The story of Newcastle Brown Ale shows a lack of respect for Britain's great brewing history by the big brewers, says Roger Protz.
Newcastle Brown Ale is a "canny drink" that will be promoted in its heartland of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I learn from last week's MA. Is this a case for trading standards? Following the closure of the Gateshead brewery on Tyneside, the brand is now brewed by John Smith's in Tadcaster. When I last checked, Tadcaster is in Yorkshire, not Geordieland. Canny that.
And yet the label of Tadcaster Brown Ale still contains the world-famous image of the Swing Bridge across the River Tyne. Crikey, global warming is changing the geography of Britain faster than anticipated.
Even worse, the marketing departments of big breweries are doing terrible damage to Britain's rich heritage of beer styles. The brown ales of northern England were once a distinctive style, quite different to the mild ales of the south that were called brown ale in bottled form.
Newcastle Brown Ale was developed by the splendidly named Colonel J Porter and was launched in 1927. Newcastle Breweries was the result of the merger of a number of Tyneside companies, including John Barras, who had been a noted brewer of porter in the region. So a lot of porter, both name and experience, went into Newcastle Brown.
While it's strictly not a porter — if it were a lager it would be classified as Vienna Red — it had a lot in common with the dark beer style that originated in London early in the 18th century. In particular, Newcastle Brown was for many years a blend of two beers, a young ale and one that had been matured for several months. Guinness Foreign Extra Stout is blended in a similar fashion, but Scottish & Newcastle (S&N), as the group became, stopped blending Newcastle Brown some years ago.
The beer was a sensation when it was launched in 1927. The following day, the Newcastle police asked the brewery to consider lowering the strength "as all our cells are full". This request was turned down and the following year the beer swept all before it, winning several gold medals in the International Brewery Awards. The medals still feature on the bottle label and for a while the beer was officially called Newcastle Champion Brown Ale.
The beer was not so much a throwback to the porters of earlier centuries as a Geordie response to the popularity of pale ale from further south, Burton-on-Trent in particular. Pale ale was considered to be too bitter to satisfy the palates of miners and shipbuilders on Tyneside, but they wanted a drink with a decent hit of alcohol. The result was a 4.7% ABV beer that was followed by Vaux Double Maxim in Sunderland, creating a style of north-east brown ale that became world famous.
Far from cherishing its fame, S&N seemed determined to rubbish it. In 2000, it removed the word "ale" from the label on the grounds that its Andy Capp associations deterred younger drinkers from trying the beer. A few years later, "ale" crept back on to the label when S&N admitted that sales had not increased.
The beer had been given a prestigious "guarantee of origin" by the European Union, the equivalent of
a French appellation contrôlée for wine. It meant that, in common with Pilsner Urquell in Pilsen in the Czech Republic, the beer was unique to Newcastle and nobody else could use the name.
You might think that S&N would have been proud of the guarantee, but it quietly dumped it in the Tyne when it closed the brewery and moved production to the Federation Brewery in Dunston, part of Gateshead. Gateshead Brown Ale? Not canny, that.
Enter Heineken. When the global giant took over S&N, it closed Dunston, destroying in passing another piece of Geordie history: its celebrated Federation Brewery was created by working men's clubs following World War One. Production at Dunston was transferred to John Smith's, that repository of lost ales in Tadcaster.
Smith's used to brew Courage Best and Directors along with Theakton's Best Bitter. The Courage beers are now brewed by Wells & Young's and have been given a substantial sales boost, while Theakston's Best is safely back in the hands of the Theakston family in Masham, where new fermenting vessels have been installed to cope with the demand for the beer. Canny that.
But big brewers' nonsense knows no end. The Tetley brewery in Leeds will close this year and the cask version of Tetley Bitter will be moved to Banks's in Wolverhampton.
As they say in the Black Country: "Tetley? It's bostin' good beer."