My life in beer: Have you got a Mild on?
By Jennifer Lucy Allan
My sisters and I clutched one another in horror. "No!" I wailed.
"Whyyyyyy?!" my middle sister cried.
The youngest gasped, too grief-stricken to speak.
The chap doing the Robinson's brewery tour looks at us, bemused. "Nobody was drinking it," he says. "The last batch went through a couple of months ago."
Robinson's are a fairly traditional brewery in the north west of England. Their now defunct Hatter's mild (named because Stockport made a lot of hats) was completely unobtrusive; bordering on bland if, like me and my sisters, you didn't have the same feeling for it as Proust and his madeleines. It was a lot like Robinson's Unicorn bitter to be honest. You'd be hard pushed to tell them apart. Classic session beers: malty, reliable, brown.
We learned of mild's demise on a Robinson's brewery tour, which we were on for my dad's birthday, which for the last 20 years he has celebrated not as a birthday in the traditional sense but as a fake second Christmas we call Malcmas (his name is Malcolm). When he turned 50, he said he didn't like birthdays any more, but he did like Christmas, so he'd be having one of those instead from now on. We have stockings, a Christmas dinner, and do an activity. We went on the brewery tour because a nice pint of brown beer is one of the few things we all agree on. My dad has three daughters and occasionally, people ask if he'd have liked to have a son. He says no, because he's got three daughters who all drink proper pints. I think he's more proud of this than any of our other achievements. Books, degrees, promotions, all very good, but he's happiest when he can get a round in and we all want a pint of bitter.
Almost every pub in the towns and villages around where I grew up was a Robbie's pub –old fella's boozers, good and bad. In some had the sport on, in others the customers were the sport, by which I mean, you might get to watch a few lads clatter each other with pool cues on a weekend. Others had quizzes where you'd pile in and compete against teams made up of your mate's dads. A couple were dark and grimy and not to be entered. One by the canal had polished horse brasses gleaming on the walls and at Christmas, barrels of the northern psychedelic tipple Old Tom on the bar, where it could only be bought in a pony (a third of a pint). Three Old Toms would flush you with Christmas cheer. Four and the world swirled as the pavements turned marshmallow underneath damp feet trotting home over rainy pavements come last orders.
My two sisters and I worked in Robbie's pubs from when we were able till when we left home, off and on. We drank in them too. When I started, some still served pints of mixed – 15p cheaper for a mild and a bitter in one pint pot, although, as I said, it took a true connoisseur to tell the difference between the two in the first place. I worked a summer of early shifts at one of the pubs I didn't drink in, where a 'gardener' who came in every day only ever said one sentence to me: "You need to get your roots done". My youngest sister served at one where one of the regulars had a voicebox and refused to pay for the drinks when he and his girlfriend fell out. In a dramatic flourish he put his hand to his throat, stared her in the face and said: "I'm not paying" then refused to speak for the rest of the night. One pub was ruined when gak made inroads into the provinces. The sign of another going downhill was the landlord refusing to put a customer's G&T in a tall glass and stringently enforcing those ridiculous goblets "for premium drinks". In another, an old fella once said to me, apropos of nothing: "When I were a lad, we used to brush our teeth wi' coal," then walked off with his pint. Who was this man? Why was he saying this? Was he an angel sent to give me an anecdote about northern stereotypes for the writing I would do in the future? Was it a money making tipoff? I notice charcoal toothpaste has since become big business.
When I was in my teens and early 20s, working in pubs and going out to Manchester, craft beer was utterly unknown. The first genuinely sophisticated beers I remember drinking were syrupy bottles of Bacchus Kriek, a dark cherry beer wrapped in cherry-printed paper so every single one felt like a gift to unwrap. I drank them with my best friend Sally in a bar called The Temple Of Convenience: a converted public toilet under Manchester's Oxford Road. Around this time another friend clocked on that the jazz club in Manchester didn't ID, I guess because, what sort of 17-year-old goes out to see an evening of trad jazz? Well, we did. For a while I had a routine with my friend Stephen on our day off, where we'd see a European art house film, then sit at the bar in the jazz club drinking bottles of Peroni and eating newly discovered Fiorentina pizzas, the egg baked creamy and solid. One New Year's Eve there, someone told me I looked like Lauren Bacall. He may have been quite pissed, because I was 19 and definitely did not look like Lauren Bacall.
Despite all the changes in the beer drinking habits of this country since I reached drinking age, I have always returned to ale. In my mid-20s, in the early days of friendship with four of my now closest female friends, we hired a car and drove from London up to Yorkshire specifically to attend the Saltaire Brewery beer festival. The previous hiree had left a burned CD of dancehall in the car and we listened on repeat. We posed for a photo in front of a pet shop specialising in reptiles, called Predators. We ate artisanal pork scratchings as big as a fist, and sunk pints of a Walnut Porter, which was surprisingly light and crisp, utterly delicious.
I love ale. I love it more than the silky triple-brewed milk stout I drank in a South London craft beer bar when specialist pubs were exploding all over the capital; I love it more than the 3/4 pint of Lagunitas' Dark Swan Sour ale, a bizarre and amazing red wine sour (sounds weird, blew my mind) that cost the same as a meal, which I drank in small town Sweden in the first flush of new romance. I love it more than the can of Wiper & True's In The Pines I drank at a low key dinner at a noodle restaurant in Bristol, which tasted like sap and smelled like pine needles and sunk me momentarily in a Nordic forest.
Now, some of those beers are out of reach. A bout of Covid early on in the pandemic caused a total loss of smell that never quite resolved, leaving me with a dysfunctional connection between nose and brain that makes most hoppy beers smell and taste like a fetid ashtray left on a windowsill in the rain. There are small griefs in these losses, and I'm still discovering that some of the beers I love have changed to me – I will probably never taste that miraculous forest in a Wiper & True ever again. So, I have dug in on being the queen of a tasty session ale: I'm here for biscuity bitters and toasted ruby red beers in autumn; I'm here for a nutty porter in front of a fire, but hold the chocolate milkshake stouts – I want it to be a meal, not a pudding. In summer I lust after pints of Brewer's Gold supped in Southend-On-Sea – a golden ale that is true to its name and can be gulped down in cool draughts faster than water. I always want a 4% bitter on a bench outside a canalside pub (the cellars are always just a tiny bit cooler). The Anchor and Hope; The Ring O' Bells; The Barge. Some of my go-to bitters are delicious, but compared to a punchy IPA, pretty unremarkable and from bigger breweries. I often like the ones that don't travel well: Harvey's, Unicorn, Pride.
Perhaps I am a beer dunce, because, what sort of palette is that? For me, it's about the love of a good session with your best pals, by which I mean: pints and shouting. It's about the joy of a deep and malty pint of dark mild: the perfect middle ground between a best and a porter; an ABV that keeps your head clear, at least for the first few pints. I hear Simon The Tanner has a decent mild on right now; The Wenlock Arms usually has one on, and there are always good dark mild on in the pubs of Newcastle and Gateshead. Many mild-makers have retired, or swapped in something stronger. St Peter's used to do a mild, as did the now defunct Brodie's in London.
I know my tastes in beer are utterly out of whack with the present moment. I'm out of whack with a lot of other drinkers, with pubs and bars. I can tell I'm in a minority when I walk in a bar and look for something that won't taste wrong, but come up with nothing. Covid might have made intense hops taste like wet dog and rot, but even if my nose got fixed tomorrow, I doubt my preference would change. I will forever pledge myself to something rich and malty and under 5%. If I have to be specific, make it Oscar Wilde Mild: Supreme Champion Beer of Britain; Champion Mild of East Anglia; a 3.7% nutty mild that is both heavy and weightless, that punches far above its ABV, a nine on taste with a three in the head. "Work is the curse of the drinking classes" reads the purple pump tap. It's always on at The Wenlock, where I once chased a bloke down the street for slapping Lilith's arse. If I get to heaven for that act of bravery, the first thing I'll be asking is: Have you got a mild on?
Jennifer Lucy Allen - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jennifer_Lucy_Allan