dry, bitter beers, he suggests, are simply better suited to our climate than ‘soft sweet beer’ — an argument we don’t quite follow, if we’re honest.

But, anyway, that’s stage one of homogenisation, driven by national consolidation and distribution, and countrywide marketing: everyone drinking the same style whether town or country, north or south, toff or scruff.

Harp lager beer mat (detail)

Then in the last paragraphs of the book he forecasts (or, rather, fails to forecast) stage two: in the midst of a great push that saw lager’s share of the UK market creep up from less than 2 per cent to 7 per cent by the end of the decade he suggests a certain scepticism about its suitability for the English weather. He was wrong, and lager now makes up something like 70 per cent of the market in the UK, and the vast majority of the global market.

On a related note, Alec Latham has an interesting post on lager in the UK at Mostly About Beer in which he observes that ‘Lambic has leap-frogged Lager’. (It’ll make sense when you read it.) If not exactly a return to local tastes as described by Monckton the failure of new breweries to engage with the market for lager does at least suggest — in some small way, in odd ways — some sort of shift.

And, while we’re pointing outwards, here’s a thought on a declaration by Carlsberg’s chief executive Julian Momen that the Danish giant is considering acquiring a UK craft brewery. Rather than join the (admittedly fun) game of guessing at specific breweries that might be in the frame we’ll just observer that previous UK acquisitions by global players have tended to be conservative. Camden, Meantime and Sharp’s all had strong brands popular in mainstream outlets; flagship beers at accessible strength (under 5% ABV); in classic styles (lager, bitter, pale ale); and straightforward, easy-drinking takes on those styles at that. (We’re being polite to Doom Bar, there.) In other words, breweries that already act ‘global’ seem more likely candidates than those that go out of their way to express any particular local or otherwise distinct character.

Mild in Manchester

It turns out to be difficult to stumble upon cask mild in Manchester these days — you need a few clues as to where to look.

We have a theory that we’ve been testing for a few years now that there’s a sort of corridor running from the Midlands to Manchester where you can expect any halfway decent pub to have some kind of mild on offer, even if it’s only keg. (Keg mild can be quite decent, but it’s distinctly different.) When we’ve floated this thought before people have pointed out that it might extend down as far as Cambridge and up to Leeds, so something like this:

Mild map of England
Adapted from images at Wikipedia.

We’re not interested in pubs that sometimes have a guest mild, or left-field interpretations of mild. In fact, we’re sceptical of many micro-brewery milds which, through misunderstandings over how the style evolved, are too often really baby stouts. No, what we’re intrigued by is the idea that there are still pockets of the country where you could, if sufficiently perverse, be a Mild Drinker, day in day out, in roughly the same style as your parents or grandparents before you.

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It Is Even Worse in England: Mild, Bitter & Lager, 1933

Detail from the cover of The American Mercury.

In 1933 the conservative American journal The American Mercury published an article on the state of British beer and pubs by English journalist H.W. Seaman, who lived and worked in the US and Canada for some years.

We stumbled across it looking for contemporary accounts of ‘improved pubs’ but in its 15 or so pages there’s plenty of other gold to be mined. We’ll let you explore the rest for yourself but wanted to put the bit specifically about the state of our beer under the microscope.

First, Mr Seaman makes clear that he found no evidence of British beer being adulterated:

Hop substitutes are used, I regret to say, but the roots of duodenal ulcers are not there. English ale is probably as clean and as honest as ever it was. But it is unhealthily weak.

Then he says something which counters the romantic view of English session beer:

Ale to be wholesome must be strong. The German- and Bohemian-type beers which America favored in the old days and will now favor again exert their humanizing influences not violently but gradually, and the patient passes through an infinity of pleasurable states before attaining the final, beatific anesthesia. Ale, however, is intended by the Almighty to deliver its message at once. Its appeal is unsubtle.  Three half-pints, and you know you have had it. If it is strong, it has vastly sweetened you and your surroundings. If it is weak, it has soured your stomach and your outlook.

In other words, chilled lager chills you out while British ale ought to knock you out.

Another startling statement comes next though perhaps we might write it off as pandering to an American audience:

My present homesickness, in fact, is less for good ale, on which I was weaned, than for the softer, kindlier brews that were later revealed to me—the light American beers of the Pilsner and Munich varieties, that came up cold and clear, with a creamy collar that clung to the glass. Their going down was as lovely as their coming up.

Yes, American beer, which even now some British drinkers take to be uniformly awful with Lite Lager in mind, was more enjoyable than British mild or bitter. He reckons that’s partly because it was cold but points out that British ale doesn’t work when chilled — it just turns ‘thick and flat’.

Patzenhofer Lager advert, 1937.

Next, he mentions the availability of Continental lager beers in London, providing further evidence for our argument that lager was the ‘craft beer­’ of its day:

It is true that Münchener Lowenbrau and Pilsner Urquell, perhaps the noblest brews of their respective orders that are obtainable today, are on tap, in good condition, in certain dispensaries of the West End of London, but their high price, thanks to the tariff, puts them out of reach of more than nine-tenths of the people.

(Consider the trajectory of lager in the decades that followed and think for a moment about what that might mean — moral panic over Hop Hooligans off their faces on licence-brewed American IPA in 2086?)

PUB SIGN: 'Public Bar'.

He also provides a handy key to the class status of the various styles, as well as some telling tasting notes (our emphases):

Call for ale in the saloon bar of a London pub, and the barmaid will say, ‘Other side, please,’ jerking her wet thumb in the direction of the public, or four-ale bar; for ale in London is a vulgar word. The middle-classes there drink bitter, a pale, golden beer so sharply hop-flavored that foreigners find it undrinkable. Burton, in London and certain other cities that have come under the Cockney blight, is a generic name for a dark ale of standard strength or less, whether it is brewed in Burton-on-Trent or elsewhere. Its social status is above mild and below bitter; although its price is that of bitter, it is rarely seen in a West End saloon bar. In the North, beer of similar character is called strong mild. Bitter is unpopular in Scotland; the ale of that country, dark and sparkling as Miinchener, is excellent, and is commonly kept and dispensed at a lower temperature than English ale.

Seaman, being a professional man, drank bitter, of course. There’s another nugget there for those of us tracking the evolution of golden ale, and sharply hop-flavoured sounds very appealing. It would be good to find later comments from him — he died in 1955, as far as we can tell, so would certainly have had chance to try the earliest keg bitters, for example.

Finally, there is this statement which seems to be spoken directly to 2016 through some kind of Time Tunnel:

[The] words can and growler, in the American sense [are unknown in Britain]. Nobody above the rank of chimney sweep could afford to be seen carrying home the supper beer.

There is a red herring here, which has caught out a couple of people lately: mentions of cans in sources from the 1930s and earlier often refer not to sealed tins as we know them but to small pails or jugs, i.e. canisters. That mention of growlers still works though, except that nowadays carrying a takeaway container of draught beer is an almost exclusively gentrified behaviour, isn’t it?

N.B. After World War II The American Mercury ceased to be merely conservative and became ‘virulently anti-Semitic’ so watch where you step if you go wandering off through the archive.

Swans and Bulls: Dipping Into The Black Country

We’ve long wanted to explore The Black Country and, with an unexpected free day on our hands, seized the opportunity to do so last week.

Our interest in this part of the world was raised primarily by this marvellous 2014 article by Barm which deserves regular resurfacing and is a shoo-in for our imaginary anthology of great beer writing. There was also a nagging sense that we’d screwed up by tasting The Batham’s in Wolverhampton rather than in or around Dudley.

We set our hearts upon visiting The Old Swan AKA Ma Pardoe’s AKA Mrs Pardoe’s at Netherton and The Vine Inn AKA The Bull and Bladder at Brierley Hill. (All the pubs round here seem have at least two names.) The first we reached by train and bus. The weather was terrible and everything looked a bit bleak through misty windows. The sight of the bluntly named Pork Shop in Cradley Heath was, it turned out, a portent of snacks to come.

Netherton in the rain, a group of blokes drinking cider outside the convenience store, a road congested with heavy goods vehicles, their grumbling engines harmonising with rumbles of thunder… Black Country indeed we muttered, probably not very originally. The pub had plenty of twee details but looked otherwise like any other small town boozer, a bit down on its luck and chipped around the edges.

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The Best Bottled Milds Are…

After five elimination rounds we ended up with eight bottled milds to compare against each other in the big final.

  1. Banks’s (can)
  2. Elgood’s
  3. Holden’s
  4. Ilkley
  5. Moorhouse’s
  6. Norfolk Brewhouse
  7. St Peter’s
  8. Thwaites’s (can)

We followed what has become our usual procedure: Bailey numbered eight plastic beakers and poured samples, as above; Boak then tasted them blind, promoting and demoting until we were left with a rough pecking order. Bailey (who sort of knew which beer was which) then reviewed her rankings.

In this case, we were in broad agreement, with only a little debate over third and fourth place: one beer was relatively bland but clean, the other more flavourful but with a nagging off-note. In the end, we went with clean, but there wasn’t much in it.

First place badge.First place: Holden’s Black Country. A noticeably ‘bigger’ flavour without resorting to stout-like roastiness or flowery hoppiness. It seemed somehow more dense and concentrated than its rivals, despite its restrained ABV of 3.7%. It isn’t quite like drinking cask mild but nor is it overly carbonated or crystalline as some bottled ales can be. Worth buying by the case with a session or two in mind. It is available for £2.09 a bottle at Beers of Europe.

Second: Moorhouse’s Black Cat. The smoky note we detected first time round was even more pronounced in this company — verging on cigarette ash at times. Nonetheless, it seemed quintessentially mild-like, and interesting to boot. Beers of Europe have it at £2.05 a bottle; if you live in the North West, you should be able to find it in shops fairly easily, and probably cheaper.

Best value badge.Third: Thwaites’s. This one slightly surprised us as, at a mere 3.2%, we thought it might get washed away alongside stronger, more characterful competitors. Though almost bland, it isn’t quite, and a tongue-coating body makes for a very convincing pub-style beer. It’s certainly top in terms of value selling for around a quid a can in supermarkets.

Fourth: Ilkley Black. We still like this beer a lot but it seemed marred by a faint slick of butter this time round. We bought ours from Beer Ritz at £2.96 but we are told it can be found in Asda stores in the North at less than £2 a bottle.

As for the others, we found St Peter’s much less enjoyable than on our first encounter, with an unbearable stale cardboardiness; Banks’s seemed all but flavourless in this company; Elgood’s was rather fizzy and Cola-like; and Norfolk Brewhouse’s effort was excellent but (perhaps this bottle was fresher) had grassy, flowery hop notes that seemed quite out place. (Links are to our original tasting notes.)

At the end of all that, we’ve got a much clearer idea of what we think mild is about. First, it has to put sweet malt and flavours from sugar at the forefront, but that doesn’t have to mean that it has to be sickly or lacking in character. Bitterness can work, but excessive perfume just seems wrong. Roastiness also jars, suggesting that some brewers remain in thrall to out-of-date history that declares mild to be a degeneration of porter, which it isn’t. (Though baby stout is quite a nice thing in their own right.)

Most importantly, though, we’re now convinced that bottled mild can work after all — great news for those of us who live in regions where it is rarely seen in the pub, and also for those of you abroad who want to get to understand the style without having to book a flight to Britain.