April 2017

Fear of the Dark

There’s no point in pubs stocking dark beers if customers don’t want to drink them

A FREQUENTLY heard complaint is that pubs should make more effort to stock darker beers. Surely, if a pub has eight or more handpumps, they could allocate one or two of them to dark beers to provide more stylistic variety. But, on the other hand, there is no point in stocking beers that don’t sell and, while you can lead a dark horse to beer, you can’t make him drink it.

One licensee of a long-standing “Good Beer Guide” entry has made the point that, while he’s made plenty of effort to put darker beers on the bar, his customers simply don’t seem to want to drink them. He’s had dark beers hanging around on the pumps for five days, while some pale ones sell out within five hours, so it’s not surprising that he tends to avoid them. I’ve spoken to several licensees of family brewer pubs who have told me that they tend to pass on any dark beers in the brewery’s seasonal range, as they simply don’t sell. And it’s always very noticeable at the end of Stockport Beer Festival that most of the beers left over are dark ones.

There is a widely-held belief that dark beers tend to be on the stronger side, which isn’t by any means always the case, but does deter people from drinking them. And all dark beers are not the same – there is a clear division between roasty, strong-flavoured stouts and porters, and sweeter, more mellow milds and old ales. Some drinkers try to avoid those roasty notes, while others will run a mile at the thought of anything with a chestnut flavour, let alone reminiscent of Christmas pudding.

I have to say I tend to prefer the more mellow side, and I have fond memories of drinking the distinctive old ales that used to be produced by breweries in the South-East such as Brakspear, Gales and King & Barnes. These typically had a strength of around 4.3 or 4.4%, so it was easy to drink a pint or two, but they still had a rich flavour and a touch of winter warmth about them. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be much brewed in that kind of category nowadays.

Yes, it would be good to see more dark beers on the bar. But all dark beers are not the same, and it has to be recognised that their absence is not due to a lack of imagination of the part of licensees, but to customer preference.

Pale Shadow

It is disrespectful of our brewing heritage to rebrand a classic Pale Ale as amber

LAST AUTUMN, Marston’s carried out a redesign of their beer brands in an attempt to make them look fresher and more contemporary, although many felt they were trying a bit too hard to appear trendy. One aspect of this was reclassifying their flagship Pedigree as an “amber ale” rather than a “pale ale”. Historically, British beers were divided between “brown ales” and “pale ales”, with the latter being broadly of the mid-brown colour you would expect from “bitter”. Nowadays, when many beers have been introduced that are markedly paler than this, it may seem sensible to draw a distinction between these and the ones of a more traditional colour.

But Pedigree is a classic example of a great British brewing style, namely Burton Pale Ale, and while calling it “amber” may make some sense to a marketing man, it comes across as something of a betrayal of Marston’s proud heritage.


  1. To be honest I would never think of Pedigree as a Pale Ale given the choice of ales around today be its heritage or not, I have never actually liked it anyway so they can call it what they like without any offence to me.

  2. I personally like dark beers as well as hoppy pale ones, I like bitter beers as well as dark sweet ones, I tend not to like the boring mid ground, however I do note dark beers struggle to sell in an average pub that sells two or three beers at a time,I am talking from a southern point of view, is there a regional difference?

    1. There's massive regional differences, largely dictated by the regional brewers that people grew up with. The country as a whole has gone much yellower in the last 25 years, but eg Cheshire was at the front of that trend thanks to the Boddies influence. Go across the border to Staffordshire and you're definitely in dark territory - in a mixed gathering you can pretty much tell which side of the border someone comes from by the colour of their pint.

      So part of what Mudgie is seeing is exacerbated by local tastes - but that's not to say that it's impossible to sell dark beer in Cheshire. But realistically it's only the big name stuff like Plum Porter that will really shift, even great beers like Merlin Dark Magic can struggle.

  3. Peter, interesting take on dark beers. Since we have opened, as dark beer lovers, we have always had two dark beers on the bar. We now find that we have a regular clientele that frequents us specially for this choice. Whilst I'm not disagreeing with your column, we at least have found a niche for those dark beer drinkers out there.
    Alan, Petersgate Tap


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