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.

Bottled Milds 5: The North Country

This final batch of bottled milds are all from the North — a term which, of course, covers a great deal of territory.

Though the Midlands has a strong claim to mild it is The North with which it is most associated in the popular imagination — part of the stereotypical image of a northerner along with flat caps and whippets, as in this article on the crowd-sourced comedy website NewsBiscuit:

In a move which is sure to be welcomed by ‘hard working families’ and ‘lovable northerners’, the Government has announced that whippets, pipes, pints of mild and dolly tubs are all to be zero-rated for VAT.

As with CAMRA and beards there is some truth in the association: we found a relative abundance of mild on our last trip to Manchester, albeit mostly kegged; and yet as early as the 1970s CAMRA was declaring it all but extinct in London and the Home Counties.

Apart from the question of whether they’re any good — the main point of these posts — there’s a secondary line of enquiry: do they have anything in common with each other? And, if so, can we say northern mild is any way distinct from Midlands mild?

  • Brass Castle Hazelnut Mild (Beers of Europe, £2.89 500ml)
  • Ilkley Black (Beer Ritz, £2.96 500ml)
  • Moorhouse Black Cat (Beers of Europe, £2.05 500ml)
  • Rudgate Ruby Mild (Beer Ritz, £3.00 500ml)
  • Thwaites Dark Mild (Morrisons, £3.96 4 × 440ml)

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A Surprise Infatuation

We didn’t expect to like this beer but, blimey, we really do.

We found it on our local Wetherspoon, The Tremenheere, where we go a couple of times a month in search of something a bit interesting. Quite often we end up turning round and walking out, unexcited by the choice of Abbot, Doom Bar or Ruddles. We nearly did that this time but something told us to stop and give Jenning’s Sneck Lifter a try.

They’re not a cool brewery, Jenning’s, not least because they’re part of the Marston’s empire these days. We’ve always found their bottled beers a bit dull and the cask — most often Cumberland Ale — fine without being thrilling.

Perhaps it was the fact that we felt sorry for them having been flooded but more likely it was the realisation that, despite having it mentally filed under ‘usual suspects’, we couldn’t remember actually having tried Sneck Lifter from cask. We’ve heard the name, of course, and we think we’ve had it in bottles, when it barely registered, but, no, we’re pretty sure never cask-conditioned.

It’s hard to say, really, why it excited us. Something about it suggested those Fuller’s Past Masters beers so, to a certain extent, it’s that it tastes antique — like a pint of mild that’s made it across the gulf of time from before World War I. (The brewery pitches it as a ‘winter warmer’ but it could just as easily be branded ‘strong mild’.)

More specific tasting notes feel a bit redundant because, really — it’s just a satisfying beer — but we’ll try.

It’s strong by British standards at 5.1% ABV, and fairly dark — so red it’s almost black, from certain angles. It’s easy-going but rich, in the same territory as Adnam’s Broadside. That is to say, plummy, raisiny and rich without being full-on luxurious. It’s sweet in a way that feels nourishing but before it has chance to become sickly, a countering dry bitterness starts to build up in the mouth: it is balanced in the sense of having flavours tugging two ways rather than as a synonym for bland.

What we’re saying, we suppose, is that if you see Sneck Lifter on cask, you should give it a go, even if you’re a Jenning’s/Marston’s sceptic.

Hop Shortage Already Biting

Pete Brown wrote this week about the likely impact of a shortage of American hops:

This year, the global hop harvest is on average between 30-40% down on what it should be. Every day, Charles Faram gets a call from another UK craft brewer asking for Cascade, Chinook, Citra and Nelson Sauvin, because those are the varieties used in successful craft beers right now. Many of these callers are going to be disappointed.

When we interviewed Peter Elvin, the enigmatic character behind the Penzance Brewing Company at the Star Inn in Crowlas, last Saturday, he said:

I use a blend of different hops in all my beers so that, if one of them disappears, it’s less important. I try to keep a stock in so that I can phase a hop out over ten or fourteen brews, too, so it’s not so jarring. But Trink is predominantly Citra, and there ain’t no Citra, so that’s on the way out.

So, there you have it: the hop shortage isn’t just abstract chat — it’s actually going to mean that one of our top beers of 2015 is no longer available.

On the upside, maybe Andy Parker has a point:

It’s certainly good news that Mr Elvin has made his increasingly impressive dark mild a regular on the bar at the Star Inn during the course of this year.

There’ll be more from Peter Elvin in our #BeeryLongreads piece on 18 December.