Do you know how nice it is to be able to go into your local two nights in a row and order a decent ordinary dark mild?
Bristol and District Rare Ales Group, or BADRAG, campaigns for wider availability of stout, porter, old ale and mild. This year, hacked off with the madness of May as CAMRA’s official month of mild, it decided to launch its own bonus mild event in November, when dark beer has much more appeal.
As that happened to coincide with a beer festival at The Drapers Arms, we were treated to something remarkable on Saturday: a choice of three milds.
Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild is a classic, of course, but at 6%, not one you can settle on. No, the beer that caught our eye (and Ray’s especially) was Future Proof, a 3.3% traditional dark mild from Bristol Beer Factory.
We’ve got a soft spot for this well-established Bristol brewery even though, as one of our fellow drinkers put it, “They’re having some sort of midlife crisis at the moment”, no longer being hip or new.
With that in mind, dark mild is an interesting choice. We’d like to think it suggests confidence – so we’re middle-aged, deal with it – but it might just be the BADRAG effect.
Tasting notes on mild, like tasting notes on ordinary lager, can be a struggle, like trying to write poetry about council grit bins. Good mild is enjoyable and functional but, by its nature, unassuming, muted and mellow.
Still, let’s have a go: dark sugars and prune juice, the body of bedtime cocoa, hints of Welsh-cake spice, and with just enough bite and dryness to make one pint follow naturally into the next.
It’s a really great example of this endangered style, in line with the best of the output from the old family breweries.
Is mild ‘back’? Is a great revival underway? Well, probably not – you win some, you lose some – but it feels like good news that we’ve been able to manage two sessions on mild in the past month without making a special effort.
Here’s everything that struck as as noteworthy in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from brewery numbers to the possible decline of lager.
Like many other commentators, we’ve taken the total number of UK breweries, and the amount by which it increases each year, as an at least partially useful indicator of the vigour of the craft beer boom. According to a new report from accountancy firm UHY, that growth might finally have begun to slow:
The craft beer boom in the UK has slowed sharply in the last year with the total number of breweries increasing by just 8 versus the 390 added in prior twelve months, our research shows… The total number of UK breweries reached to 2,274 at the end of 2018, up from 1,352 five years ago… The craft beer market has become difficult for new entrants as multinational brewers continue to buy and invest the more successful “craft” breweries. The huge levels of investment that the multinationals then deploy through their “craft” subsidiaries throw up barriers of entry against other entrants. The multinationals have been attracted by the high growth rates in the craft beer market and the premium pricing they can achieve.
(This story got a bit mangled in the retelling by some news outlets which, tending to prefer stories of either total triumph or dreadful doom, reported that only eight new breweries had opened in the past year.)
Another nugget of news, unfortunately from behind a paywall: financial news service MergerMarket reports that both Truman’s and Five Points are actively courting investors or partners. There’s nothing we can link to at this stage but, well, keep your eyes peeled for further news.
Most of Weyerbacher’s financial issues stem from a 2014 expansion project that cost $2 million and included the addition of a 40-barrel brewhouse. Over the years, however, the company dealt with increased competition — particularly in the pumpkin beer category — as it struggled to grow sales and pay down debt.
“We were expecting to see double-digit growth for a number of years … and with the market saturation that happened in pumpkin and all of those other things, that just didn’t pan out,” [Josh Lampe] said.
The market saturation that happened in pumpkin! What a time to be alive.
“Anything DIPA or hazy goes really fast,” says Dan Sandy, manager of east London craft beer store Kill The Cat. Beers from Cloudwater, Verdant and Deya are subject to fierce competition because they will draw in customers and drive sales of other beers once people are through the shop door.
“Everyone wants Deya cans but it’s not making very many,” says Jen Ferguson, co-owner of Hop Burns & Black, a craft beer retailer in south east London. “The number of Deya cans making it through to the distributors is very small.”
Another example is Nottingham brewery Neon Raptor. Alex Fitzpatrick, co-owner of Brixton bottle shop Ghost Whale, found its beers became hard to get hold of seemingly overnight. “What happened? Who pressed the button that gave it this magic rainbow aura around everything it does?”
When styles start to decline, it can happen surprisingly quickly. It always kicks off the same way: young drinkers don’t adopt it. Then a style begins to be associated with old men. And no-one wants to drink what granddad’s drinking… Lager sales really took off in the late 1970s. The young drinkers who adopted it back then are now around 60. How long before Lager becomes associated with old blokes?
But, in the 1960s and 70s, if you went in the average pub across much of the Midlands and North, you would be likely to be served your beer in an oversize glass with a thick head reaching almost to the top, whereas in the South you would get beer from a handpump with a head no more than a quarter of an inch deep, or often just a thin coating of foam on the top. It’s also worth adding that, in the South, you would often get keg beer with little or no head as well. Getting a pint a totally flat-looking beer with plenty of CO2 still dissolved in it was a touch disconcerting.
And finally, from Twitter, one of those too-neat explanations that nonetheless sort of, maybe, kind of, checks out:
Just learned that "teetotal" comes from a chap with a stutter excitedly saying "total abstinence" and it coming out "teetotal abstinence"!
Where are we in the cycle? At the point where seeing Elland 1872 Porter, Timothy Taylor Landlord, Thornbridge Jaipur, Fyne Ales Jarl, Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted and Bank Top Mild on offer in our local is tremendously exciting — that’s where.
Andy Hamilton, who writes about booze and foraging, and foraging for booze, is promoting a book and convinced the Drapers Arms to hold a mini festival featuring some of the beers it mentions.
The Drapers has a pretty serious commitment to local beers, listing distance travelled for each beer, and average distance for the entire list, on the menu blackboard.
In fact, that’s a trend reflected across Bristol: it’s not unusual to walk into a pub and find the whole beer list made up of beers from within the city boundaries.
That can be great — we’ve discovered some impressive West Country breweries this way, and it’s certainly fuelling the Bristol brewery boom — but is also mildly frustrating.
Let’s consider Jaipur. It’s a beer that’s well into its second decade and has gained the status of a classic. In bottles, it’s reasonably easy to find in supermarkets. But how often do we get to drink it on cask? Twice, maybe three times a year? And that’s mostly in Wetherspoon pubs.
Old Peculier is another beer we’ve encountered on cask only a handful of times in more than a decade of beer blogging, and which we’re hoping will still be on when we pop round to the Drapers after posting this. We felt a genuine thrill when we saw the A-board outside the pub announcing its arrival last night.
All this has made us think that as well as our longstanding wish for more pubs to make a point of having one of each colour (brown, yellow, black) perhaps there ought to be another axis: big classic + standard + local/new.
We can imagine going into a pub with that kind of mix and starting on the classic, trying the newcomer, and then deciding where to stick for a third round depending on how the first two tasted.
In the meantime (this kind of thing is always fun) what’s your suggestion for a line-up which covers brown/yellow/black and classic/standard/local-new?
Old Peculier, London Pride and Bristol Beer Factory Nova would do us nicely, for example.
In 1963 Guinness hired Public Attitude Surveys Ltd to compiled research into the attitudes of drinkers towards stout, and the state of the beer market more generally.
The resulting report feels to us like an important document, recording statistics on different types of beer, and different types of drinker, based on gender, social class and attitudes to alcohol.
It’s about Guinness but almost accidentally gives us great insight into the rise of lager, the death of mild, and so on.
Unless we’re mistaken, this is a source that hasn’t previously made its way into the public domain or otherwise been much exploited, though there were some contemporary newspaper reports picking up on its findings. We only have our hands on a copy because it came as part of the collection of Guinness papers we’re sorting through on behalf of the owner.
It begins with a summary of what was learned from previous ‘National Stout Surveys’ carried out in 1952-53 and 1958-59:
Guinness was markedly more dependent on the heavy drinker than Mackeson, the next most successful stout on the market… Recruitment to Guinness was not to any substantial amount from sweet stouts… [And] Guinness was much more dependent on the older drinker – those over 45 – than Mackeson and the other sweet stouts.
This helps us understand what Guinness was worried about: that younger drinkers were turning away from dark, bitter, heavy beers. That’s a problem when your flagship product — more or less your only product — is a dark, bitter, heavy beer.
This is the first big splash from the document. It shows that in the early 1960s women hardly touched draught bitter or mild, and weren’t especially keen on the then fashionable bottled ales either. But lager and stout – two opposite ends of the spectrum you might say – were about equally popular with men and women.
While it has generally been well received one thing a couple of people have told us they’d have liked more of in 20th Century Pub(please buy a copy) is beer.
It’s absence was the result of having only 80,000 words to play with, and having already written an entire book focusing on beer and brewing covering a big chunk of the same period.
Also, we rather defer to Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson in this territory. Why read us on beer before World War II when you can read both or either of them? (We’d be surprised if one or both of them don’t pop up with corrections in the comments below.)
Still, there’s something fun about the idea of mapping one project against the other, especially if it’s an opportunity to try something creative.
At this point we’d like to thank Patreon supporters like Owain Ainsworth and Jonathan Tucker for giving us the impetus to spend rather more of our spare time than was entirely sensible working on this post and its sequel. Thanks, gang!
This piece generalises by necessity: of course there were regional variations, and individual pubs which didn’t follow the pattern, and breweries that bucked trends. Having said that, by the turn of the century, regional differences were in the process of being smoothed out with the rise of standard-setting national brands such as Bass and Guinness, Terry Gourvish and Richard Wilson have argued, so generalising about this period isn’t entirely inappropriate.
So, here it is: a timeline of beer in English pubs from 1900 to 1959, with lots of quotations, facts and numbers along the way.
Running a pub has always been a matter of margins which can encourage dodgy behaviour, from watering the beer to serving up slops.
Tom Berkley’s 1955 comic memoir We Keep a Pub is either a goldmine or completely useless depending on your view of the semi-fictional James Herriot school of writing.
It tells the story of Bill and Irene Day, apparently stand-ins for Berkley and his own wife, who return to Britain from colonial work in Malaya and decide to run a pub. The brewery they approach sends them out on a series of placements to learn the trade and the book is an account of the characters they meet and customs they observe in a string of London pubs.
For example, in one pub, Bill and Irene become fascinated by the snack counter which offers two items: veal-and-ham loaf and Melton Mowbray pie. What is the difference between the two? They look identical. Irene decides to find out by ordering a slice of each, and Bill observes that “the snack girl gave her a nasty look”. It is only when they see a customer order Melton Mowbray (premium) but receive veal-and-ham (cheap) that this gentle fiddle becomes clear.
The behaviour in the cellar of the landlord of this pub, a Mr Lawson, also goes some way to explaining the decline of mild in the 1950s. He explains to Bill that mild ale, being unfined, is easier to adulterate: “You can’t put nothing back into the bitter.”
[He told me] that if waste beer were put into fined beer it turned it cloudy, but that a reasonable amount did not harm to bright beer…. [All] beer collected in drip cans was invariably poured into the mild ale, and not, as I had naively imagined, thrown away, or even returned to the brewery as ullage as so many people think. And at the Gorget Hotel the same was done with the filtered dregs from barrels of fined beers, and the lees of bottled beer and used glasses. It did not matter to Mr Lawson what kind of beer it was: bitter beer, light ale, brown ale, Burton: according to him it was all fit to go into the ale.
Bill wonders if anyone ever notices this jiggery-pokery:
“Mild-ale drinkers never notice nothing — not if you don’t overdo it; and that reminds me: when you was pulling up mild-and-bitters last night I see you giving ’em half-and-half. That’s no good. All you want is a drop o’ bitter at the bottom o’ the glass and fill up with mild. Mild’s cheaper than bitter. See? You got to watch the stocks.”
As well as the unofficial methods of recirculating waste beer there is also the brewery’s own preferred approach, the utilizer, “a sort of china bucket that hung from a hook in the ceiling”:
[Waste] beer from the various bars drained into the utilizer, whence it was sucked into the public bar by a little auxiliary pump on the beer engine at a rate of about a spoonful per glass…
The next pub, the Block & Anchor in the East End, is a similarly grotty, penny-pinching place. The staff pay for their own drinks by short-changing customers. When Rosie the barmaid’s cigarette ash drops into a customer’s beer she apologises, tips it into a drip can, replaces the pint, and then serves someone else the beer from the drip can later in the shift. The manager, Mr Grainger, tips three buckets of slops into a half-empty cask of mild. Perce the Potman is supposed to clean the lines every Saturday but evidently never does.
I noticed that the bottles had been put on the shelves straight from the boxes without being polished; that the shelves were dirty; that the pewter was tarnished a dull dark-grey colour. There were puddles of beer on the counter; glasses were cloudy and smeared with finger marks. The electric-light bulbs were spattered with fly spots.
Pouring slops into the mild is bad; is letting down beer with water better, or worse? We suppose it depends on whether you prioritise hygiene or intoxication. One of the best passages in the book concerns Mr Grainger’s furtiveness over this illicit activity:
“I’d better do the cellar today,” he muttered, with a sidelong glance at the clock. “You ain’t got time to go down there today. See?”
Of course Bill forgets and does go into the cellar where he discovers a funnel jammed into the top of a cask of mild, half full of water, with two more buckets of water at its side. Fearing he has been rumbled, Grainger becomes tense and knocks back several gins.
Eventually, he confronts Bill.
“You know, a man can’t be honest in this line,” he blurted out, giggling foolishly to cover his embarrassment.
I decided to help him.
“No, I suppose he can’t,” I mumbled commiseratingly, “not with his staff guzzling all the profits.”
“No,” he said sadly… After a silence lasting several seconds he he glanced up at me, and I saw tears in his eyes.
He cleared his throat.
“A man’s got to try and make it up somehow, or else get the sack,” he mumbled.
Later, discussing the business with Irene, Bill makes two further observations:
It is useful to know that customers won’t notice six gallons of water in thirty gallons of ale, and “thirty bob a bucket for water is not so bad”.
Grainger chose his watering hours carefully: after all, which excise officer ever worked after midday on Saturday?
The pub that features in the third act, the White Lark, is a respectable place with decent managers, the Handens. Mr Handen is proud of his beer and holds the view that it is better to sell two casks of good clean beer than one of the dirty stuff:
I’m proud o’ my bitter; that’s what makes your name — and you don’t want to muck around with your mild too much, either. All mild-ale drinkers ain’t dumb, though there’s many as thinks they are.
But even they are winkingly dishonest in various small ways. For example, Mrs Handen always accepts a drink when offered by customers; if they’re poor, she takes a Guinness, and drinks it; but if they’re well off, she accepts a neat gin, takes a sip, and hides what remains beneath the bar to be sold to a customer later, thus being paid twice for the same drink.
The dirty tricks aren’t all on the publicans’ side, though, and Mr Handen clues Bill in on one of the brewery’s bits of slyness: they send in spies (Slimy Grimes, one is nicknamed; the other Mephistopheles) to check that staff aren’t drinking to excess, that things are being run properly, and that opening times are being observed. You’d call these mystery shoppers now, we suppose.
And then, worse, there is Mr Green, the brewery’s inspector, who turns up with shaking hands, accepts a run of free and discounted drinks, asks for the loan of some money (a bribe) and leaves having decided that there’s no need to actually go down into the cellar, up to the kitchen, or look at the books.
Of course all of the above has to be taken with a pinch of salt. As with other of these We Ran a Pub memoirs there’s a streak of class disdain running through the whole thing. The authors are generally of the officer class, regard working class people as filthy brutes, and the publicans as worse again because they have the nerve to believe themselves respectable.
Being fictionalised, there’s no way to know what really happened, whether it happened to Berkley himself, or whether this amounts to a collection of trade mythology.
But, anyway, it’s worth a read.
Now, when is the first We Ran a Craft Beer Bar memoir due?
Rather than relying on interpretations of tasting notes and faulty memories, wouldn’t it be good to know for sure if and how British beer has changed in the past 20 years? Well, there is a way.
In the November/December issue of UK brewing industry magazine The Grist Keith Thomas provided a technical breakdown of the typical strength, colour and bitterness of British beer styles. It is full of fascinating jewels of information but the most interesting parts are this graph…
… and this table which shows the measured colour (EBC) and bitterness (EBU) of a hundred beers with the numbers prescribed by CAMRA’s style guidelines beneath in brackets:
These offer a fairly precise snapshot of the reality of the situation in 1995-96 and that is somewhat interesting in its own right, but it becomes a lot more so when you discover that Dr Thomas and his colleagues at BrewLab in Sunderland have been checking in on these stats ever since.
They published a detailed report in 2006, sadly locked away behind paywalls (British Food Journal, Vol. 108, in case anyone has access) and have an update in the works. In the meantime, though, they have released a sort of trailer in the form of a press release, which states (our emphasis)…
[The] features of many styles remained similar to the parameters summarized in 2006. However, when considered overall some differences are evident. Average alcohol levels are down by 3% on average. This did vary by style and was mainly due to old ales being weaker. More extensive differences are evident in beer colour and bitterness. While bitterness overall has increased by 5% colour has decreased by 18%. This is particularly evident in the darker beers – milds, porters and stouts. In general, it appears that beers are becoming lighter but more bitter…. It was particularly interesting to see that standard beers are retaining their character but also that darker beers appear to be evolving. The introduction of blond and golden beers has had an impact on the market and possibly influenced changes in other styles.
These days it’s not unusual for breweries to release beers intended to support a particular cause, but we reckon we might have pinpointed the first: ‘No Cruise Mild’, from 1983-84.
It was produced by Pitfield Brewery on a tiny kit in the basement of a specialist beer shop near Old Street in London and sold through one of David Bruce’s Firkin brewpubs, The Pheasant & Firkin in Islington. The name refers to US Cruise missiles, the installation of which was protested by women’s groups at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire during December 1983.
While the name of the beer certainly showed support for the Greenham Common protesters the short article in What’s Brewing for March 1984, which is the only reference we’ve been able to dig up, doesn’t make clear whether any of the profits from its sale also went their way. It does, however, reproduce Ken Pyne’s cartoon for Marketing Week which we hope he won’t mind us sharing here:
Of course there were lots of beers before this that you can argue were political in one way or another — all those commemorative beers for the 1981 royal wedding and the Queen’s coronation, for example, are political in their own way — but we reckon this might be the earliest example of a beer whose branding was explicitly tied to a progressive cause.
If you reckon we’re wrong, or have more information on this particular beer, let us know in the comments below.