By Martyn Cornell
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Additional resources for Amber, Gold & Black: The History of Britain’s Great Beers
The local miners went for a very sweet, dark mild ale, known as Newcastle Mild or Newcastle sweet ale, with what Victorian observers called a ‘sub-acid’ flavour, hovering on the edge of tart. The beer was sweet and dark because that was the sort the local ‘indifferent’ water supply made best, and in 1890 the journalist Alfred Barnard was told the Durham and Northumberland pit-men held it in high repute and ‘prefer it to any other’. , advertised themselves as brewers of the ‘celebrated’ Newcastle Mild Ales.
Finding real regional variety is made more difficult by the disappearance of so many hundreds of regional breweries. However, there are useful generalisations that can be made. Andrew Campbell, writing in 1956, said that London bitters were ‘a little lighter [in strength] and either sweeter or less strongly hopped than many from the country’. Campbell found Watney’s ordinary bitter, for example, brewed at the time at the Mortlake brewery near Richmond in Surrey, was ‘not very highly hopped’, while its Red Barrel bottled pale ale (later to win notoriety as one of the most widely available keg beers) was ‘not very bitter, yet not sweet’.
The North East was ahead of the rest of England in its tastes: Julian Baker, writing in 1905, declared that ‘mild or four-ale … is still the beverage of the working classes’. This had only been true in the capital for the previous twenty years or so, however. Whitbread, then the third or fourth biggest brewer in London, whose production was entirely porter up to 1834, started brewing mild ale in 1835. , on Tottenham Court Road, began brewing ale as well, in 1872. Although the capital’s original ale brewers began growing swiftly from the start of William IV’s reign as tastes shifted towards their product, it was half a century before porter completely lost its pre-eminence and the ale brewers grew to be on equal terms with the former porter giants, and the important growth came after the Great Exhibition of 1851.