Published on April 5, 2017 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Ninety is the loveliest number
The legend that is Newcastle Brown Ale reaches a milestone this month. Alastair Gilmour reports
It might not be brewed in its native North East any longer, but Newcastle Brown Ale remains a potent reminder of innovation, enterprise, loyalty, sheer bloody-mindedness and – right across the world – a potent symbol of its birthplace. This month, it celebrates its 90th anniversary, a remarkable achievement but one that many a nonagenarian will agree hasn’t always been a smooth ride.
On April 25 1927, Newcastle Brown Ale was advertised for the first time in the Newcastle Daily Journal. Assistant brewer Lieutenant Colonel James Herbert Porter, DSO, and Archie Jones, chief chemist, had combined their skills to produce a beer with the exact qualities of strength, colour and flavour that would fit the tastes of local drinkers.
Following three years of development begun in 1924, the “Entirely New” malt-rich, caramel-influenced beer that to this day slides effortlessly into a slightly nutty aftertaste, finally saw the light though few at the time would have bet it would become such a legendary product.
The newspaper advertising ran: “You have tasted nothing quite the same as this before… A good Brown Ale with a rich mellow flavour… It’s just the right strength… Not too heavy for summer drinking, yet with sufficient ‘body’ to satisfy the man who likes good Ale and knows when he gets it”.
By the spring of 1929, Colonel Porter, former First World War commander of the 6th Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment, had been promoted to head brewer, and by 1962 was elevated to company chairman. Archie Jones is now but a footnote in history.
On that Monday in late April, the Newcastle Daily Journal also carried adverts for Mrs Tate’s Sausage – “home-made, farm-fed, fresh and pure every morning from Tweedhill, Berwick on Tweed’. Elsewhere, boys’ grey flannel cricket shirts were 6/- in Bainbridge & Co and khaki boiler suits were 14/6 from Binns (under the heading: Binns For Mechanics’ Overalls).
The weather forecast promised: “Wind mainly NW, strong and squally at times; variable sky; some wintry showers with snow on high ground; visibility good; cold.”
Christine of the Circus was showing at The Stoll Picture Theatre, alternating with a variety show called Harry Allister Impersonating Great Men, while a recipe recommended lightly frying sliced bananas to serve with steak and gravy.
In football, Cardiff City had beaten The Arsenal 1-0 in the Football Association Challenge Cup Final – “a chance goal wins poor game”; Newcastle United drew 1-1 with West Ham but looked set to win the Division 1 championship; Sunderland were third though beaten 2-1 at Derby County, and in Division 2, where Middlesbrough were well clear at the top, Darlington hammered South Shields 8-2.
The year after Newcastle Brown Ale was introduced, Newcastle Breweries lifted an unprecedented number of prizes in the International Brewers Exhibition, which included gold medals and the Challenge Cup for best bottled beer. The medal success was incorporated into a new Brown Ale label design that included the famous “blue star” logo (in honour of Newcastle Breweries’ five founding companies).
The Evening World newspaper also made some extraordinary claims on its behalf in 1929, reporting that “as long as you are moderate in your consumption of what some call the divine liquid, it will do you quite a lot of good”. (See an updated “moderation” story on page 31.)
Newcastle Brown Ale, these days a global success story with a presence in 40 countries, was off to a flier, quickly establishing itself as the North-East’s favourite brew. By 1937 it was widely distributed in bottles and cans and continued its popularity surge to became a symbol of the working class tradition of the shipbuilding, mining and steel industries which, though now long gone, the region is unwilling to forget. Quite rightly, too.
Also long gone is Newcastle Brown Ale from the city of its birth. Scottish & Newcastle – as its parent company became known in 1960 – did what was considered the unthinkable in 2004 and moved Brown Ale’s production out of Newcastle to the Federation Brewery in Dunston, Gateshead – on the south bank of the Tyne, too, adding insult to injury. A European Union Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) order in place since 1996 had meant that it could only be made in its place of origin, much like Parma ham, Gorgonzola cheese and Melton Mowbray pork pies, but the company applied to cancel the order, stating that it was no longer necessary.
The unthinkable then became the unpalatable to many when, not only was Scottish & Newcastle acquired by global brewer Heineken in 2008, the closure of the Dunston plant was announced in October 2009. Brown Ale took itself off to Tadcaster in North Yorkshire the following year where it is still brewed at the giant John Smith’s brewery, some 90 miles down the A1.
However, Newcastle Brown Ale is still a huge beer success story, despite being equated in the North East alongside heavy industry past. Curiously, in export markets, it is seen as a trendy, premium import and is drunk predominantly by the young.
Sam Fielding, craft beer brand unit director at Heineken, says: “At 90 years young, Newcastle Brown Ale is still one of the most popular bottled ales in the North East and the UK, and even the US. In fact, we export the equivalent of 42 million bottles to the US every year.
“We started sizeable exports of Newcastle Brown Ale in the early 1980s and the unique taste and bottle design gained a following by savvy beer drinkers looking for something quintessentially British. It quickly became a cult classic.
“In the UK, we’ve just started a trial of Newcastle Brown Ale on draught, so if you’re in the Newcastle area, you’ll be able to find it in that form in a few select pubs and bars. It’s soon going to be in a brand-new bar called Colonel Porters in the city (Dean Street/Side), named after its founder.”
On Newcastle Brown Ale’s 90th anniversary, we could do worse than celebrate with a platter of steak and gravy served with sliced bananas and Mrs Tate’s home-made, farm-fed, fresh and pure sausages. We’ll give them cult classics.