The Changing Fortunes of Milk Stout

History by the Glass by | Jul 2017 | Issue #126

We return to Milk Stout, a style with a surprisingly well-documented early history. And while Mackeson may have patented Milk Stout, the idea of combining milk and Stout wasn’t new:

“Years ago it was not an uncommon thing to see people drinking a curious compound of stout and milk. The beverage is said to have been especially popular with members of the gentler sex, and the custom still survives, especially in Yorkshire and Lancashire, where ‘Stout and Milk’ are as frequently asked for as ‘Rum and Milk’ or ‘Whisky and Milk.’”
Derby Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 16 August 1911, page 2.

One of the stipulations of Mackeson’s licenses to brew Milk Stout was that lactose had to be used. R. H. Jenner & Sons, however, not only brewed a beer called Milk Stout without obtaining a license, its version also did not contain detectable amounts of lactose. Instead they used about 1 pound per barrel of “milk powder milk extract,” evaporated milk from which the fat had been removed.

Mackeson’s court case against Jenner’s brewery from South London is fascinating because of the central question in dispute: What made a Milk Stout? For Mackeson’s lawyers, the answer was simple. A Milk Stout had to contain a considerable amount of lactose—somewhere around 9 pounds of it per 36-gallon barrel, they argued.

Called to give evidence, Mr. Harry Brown, Secretary of the Walthamstow Liberal Club, explained what the term “Milk Stout” meant to him:

“From the term ‘milk stout’ he understood something very different from ordinary stout. He understood that it was brewed with milk sugar, and as far as he was concerned individually, and judging from the opinion of the members of the Club who had drunk it during the past two years he thought that it was much superior and better than any they had had before. He himself had taken it frequently, and had found that it was particularly good with regard to digestion.”
Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald, Saturday 23 December 1911, page 5.

After a few days of evidence and argument, the magistrate finally ruled in Mackeson’s favor, deciding that Milk Stout was the trade description of Stout containing a large quantity of lactose. Thus Jenner’s Milk Stout was a “false trade description.” Deciding that there had been no fraudulent intent, however, the magistrate fined Jenner’s just £5.

Milk Stout—as well as other types of Sweet Stout without lactose—were incredibly popular after WWI, with Mackeson continuing to lead the way. It wasn’t to last forever. Its rise may have been meteoric, but its fall was little short of catastrophic.

As is so often the case, it was an association with the wrong sort of drinker—grannies and grandads—that did in the style in the 1970s. No one under 30 wants to drink their grandparents’ favorite tipple. So one by one, breweries dropped their Milk Stouts until only Mackeson remained.

But the strangest thing has happened recently. Milk Stout has become trendy again. I guess today’s twentysomethings were born too late to know what their great-grandparents drank.

There’s a reason why I’ve used Warwicks Milk Maid Stout label as the illustration. It was my mother’s favorite beer. She was most upset when John Smiths bought and closed the brewery, leading to Milk Maid’s disappearance.