Tastings School - A light in the Black country (West Midlands)

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A light in the Black country (West Midlands)

England's West Midlands has long been a beer heartland, built on its industrial past. Roger Protz looks at what is on offer these days

Mild ale was once the dominant beer style of England but it declined after World War Two under the twin onslaughts of first bitter and then lager. It has nevertheless retained a substantial following in the region of England centred on Wolverhampton known as the Black Country.

It would be tempting to think the name is derived from the love of the dark, quenching and lightly hopped beers of the area. But the truth is more prosaic: it was the black smoke belching from factories and foundries in the 19th century that created the sobriquet.

People engaged in hard and unremitting labour in mines and factories needed instant refreshment.

Scores of small breweries – many of them rudimentary brewpubs – met the demand with a type of carefully balanced ale that retained some unfermented sugars and yet was quenching and restorative.

The term ‘mild’ has nothing to do with strength, as many Victorian versions were high in alcohol: such beers are lightly hopped compared to bitter and pale ale.

Inevitably, the decline of heavy industry led to closures and mergers among breweries. The brewing giant Wolverhampton & Dudley now dominates the Black Country but smaller practitioners remain, including a few renowned brewpubs.

The region, along with South Wales and Merseyside, is one of the last citadels of Mild. The style can be sampled in delightful pubs, some of them ornate, others penny-plain, designed to slake the rapacious thirsts of their customers when England was a powerhouse of industry.

Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries was for years one of Britain’s giant regional breweries. With the acquisition of Marston’s and Jennings it has been dubbed – along with Greene King – a ‘new national’ by the Campaign for Real Ale.

But despite its national presence, with more than 2,000 pubs and breweries in Burton-on-Trent and Cumbria, it is the Wolverhampton plant that is the heartbeat of the group.

Known in the broad local dialect as “Bonks’s”, the company was formed in 1890 by the amalgamation of three local companies. In 1943, Banks’s added Julia Hanson’s brewery in Dudley and closed it in 1991, though Dudley pubs still bear the name of Hanson and its Mild is still brewed at Wolverhampton.

Around 60 per cent of Banks’s annual production is accounted for by Mild. A few years ago, the company changed the name from Mild to Original to give it a more modern and less cloth-cap image, though regular drinkers still use the former name.

Banks’s is meticulous in its use of raw materials, using the finest malting variety of barley, Maris Otter, with Bramling Cross, Fuggles and Goldings hops. While many brewers use crystal or even darker malts to give colour and flavour to their Milds, Banks’s prefers caramel in Original (3.5%).

This gives the amber-coloured beer a vinous, port wine note that balances juicy malt and a gentle hop resin note.

Hanson’s Mild Ale (3.3%) gets its colour from crystal malt rather than caramel. The beer is sold mainly in keg (filtered and pressurised) form but can be found cask conditioned in a few outlets.

A third Mild is also brewed at Wolverhampton, the 3.5% Mansfield Dark Mild from a brewery closed by W&DB. The main brand after Original, however, is Banks’s Bitter (3.8%), a superb pale brown beer with a fine biscuity malt character balanced by robust bitterness from Fuggles and Goldings. www.wdb.co.uk

Brierley Hill
The Vine pub in Brierley Hill is a shrine for lovers of Black Country beer.

The façade bears an inscription form Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona: ‘Blessings of Your Heart, You Brew Good Ale.’ The homely pub, with regular live jazz in a spacious back bar, also houses Batham’s Delph Brewery, which supplies a small estate of 10 pubs and around two dozen free trade accounts.

The brothers Tim and Matthew Batham are the fifth generation of the family to run the company.

Daniel Batham founded it in 1881, when he lost his job in the mines and became landlord of a brewpub.

In 1912 the Batham family took over the Vine and its small brewery. A butcher’s shop and slaughterhouse were part of the premises and even today the pub is better known by its old nickname of the Bull and Bladder.

Batham’s had been in business for 70 years before it brewed a bitter beer, as its success had been rooted in dark mild. Today the 4.3% Best Bitter is the biggestselling beer – it is a golden ale with a sweet malt palate but a good balance of Goldings and Northdown hops – but Mild Ale (3.5%) remains a popular brew.

The small brewhouse produces 6,000 barrels a year and bitter and mild are “parti-gyle” beers: additional pure water or liquor is added to the bitter to reduce the gravity to 3.5% for Mild Ale. Maris Otter is the chosen grain and caramel is added to the fermenters to give colour and flavour to Mild.

Unusually for a mild, Batham’s is dry hopped in cask with Goldings and the hops give a surprisingly level of bitterness to the beer, which also has blackcurrant fruitiness from the use of caramel. The finish is bittersweet and becomes dry and quenching. www.bathams.com

Woodsetton, in common with Brierley Hill, is on the outskirts of Dudley and the two breweries are just a couple of miles apart.

As well as enjoying friendly relations – both families are avid supporters of West Bromwich Albion – Holden’s also started life as a brewpub, the Park Inn, which Lucy and Edwin Holden took over in the 1920s.

They brewed in the pub cellar but success forced them to build a bigger plant next door. This small, compact, spick-and-span brewery produces 9,000 barrels a year for its estate of 21 pubs and a growing free trade.

Black Country Mild (3.7%) accounts for around a third of annual production. Holden’s is another keen user of Maris Otter malted barley, which is produced by Crisps in Norfolk.

Amber, black and crystal malts are added for colour and flavour, while Fuggles hops are grown for the brewery by farmer Mike Hancocks in Malvern, Worcestershire.

The beer is primed with three pints of liquid sugar per cask for secondary fermentation. The red/brown beer has a rich and fruity aroma underpinned by earthy Fuggles. It is refreshing and fruity in the mouth with a finish that begins sweet but becomes dry.

Holden’s has a strong portfolio of beers. Mild is accompanied by Black Country Bitter (3.9%), a golden beer with a pleasing dry hop finish, XB (4.1%), a sweeter and fuller version of Bitter, Golden Glow (4.4%), a pale beer with a good hop aroma balancing malty sweetness, and Special (5.1%), a typical strong, amber Black Country Ale, with a bittersweet palate and finish balanced by a resiny bitterness from Fuggles.

The beers can be enjoyed in the Park Inn, which has been sensitively restored to its Victorian glory.

Holden’s has also taken over and renovated a Grade II railway building at Codsall Station, where the brewery’s beers can be tasted in a more unusual setting.

The Highgate Brewery is a bastion of Black Country Mild and a company with a fascinating history. The imposing red-brick brewery was built in 1898 and was taken over by Smethwick giant Mitchells & Butlers in 1938.

It seemed likely that M&B would close Highgate but malt and hops were rationed during World War Two and Highgate was kept in operation in order that it could draw its supplies.

Post-war, M&B was bought by Britain’s biggest brewer, Bass. Highgate hung on as mild ale in general went into steep decline, maintaining its reputation as the sole brewery in the country that produced only dark beers.

But in the early 1990s Bass sold the site to its management and the brewery is now owned the Aston Manor drinks company in Birmingham. A new cask racking line and laboratory have been added in recent years but many old Victorian vessels survive, including wooden mash tuns and fermenters, and copper kettles.

While Highgate now brews some pale beers – Special Bitter (3.8%) and Saddlers Best Bitter (4.3%) – Dark Mild, the winter Old Ale (5.3%), and M&B Mild (3.2%) produced for Coors – remain the company’s belt and braces.

Dark Mild used Halcyon pale malt, with black and crystal malts for colour and palate.

The hops are traditional Fuggles and Goldings. Head brewer Neil Bain describes his four-strain yeast as ‘a beast,’ with each strain attacking different elements within the malt sugars at different stages of fermentation. To encourage a powerful fermentation, maltose syrup and caramel are added.

The finished beer has a complex aroma and palate, with powerful hints of dark fruit, chocolate and liquorice, followed by a dry, nutty finish with good hop character. www.highgatebrewery.com

A taste of genuine Victorian Mild can be marvelled at in the Beacon Hotel in Sedgley.

The hotel was built in 1850, complete with a tiny brewery in the yard at the back. Sarah Hughes bought the hotel in 1921 and ran it for 30 years, handing it on to her son and daughters when she died in 1951.

The family closed the plant in 1958 but her grandson, John Hughes, decided to start brewing again in 1987. Most of the brewing vessels had rotted away and had to be replaced but the original grist case – which contains the ground malt – and a rare open-topped copper were still usable.

Most important, John found Sarah’s recipe for her strong Mild in a cigar box among her effects in a bank security vault.

In the brewery (trips are available by prior arrangement) you can watch the brewing process from mashing and boiling with hops to fermenting and cask filling.

John and his brewer use Maris Otter pale malt, blended with 10 per cent crystal for Sarah Hughes’ Dark Ruby. The beer is six per cent, which sounds unusual and remarkable for a Mild, but the average strength of beer in 1900 was five per cent and most of that was in Mild form.

The beer has a rich and fruity nose, with blackcurrant dominating, laced with bitter and earthy Fuggles hops. The palate is complex, summoning up every dark fruit imaginable, with liquorice an added delight. The finish becomes stunningly dry, with lots of Fuggles character.

The beer, along with Pale Amber (4%) and Surprise Bitter (5%), can be enjoyed in the hotel, which is a shrine to Victoriana, complete with tap room, smoke room and snug: the smoke room will have to go next year when the smoking ban arrives.

Each room is supplied by a central servery, with glasses of beer pushed through hatches. A bottle-conditioned version of Dark Ruby is available for take-home sales. No website

Lower Gornal, Dudley
Black Country Ales opened in 2004, restoring brewing to the Old Bull’s Head pub that had had its own brewery since 1834. Brewing stopped in 1934 and the owner, Angus McMeeking, has had to install new brewing equipment. But he hopes to refurbish ancient oak vessels dating from 1900 that will enable him to increase capacity.

His head brewer is Guy Perry, who previously brewed at Sarah Hughes, so there is solid Black Country brewing expertise behind the venture. The 10-barrel plant produces three beers, Bradley’s Finest Golden (4.2%), Pig on the Wall (4.3%) and Fireside (5%). The beers are available in the Old Bull’s Head, a spacious, one-bar pub with a raised area for live entertainment.

Angus also owns the Wellington in Bennetts Hill, central Birmingham. It’s the city’s newest outlet for cask beer and has been a phenomenal success.

As well as the Black Country range, it sells 50 different guest beers a week. It’s just a few minutes’ walk from both New Street and Snow Hill stations.

The pub is in an area of nightclubs and offices. and Angus was assured he would never make a success with cask beer in such an area. But he has proved you can’t keep good beer down. No website

Netherton is yet another Dudley suburb and the Old Swan is the neighbourhood’s most famous hostelry, better known as Ma Pardoe’s after the matriarch that ran it for decades.

The pub has been licensed since 1835 and the present site and its brewery were built in 1863.

Brewing stopped in 1988 and it was feared this famous Black Country brewpub would never sell its own beer again. But when Punch Taverns bought the Old Swan it encouraged brewing to restart.

The brewery is devoted to Mild Ale and its portfolio includes a rare example of the style – light mild – brewed without darker malts. The 3.5% beer is called Original and is based on Ma Pardoe’s staple brew.

It is straw coloured, biscuity and sweet but with a gentle hint of hops. Dark Swan (4.2%) is a true dark mild, smooth and sweet with some chewy notes from the use of roasted grain.

Finally, Entire (4.4%) is a strong amber mild, a Black Country speciality that is quite different to the 18th century London style known as Entire or Porter.

It has some gentle hop bitterness but juicy and biscuity dark malt is the dominant character. The brewery also produces a bitter, Bumble Hole, 5.2%, a copper coloured beer with sweet malt balanced by good hop bitterness.

The beers can be sampled in the magnificent pub, with its embossed ceilings, engraved glass and a free-standing stove. No website