Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide (2000) was our bible when we first started to take an interest in beer, but, despite our best efforts, we didn’t get anywhere near tasting all 500 beers on his list.
Some had gone out of production by the time we got our hands on the book, while others were from far-flung corners of the world and unavailable in the UK. There were a handful, however, that we just skipped over out of snootiness, and in our haste to get to those big shouty IPAs and imperial stouts.
Now seems like a good time to go back and fill in a few embarrassing gaps in our knowledge, starting with a beer which played an important part in British beer history, and whose packaging is utterly iconic: Mackeson Stout.
It was one of the earliest ‘national brands’ in the 1950s and was the trojan horse with which Whitbread began the takeover of at least one smaller regional brewery. “Why bother brewing your own stout,” Whitbread seem to have suggested, “when you can stock this one which has the weight of national ad campaigns behind it?”
It was also one of the handful of beers from which American home brewers, via Jackson, spun out an entire ‘style’, and from which, therefore, almost every ‘craft beer’ calling itself a milk stout is descended.
In his GBG, Mr Jackson described it as ‘The world’s most widely known sweet stout’, and it was an assumption that it would be sickly that put us off trying it, despite an extremely enticing photograph and tasting notes which mention evaporated milk and coffee.
He enjoyed it at 3% ABV from a humble 275ml bottle and suggested that ‘with glitzier packaging it could be the beer world’s answer to Bailey’s’. It is now only available in cans at 2.8%; we got hold of a four-pack of 330ml cans for £3.97 from Tesco.
(A side note: canning was probably seen as taking the package further down market, and yet, with the current vogue for ‘craft beer’ in tins, it actually looks rather cool, especially with that bold, retro black and white design.)
In a suitably posh glass (we wanted to give it fighting chance) it was oil-black, but with yellow-brown highlights at the edges. The head looked paler than in the picture accompanying MJ’s notes but was still a pleasing shade of off-white. The aroma had an unfortunate hint of buttered popcorn and not much else.
We were, therefore, extremely pleasantly surprised by the taste – a sort of dry fireplace ashiness, wrapped up in a body that, while not ‘creamy’, did suggest a 4% beer rather than one flirting with low alcohol territory.
It didn’t seem remotely sweet, and certainly wasn’t sickly. The buttery note persisted, and we could have done without it, but it didn’t prevent us concluding that Mackeson remains a decent beer; that not many ‘craft beers’ at 2.8% are as enjoyable as this; and that we should have listened to Uncle Mike a decade ago.
We’ll certainly make a point of keeping some in the store cupboard from now on for school-night sipping, and mixing with other beers.