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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Kegronomicon: Watney’s Brown, 1965

The 1965 Watney’s quality control manual we’ve borrowed contains recipes for two brown ales: Watney’s and Mann’s.

Both have rather different recipes, perhaps surprisingly, given their similar specifications: for example, Watney’s contained black malt for colour, while Mann’s got most of its from caramel. The water was also treated very differently. (And, by the way, bottled Watney’s Brown was also quite distinct from their draught mild.)*

Because Mann’s is still in production, we’re a bit twitchy about sharing the details, but the following information should enable you to produce at home something resembling Watney’s Brown as it was in 1965.

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Starkey, Knight & Ford Family Ale, 1938

Detail from Starkey, Knight and Ford brewing log, 1938.

We’ve been meaning for some time to formulate a recipe for mild based on the 1938 Starkey, Knight & Ford brewing log we photographed at the Somerset local history archive.

The recipe is below, but getting there proved rather frustrating.

SK&F Brown Ale label, 1948.1. Which one was the mild?

We spent a little while working on something we thought was logged as ‘M3’ only to realise, with help from a few people on Twitter, that it was actually ‘MS’ — Milk Stout. (The inclusion of lactose ought to have been a give away. D’oh!)

Based on the ingredients, another called something like ‘JA’ looked more likely. That some of each batch was also bottled as ‘brown ale’ made us feel more certain.

Then we worked out that it was actually ‘FA’ (stupid old-fashioned handwriting…) which probably stands for ‘family ale’ — not exactly mild, but close enough.

2. Ingredient puzzles

Proprietary brewing sugars — grrr! How are we supposed to know what ‘MC’ is? Our best guess is that it’s some kind of caramel… or is it ‘maltose caramel’? Or ‘mild caramel’? Or something completely different? For the purpose of our recipe, we assumed it was a dark sugar with some fermentability, which got us to the correct original gravity (1036). We’ll probably use something similar to Invert No. 4.

The original recipe used some ‘Oregon’ hops: we’ll try to get hold of Cluster, but, for the small amount used, Cascade will probably do the job.

3. Too bitter?

With around 1lb of hops per barrel, this beer seemed to be too hoppy ‘for the style’, but there are milds in Ron and Kristen’s 1909 Style Guide (notably Fuller’s X ale) which appear similarly heavily hopped.

* * *

So, with those caveats, and with questions and corrections very much welcome, here’s what we’ll be brewing next time we fire up the kettle.

Recipe: SK&F ‘FA’/Brown Ale

[beerxml recipe=https://boakandbailey.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/SKFBrownFamilyAle.xml metric=true]

Notes
  • Assumes efficiency of c.85%.
  • We don’t know much about Starkey, Knight & Ford’s yeast so we’re going to use whichever standard British ale yeast we have at hand.
  • Though this was brewed in Tiverton, we do know that the sister brewery in Bridgwater used water blended with stuff from a well at Taunton which was harder than anything from Burton.

Light Split at the Fountain, Mevagissey

Light split (HSD and Light Ale).

We’ve got quite good at working out which pub in a Cornish town or village we’re likely to enjoy the most.

Where there are multiple St Austell houses (there often are), we avoid the managed, over-polished, plasticky places, and, instead, look out for the signs — ‘Billy and Lynn welcome you to the Fountain!’

Covered in foliage and claiming to be the oldest inn in Mevagissey, the Fountain certainly looked cosy. Ducking inside, we found all the indicators of a ‘proper’ pub, including a knackered piano.

Hoping for a pint of Proper Job, we were disappointed, at first, to see only Tribute, Dartmoor and HSD on the bar. While we waited, however, we began to notice other pleasing details, from bottles of brown and light ale in the fridges, to Gold Label Barley Wine on a shelf beneath the optics.

‘It’s one of those time travel pubs,’ we muttered to each other.

And, as it happened, the Tribute was at its best, and HSD better than we’ve ever tasted it — drier, with that unbeatable complexity that (we think) makes itself evident in many cask ales about twenty-four hours before they turn to vinegar.

With plenty of time before our bus was due, though we didn’t fancy the look of the Gold Label, we couldn’t resist trying both brown and light splits, prompting the veteran landlord to share a bit of insight:

No-one buys light ale any more, but all I ever used to drink was light splits. The West Country was never mild-drinking territory, so brown split was never that popular.

Greene King Light Ale was surprisingly decent on its own — a nice whiff of English hops — but tasted, we both agreed, exactly like the nineteen-eighties. That is, it reminded Boak of sipping beer from her Dad’s glass in a pub garden when she was little; and triggered Bailey’s thirty-year-old memories of ‘helping’ with the stock-take in the cellar at the pub where he grew up in Exeter.

A time travel pub indeed.

There’s a small gallery of images from the Fountain on our Facebook page.

Mann’s Brown Ale and a call for suggestions

manns.jpg

UPDATE APRIL 2013: Apparently, ASDA and Morrison’s sell it, if you’re looking to buy some, as apparently many of you are!

Mann’s Brown Ale is not something you see many people drinking in its own right. Traditionally, it’s used in a ‘brown split’ with ordinary bitter — in other words, to give a bit of oomph to that half a pint of flat, brown keg beer you’ve been thinking about abandoning for fifteen minutes.

But Michael Jackson lists it in his 500 Great Beers book and, at 2.8%, we wondered if it might not fit be just the trick for school nights, when a hangover is simply not an option.

As you can see, it looks nice in the glass — very dark brown, almost black, with an off-white head. The body is remarkable for such a weak beer, and there are some nice aromas of malt and roasted grains.

The taste… well, nice in some parts of the mouth, if that makes any sense. Too sweet at first, with a harsh burnt treacle flavour, but rather pleasant going down, when the slightly bitter chocolate flavours come through. Reminiscent of the sweeter variety of mild, we thought.

On balance, I suspect this would taste wonderful with chocolate cake, which tends to make most beers taste too dry, but it’s not something we’d drink too often.

So, over to you. Any suggestions for other beers under 3% which are worth a go…?

Bonus feature: here’s an old post with an advert for Mann’s featuring Sherlock Holmes.