For this month’s edition of the Session, we’ve asked people to take ‘traditional beer mixes’ as the jumping off point.
We did not have much joy finding mixes in pubs, despite visiting four in Falmouth on Saturday. Generally the beer on offer lacked variety (no mild, no stout, no barley wine). When we did find a pub with mild, there was no standard bitter to mix it with, and it really didn’t get along with the perfumed intensity of Burning Sky Plateau. In some ways, it seems, even ‘exhibition’ pubs offer drinkers less choice than fifty years ago.
But we had a back up plan, and one which happened to fit neatly into our side project to rediscover Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide – we went to Tesco and bought cans of Mackeson and Gold Label, along with bottle of that rare surviving Burton, McEwan’s Champion, and the rather reviled Guinness Original.
We had no joy with bottled or canned mild, brown ale, or ‘light ale’, limiting us, with the contents of our ‘cellar’, to the following options:
- Mother-in-law — old and bitter.
- Blacksmith –stout and barley wine.
- Half-and-half – bitter and stout, or bitter and mild.
- B&B – Burton and bitter.
We started with a ‘blacksmith’, mixing Gold Label and Mackeson. Despite having 2.8% ABV to GL’s 7.5%, Mackeson won the battle, creating something that resembled a decent but unexciting cask-conditioned stout with a dense, chewy body. It reminded us of Bourbon biscuits (vanilla, chocolate) and we’d do this again.
Next, we mixed Guinness with Williams Bros’ 80/- (disclosure: they sent us that one as a sample) in a straightforward half-and-half. On its own, Guinness tasted watery, metallic and sweet, more like a keg mild than a stout, while WB80 was like a baby version of Thornbridge’s Colorado Red – fruity, with cherries and berries, and (this got us excited) the faintest hint of Kriek-like sourness. Something remarkable happened when they came together – it created one of the most delicious porters we’ve tasted in some time, with the 80/- added a sharp, fruity note to the stout, and putting life back into it. Try this combination if you can.
We finished, last night, by experimenting with ‘B.B.’ or ‘B&B’ – Burton and bitter, as recommended by T.E.B. Clarke in his 1938 book What’s Yours?
Should you have discovered that you like Burton, or “old”, except for its slightly metallic flavour — another verdict common among beginners — make “B.B.” your next order.
Tasting McEwan’s Champion on its own, we found it figgy, rich and, yes, rather coppery, but also lacking in life. We then combined it with two different sort-of bitters. First, Top Out Staple Pale Ale, a grassy, bright and citrusy beer with unfortunately rough edges (disclosure: sent to us as part of a sample box by Beer52.com). Before we tasted it, we knew this would work. The Burton added density, polish and depth, and made the pale ale less harsh; the pale ale gave the Burton some ‘zing’ and fresh hop character. The result reminded us of Fuller’s ESB, and was deliciously easy to drink. (Was the development of ESB inspired by this kind of mix? Something to look into.)
Finally, we tried Champion with Williams Bros’ Cock O’ The Walk ‘red ale’ (disclosure: sample bottle), the latter being a crystal malt bomb which tasted like some of early attempts at home brew. Again, the mix improved both beers, producing a deep red ‘winter warmer’, though it’s not a combination we’d especially recommend.
We think mixing is more likely to work if at least one of the beers, and preferably both, are relatively straightforward in character – all roastiness, pure richness, and so on. A mediocre or even bad beer can be rescued by mixing, but an already great beer is unlikely to benefit.
Mixing beers has long been a way for the drinker to assert their independence from the will of the brewery. (Or to ‘insult’ the brewer’s artistry, depending on your point of view.) This is from a book called Beer in Britain published by the Times in 1960:
Also there is the intriguing snobbery of pub drinking – the desire to be different or… to be the same as someone you admire. And so the brewer has to contend with astonishing permutations and combinations of his own beers. How often he hears a licensee say, “Oh, yes, they call for that mixed with half a pint of bitter.” “That” is probably one of the bottled beers the brewer has brewed with extreme trouble to be drunk on its own.
If you don’t have easy access to a great variety of top notch beer, why not use readily available supermarket standards like Champion and Mackeson as building blocks or ingredients for creating the beer you want?