Archive for May 30th, 2008

Beer Review: Newcastle Brown Ale

30 May, 2008

NEWCASTLE Brown Ale is another beer I’ve been putting off. Like Abbot Ale and Old Speckled Hen, it’s a big-name, high-volume and very popular beer with a place in the nation’s heart. And that means if I don’t like it, there’s be angry mobs with pitchforks leaving comments at the end of the post. I better be good then.

Newcastle Brown Ale bottle

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that this is the bog standard bottle. If you check your supermarkets and corner shops, you’ll see that there’s a 10-year anniversary edition with special labels. This isn’t one of them.

This oh-so-traditional bottle has become rather iconic in recent years. It was even used by Conservative activists to taunt recently crowned Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, when he refused to call a general election back in October. Or in their words, “lost his bottle”.

It stands out by not having a neck label. And by having the embossed words around the shoulder reading “The One and Only”. The glass is transparent too, so you can see exactly how brown this brown ale really is.

The main front label is on the cluttered side. But it’s symmetrical clutter, so that’s ok.

Newcastle Brown Ale front label

Around the top, we learn that this has been brewed since 1927. Odd, since the other bottles I saw in the shops were celebrating the ten-year anniversary. The name of the brewery is on there too. Newcastle Federation Breweries Ltd is behind Newcastle Brown. And I’m pleased to see it too. I assumed it would be another product of the faceless Scottish & Newcastle. I wander if there is any rivalry between them? Or, knowing what Scots and Geordies are like, just how much rivalry is there between them?

The big roundel has the instantly recognisable “Newcastle Brown Ale” in big red writing. The middle features a blue star with the famous bridge crossing the river Tyne. Like the Angel of the North on other label variations, this one isn’t ashamed of it’s Northern roots.

Either side are what look like medals. But unlike most bottles, these are large enough to read. One is a “Brewers & Allied Traders International Exhibition & Market”. The other is a 1928 Championship Award for a beer competition. All very contemporary then.

Back to the middle, and around the big blue star in the middle are some more little pictures. And some writing. The pictures are of hops and barley. The writing says “Drink Cold”. And there’s something that’s unusual. A millilitre indicator that’s bigger than normal. This bottle has 550 millilitres. That’s 50 more than normal in case you missed it. But disappointingly 18 short of a full-pint.

Down at the bottom of the front label is the alcoholic volume. 4.7% isn’t high. But it’s not too low either. Unless you’re a Geordie, in which case it is weak.

The back label does some different and clever things. And points out something clever about the front label too.

Newcastle Brown Ale back label

The back label has different facts. This one has “Fact: 4”. Of how many, I don’t know. This fact is on the subject of “name”. And, brilliantly, it’s written in Geordie. There’s even an asterisk explaining that “reet canny” translates to “rather frightfully good”. The fact in question is about the Norman origins of ” New Castle” by William the Conquerors son, Richard in 1080 on an existing Roman fort. But it’s the most entertaining beer label I’ve ever read.

Down to the small-print now, and Newcastle Brown Ale contains barley and wheat. The Tyne and Wear postal address is there. There’s a little box explaining that this has 2.6 of your daily UK units of alcohol and that 4 is the maximum for men. And 3 the daily maximum for women. In case you haven’t noticed the recent Government advertising campaign.

One of the most fascinating things is right at the bottom next to the forgettable little symbols. It turns out that the blue star on the front of the bottle is in fact a temperature gauge. It turns from grey to blue when the temperature reaches around 12 degrees centigrade. Presumably, that’s cold enough for the ale to be drank. Clever idea. And an excellent little label.

Now to answer the question I’ve been dreading. Is Newcastle Brown Ale any good?

Thanks to the transparent glass bottle, the colour isn’t a surprise. It’s a deep, dark brown. But the 550ml nearly completely fills the pint glass. Sadly, the thin head that covers the surface after you pour is almost totally vanishes within a couple of minutes.

Newcastle Brown Ale poured into a glass

The smell is pungent, and unlike almost any other beer I’ve sniffed. The barley and wheat of the ingredients are more prominent than I’ve seen for a long time. There’s almost no trace of malt or hops in the very strong smell. It’s not bad either. Something tells me this is going to be a full-flavoured drink.

And that’s exactly how it tastes. The overall taste is mildly bitter and sour, with the flavour being balanced and dominated by the arable crops that are in there. Barley and wheat mostly. The flavour is full, but it isn’t as insanely strong as, say, a stout. Newcastle Brown Ale is strong, but it’s all well balanced and easy to drink.

As well as being balanced and strongly flavoured by barley and wheat, what else can I say about Newcastle Brown Ale? Well, those flavours and the bitterness are rich, and smooth. All that flavour means that it’s full-flavoured and fairly full-bodied. And as you easily work your way through the contents of the bottle, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you get used to those strong flavours. With the blend of flavours it has, it’s also quite distinctive.

On the other hand, the strong bitterness and flavours will be too much for some people. Southerners probably. What’s more, the easy with which I became accustomed to it shows that it’s not quite as strong and full-bodied as I might like.

And there’s that taste. The blend of flavours that you’ll love, hate or tolerate. I tolerate it. It’s not as fun or as imaginative as some beers and ales. And after a while, it reminded me of stewed tea after the tea bad had been left in for too long. Do you know what I mean? But these are trifling gripes. There’s little to dislike about the ubiquitous Newcastle Brown Ale.

How can I sum up Newcastle Brown Ale? Well, it’s a strong, distinctive, balanced and drinkable ale. Some people will love the taste, others won’t. And some, like me will be somewhere in between. There’s no doubting that this is an excellent quality and very drinkable beer. But compared to the other beers on the shop shelves. And compared to that other brown ale, Leffe Brown, it’s up against tough competition for the money in your wallet.

Rating: 3.85

Have you tried Newcastle Brown Ale? What did you think?
Insults, opinions, comments, thoughts, ideas and suggestions below please.


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