Ok I know many of you will scoff at the post, but it’s something that I’ve been itching to write about ever since I started blogging. It’s not a craft beer subject, it’s not an area which is going to develop the craft beer industry in any way shape or form.
So why am I writing this piece? This is an article looking at the impact of Newcastle Brown Ale. Primarily its impact on me and my upbringing, but also the wider market here in the north east. Put simply it’s the beer which had most influence on me growing up.
Newcastle Brown Ale was probably the most iconic beer brand on Tyneside during my formative years.
Scottish and Newcastle brewery had very close ties to Newcastle United during the Sir John Hall/Freddie Shepherd era meaning the brand was everywhere at a time when the club were very high profile (for the right reasons…).
Picture the scene, its 1999 and I’m in sixth form. NUFC were due to play Arsenal in the cup final. In the build up to the final there was black and white everywhere around the city as a show of support. Pubs decorated, buses decorated, even the street lamps on Gallowgate had black and white flags on them. For my part, I had my car covered with flags, scarfs out the windows, Gazza figure (which was really a cookie jar) sat on one side of the back shelf, but the other side of the back shelf was home to an inflatable brown ale bottle. The brand was synonymous with the club at that time. I remember driving up to school thinking I was the bees knees but I must have looked a right plank….
From the first time I started drinking in the pubs and clubs around the city Newcastle Brown Ale was my drink of choice. The club affiliation aside, most significantly, I was raised by a man who appreciates a proper beer, as a result I was made aware of the better quality of a real beer over the gassy lagers which were on offer at the time. Basically that meant that I was brought up drinking anything but the gassy lager they served in these bars, so when it came to the non-beer focussed pubs and clubs in the Bigg Market, which in those days meant sticking to the carpets in most pubs, the beer on offer was either the cheap draft John Smiths, and we all believed that the beer out of those taps was watered down… (I’ve no idea if it was or not, but when young you believe anything don’t you!?). So the choice was bottles out the fridge. I usually went for a bottle of Dog. Dog being Brown Ale. Why Dog? It’s called Dog as a reference to someone telling his wife that he was going to walk the dog and nipping to the pub for a pint instead, it’s a real old fashioned Geordie flat cap and whippet image isn’t it. This was part of an old advertising campaign for the beer and the reference has stuck ever since.
Another story I was repeatedly told in my youth was that there was a ward in the Royal Victoria Infirmary here in Newcastle, known as the Brown Ale ward, which was full of people who had suffered the effects of consuming too much Brown Ale. Having spoken to a few nurses and hospital porters who worked in the RVI over the years, I understand that while there were a lot of casualties in the hospital with various injuries as a result of drunkenness, there wasn’t ever a specific ward dedicated to them. The A&E department is incredibly busy every Friday and Saturday night as a result of the over-enthusiastic revelry going on in the city centre. That hasn’t changed, and sadly I suspect it’ll stay that way too. It’s not all simply because of Brown Ale, but as one of the major beers sold in the city it has had an influence. Brown Ale’s reputation was based entirely on its being the high profile local beer of higher than average abv.
This is a very old beer. First conceived in 1924 when Newcastle Breweries Ltd noted the growth in the bottled beer market, the beer was developed to target that market. It was eventually launched with an advert appearing in the Newcastle Daily Journal on 25 April 1927.
Two men had been charged with developing the beer were the company’s chief chemist Archie Jones and assistant brewer Lieutenant Colonel James Herbert Porter. The latter is the man who gets most of the credit, he was promoted to head brewer soon after its launch and Newcastle Brown Ale went on to be a huge success story for the brewery.
What’s interesting for me though is how the beer has changed from its original format. The earliest reference I can find to this beer are labels from 1928, which list the beer as being brewed to 6.21% abv. Now just imagine how different the beer must have been. To me that abv tells me that it’s likely that the original grain bill was greater than it is today, and so too you would imagine was the quantity of hops used. Imagine if that original recipe was launched into the current market, how would it fare alongside the other modern brown ales being brewed? I’m a fan of examples such as Railway Brewery’s Brown Ale which is a really tasty beer. Not heavily hopped as some modern alternative brown ales are, but feels more traditional but yet current as a valid craft beer. Would the original beer have been considered valid against the craft beer yardstick? Probably not, but it’s an interesting thought.
Sadly over the years the beer has become a brand rather than a beer of distinction. The market for it in the US has grown well beyond the demand here on Tyneside. The recipe has subtly changed over the years to be lower in abv and its colour is the result of colourings rather than being a reflection of the grains from which it originated. It’s this colouring that has recently changed due to health scares with bad publicity in the US.
Here’s where the real motives appear isn’t it. The image of a brown ale is more important to the brewery than brewing a genuine brown ale to style guide standards. It’s now a falsified beer which is squeezed into the iconic bottles that have become such a proud tradition. Of course the brewery lost its independence many many years ago and is now in the hands of Heineken who aren’t concerned about the integrity of the beer.
It’s funny though, I grew up with this beer being the beer I went for as it had more flavour and better texture than generic gassy lagers. What I didn’t realise at the time is that this beer was an illusion and in reality it was as manipulated as the lagers I chose to avoid. What is good to acknowledge though, is that we are now in a position to understand that. I now know what good brewing practice is and have a passion for naturally brewed beers. I now find Newcastle Brown Ale very difficult to drink. My tastes have moved on and my understanding ruins the experience for me. However, I still keep the limited edition bottles I collected over those early years. I still have the scarves and flags just incase we get back to a major final. Sadly Gazza had to go the distance after a nasty fracture….
The reason I wanted to cover this beer was for me at least, it gives context. This is where I started my beer journey. This is the beer that set me on the path to where I am now. I may no longer go looking for this beer but it helped define my tastes and thought processes. You learn from every beer you try, and those beers you used to drink all help you get to where you are today.
For those who have stuck with me this far, thank you for your patience. Normal craft beer service will now be resumed…..
Starting with nice cold can of #CCCAAANNNNNNOOONNNBBBAAALLLLLL #Klaxon