It was a battle axe in a hairnet who converted me to beer. The sight of Coronation Street’s Ena Sharples supping milk stout in the snug of the Rovers Return hooked me from the off at the tender age of six.
When I finally had my first mouthful of mild I was simply smitten, and I still am to this day.
St Patrick's Day
Don’t forget St Patrick’s Day is coming up on 17 March.
Days such as this offer pubs a great opportunity to boost sales and footfall as customers look to join in the festivities, according to Diageo’s Emma Rochford.
She adds it is the natural opportunity to push Guinness: “Last year, Guinness draught accounted for 61% of incremental total beer uplift, proving that it helps to drive total category sales,” she says. “Guinness also saw over 100 pints sold on average per outlet.”
And now my cup runneth over because there has never been more choice, such imagination and such flavour in the dark beer family. Not that most beer drinkers in British pubs would know, though.
It is an exception to the rule that pubs offer customers anything more than a kegged big-brand stout, and as for dark beers outside the winter months, you can largely forget it.
Some publicans and beer marketing executives will claim “no one drinks dark beer during summer”.
Tell that to the millions of Nigerians drinking Guinness Export at 7.5% ABV in temperatures that would do nothing more than fry us here in Britain.
Most dark beers have coffee and chocolate flavours. People drink coffee and eat chocolate year-round – not just in summer.
Despite that argument, many would counter that dark beers aren’t refreshing enough to stock during the warmer months.
Down in the cellar
4 days per month on average, cellars are running too warm.
33% of ale pythons are low on water – leading to inconsistent temperature of cask beer (and expensive maintenance call-out costs).
61% of people would tell their friends about poor-quality beer in a pub (they’d also refuse to drink it and complain).
Yet, my final arguments are try Pot Kettle Black, a South Pacific porter from Yeastie Boys, which has a quenching dry-bitter finish. Then think of the millions of gallons of dark mild consumed over the years by workers in heavy industry to cool down from the inferno of their workplace. Still, operators will rue the day if they end up losing money with dark beers on cask.
I’m listening and I get it, so how about having bottles or cans in the fridge instead? It gives customers choice without risking the short life of cask beer.
But enough of the arguments. Let’s instead look at what is arguably the most innovative and diverse galaxy in the beer universe.
This is my pitch for the naysayers to come over to the dark side. Write the tasting notes for today’s imaginative beers on a chalk board in your pub and I can guarantee you will arouse curiosity.
Dark beers also make tremendous cockt-ales – something else to consider. Most of these beers come in 330ml bottles or cans and lend themselves to serving in elegant glassware making them eye-catching bait to entice other customers.
Black to the future
For those looking for inspiration sans the novel fruit and milk, there are countless classics such as Shepherd Neame’s Whitstable Bay Black Oyster Stout; Mighty Oak’s Oscar Wilde; the big malty German Doppelbock Salvator by Paulaner Brauerei; St Austell’s Mena Dhu; and Barrell & Sellers’ Brown Ale.
Of the latter, head brewer Martin Barrell says: “We originally brewed brown ale for bottles only, but then tried it in cask for a local pub. We knew it would appeal to the old regulars but, lo and behold, the young ’uns were happily drinking it too. Now it is one of our most popular beers.
At the pub-face, new wave beer halls attract destination drinkers – people who are there specifically for the extensive range of brews.
Jason Menzies is the cellar manager of Bowland Beer Hall in Clitheroe, Lancashire. He ensures his customers have a range of styles: “Of the 24 guest cask ales I have on the bar each week, at least six are dark. From traditional milds and brown ales, to modern experimental brews like black IPAs or coffee porters, it’s a haven for lovers of dark beer,” Menzies explains.
When it comes to pairing with food, do not stop at desserts. Dark beers are remarkably versatile and match with mushroom dishes, barbecue, spicy Mexican food, full-flavoured cheese, classic pub grub, Sunday roast and game.
As St Austell’s brewing director Roger Ryman says: “Food pairings can help bolster stout sales across the year and challenge the perception that it’s only a winter drink. Our stout, Mena Dhu, is brewed year-round and is enjoyed across the seasons.”
If that’s not reason or inspiration enough to start taking the category more seriously, then consider Diageo commercial planning manager Emma Rochford’s point of view: “Stout drinkers spend more on average per visit than other beer category and are more loyal to the on-trade than lager drinkers.”
Come on, take a walk on the dark side.
Black to front
Bearded Lady Grand Marnier Chocolate Orange Imperial Brown Stout by Magic Rock (aged for six months in Grand Marnier barrels with cacao and orange). The name alone is attention grabbing, never mind the luscious creamy orange chocolate-bomb that makes this a liquid dessert.
Smoked Chilli Porter by Franklin Brewery. The smoky roasted flavours fill the mouth until a gentle prickle of heat from chipotle chilli suddenly hits the palate to demand another sip.
Coconut Porter by Old Hands – the beer equivalent of a Bounty with rich flavours of toasted coconut and cocoa.
Five Towns Rum & Raisin Dark Mild by North Riding Brewery. Sweet rum and raisin meets fruit and nut chocolate in a light-bodied easy drinking ale.
Tailgate Peanut Butter Milk Stout by Tailgate Beer. This beer really does smell and taste of peanut butter wrapped in caramel.
Illusion by Moor Beer. A black IPA with creamy cocoa, toffee, coffee, and nuts melded with grapefruit and orange peel bitter hops.
Almasty Salted Caramild by Almasty Brewing Company. Nutty burnt toffee, subtle saltiness and a roasted coffee finish.
Plum Porter by Titanic. Juicy plums and chocolate with a balanced dry bitterness.
Neapolitan Milk Stout by Saugatuck Brewing Company. Vanilla, chocolate and a hint of strawberry with a sweet creamy texture.
Cocoa Mint Stout by Thornbridge. Who needs the after-dinner mints with this coffee, chocolate mint mash-up? To be consumed before eight too.
Chocolate Milk Stout by Big Drop Brewing. Hard to believe this is a no-alcohol beer. Rich chocolate malted milk-shake flavour and eminently quaffable.
Coolship Dark by Elgood’s. A tangy sherbert dried fruit, red berries and liquorice sour beer with zingy acidity.