Newcastle Brown Ale: A Quintessential, Atypical Beer

History by the Glass by | Feb 2017 | Issue #121

“The Dog,” as it’s popularly known in its home, is one of Britain’s last old-school Brown Ales. But at the same time, it’s very atypical.

First, I’d best fill in a little background on Brown Ale. Modern Brown Ale has a surprisingly short history. Mann’s Brown Ale, the first of its type, was born around 1900. Few other brewers picked up the style until the 1920s, when suddenly it became all the rage and everyone and his dog brewed one.

Newcastle Breweries, based, unsurprisingly, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the Northeast of England, was one company that followed this trend. In 1927 the brewery launched a Brown Ale that was quite different from its predecessors. Paler and much stronger than the classic Mann’s Brown Ale, it was, nonetheless, a big hit, winning the top prize for bottled beer at the 1928 Brewers’ Exhibition in London—something Newcastle has boasted about on the label ever since.

Color and strength weren’t all that differentiated Newcastle’s beer from other Brown Ales. The production method was unique, too. While brewed in the Tyne Brewery, its original home, it was also blended from two different beers: a very strong one that was never sold on its own, and the company’s weaker Amber Ale.

Bottled beer was rapidly gaining popularity in the 1920s. And Newcastle Brown Ale is an example of a new phenomenon: a beer specifically designed as a bottled product. Before WWI, most bottled beers were based on draft versions, with perhaps minor tweaking. For Brits like me, seeing Newcastle Brown on draft in the US just looks weird. Everyone knows it’s exclusively a bottled beer.

Early ads for Newcastle Brown made a great point of its strength. Like this one for Christmas 1929:

Brown Ale and Yuletide . . . how well the drink suits the Season! There’s a warm, hearty smack about Newcastle Brown Ale that brings thoughts of other days, when Christmas was “Ye Ale-tide!” This strong, wholesome drink is the finest, heartiest kind of good cheer that ever came out of a bottle. Drink it this Christmas! Drink it all through the winter too, for, like good wine, it has the power to warm you through and through … to give you strength and vigour to withstand the cold months of the year.
Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, Monday 23 December 1929, page 6.

Newcastle Brown really was considerably stronger than its rivals. In the first table you can see it compared with five Brown Ales from London. These examples are all under 5 percent ABV, while Newcastle is over 6 percent ABV. The greater strength is reflected in the price, Newcastle being 1 or 2 pennies more expensive per pint.

Not that it stayed that strong forever. A big tax increase in 1931 knocked it down to 5.5 percent ABV. WWII reduced the strength even more. But that wasn’t the only change. The color became lighter, too; 50 is very pale for a Brown Ale. A more typical value would be 90 to 110 on the Lovibond scale.

The EU granted Scottish & Newcastle, the company that absorbed Newcastle Breweries, a protected geographical indication for Newcastle Brown Ale, restricting production to the city whose name it bore. When the Tyne brewery closed in 2005, S&N had to ask for it to be revoked, otherwise they’d need to rename a flagship beer.

Sadly, Newkie Brown is now brewed at John Smith’s in Tadcaster, far from its (and my own) native city.