On a Thursday morning, I’m often awoken by the pneumatic thud of loads landing on a drop pad and the lilt of rolling steel on the pavement outside. It’s a weekly event – the dray lorry delivering casks and collecting empties from the Farriers Arms in St Albans.
Up until 2013, it was tied to the McMullen Brewery. In a bizarre twist, the McMullen lorry would come just to deliver wine while a DAYLA company van was used to deliver the remaining McMullen beer – Country Bitter. This has since been replaced by Young’s.
I moved here in 2011 and became aware of the McMullen signage on pubs in St Albans and the surrounding area. The hart – proud eponym of both Hertford and its nominative county – bounds muscularly across the golden livery.
McMullen is the only Hertfordshire brewery surviving from the Victorian era. The next chronological brewer still in business came along 165 years later – Tring Brewery!
The hart rampant
A couple of months ago at the St Albans Beer Festival, I was queuing to get into the Alban Arena – CAMRA card wielded like Obi Wan’s dismissive palm – when a friend tapped me on the shoulder to recommend a beer: Stronghart. I assumed it was a new ale but it’s been around some time.
This symphony on the senses was gravity dispensed and what prompted an interest in a brewery that I’d previously been indifferent to. It proved McMullen could brew.
This strong 7% bitter is all about the body. It doesn’t scream any luminescent rind notes but the deep violet, amber, blue and pink of the lower register. It tastes like the moodier hues of a spiral galaxy. It’s the kind of beer that trickles in. You could melt flush-cheeked through the floorboards with it.
Inhaling from a glass of Stronghart gives you yuletide – a five tog comfort duvet wafting at you – bringing memories of prizing the lid off the Christmas pudding tin. It honks of sweet conserves, spice and brandy as the big fat festive copy of the Radio Times lounges on the coffee table.
We’ve become accustomed to high strength beers over the past few years – particularly DIPAs. The best brewers of these can manage to balance strength against citrus hoppiness to remove the causticity.
Imperial stouts – particularly those aged in spirit barrels – have become the ultimate after-dinner nightcap, succeeding in replacing the dram themselves.
British barley wines/strong ales (or in Stronghart’s case – strong bitters) have been neglected but are the most rounded of the heavies. There are no sharp acidic edges but an intoxicating dose of preserved fruit, age and warmth.
And, barley wine, what should I compare thee to? Definitely not a summer’s day. A glass of cognac, maybe. Something comforting, unfurling, deep and meaningful to be sipped during the winter months.
The hart recedent
Since 2011, McMullen beers have been snuffed out locally because Mac’s has also built a reputation for closing down pubs to sell into the housing market.
In my neck of the woods, the Camp was closed and converted to housing, the Blue Anchor was shut and is becoming a dwelling, the White Horse in Kimpton was sold to a buyer and the Farriers Arms was sold to the publicans (my good neighbours Tony and Janine).
I’ve no inside information on the details behind pub closures but can give two not mutually exclusive reasons:
A brewery needs to keep its own house in order financially, which necessarily means closing pubs that aren’t turning a profit.
It’s a premeditated plan by the brewery to run the pub into the ground in order to reap the short-term profit by selling it on the market – the long game.
This debate is pretty toxic and my first, more forgiving scenario might not be welcome by the South Herts branch of CAMRA. But it’s often difficult not to see the second interpretation as fantasy by campaigners.
Anybody trying to convince me of how much a large freehold – often detached building can sell for on the market in the home counties is pushing at an open door.
But in the case of the Blue Anchor on Fishpool Street, it seemed it was desperately trying to stay open. It even attempted to become a crêche in the morning and early afternoon to increase revenue.
A free house directly opposite called the Black Lion closed down around the same time and became residential flats. It too had suffered from lack of footfall.
There’s only one pub in St Albans that still sells McMullen’s beer and that’s the Peahen on Holywell Hill. I’ve scoured its website – its ales aren’t mentioned – even under the drinks tab. According to the brewery, the website is aimed towards customers looking for food and cocktails rather than real ale – an experience very much apparent at the bar itself.
Over the past several years, the Victorian brewer from Hertford seemed in retreat. As the pubs closed and the brewery had little to do with the public, I expected McMullen to depart the brewing scene and become a hotel or catering chain.
A window in time
There’s a joke going around about the McMullen brewery name: the Whole Hop Brewery. The line is that this hop cone is dangled from a length of nylon into each gyle of Mac’s ales and then hung back up until the next one.
However, what this really demonstrates is the massive changes in our national palate over the past two decades.
I decided to get back to basics and session some McMullens ales and I’m glad I did. There’s a difference between the sessionable staples that have been around for years and the beers now flooding the beer engines: subtlety. It isn’t everything but it took me back to a recent age when a single ale was repeated across the beer engines.
Taste has travelled some distance from the humble flavours of English hops. It’s been an excavation through the core – pursuing the lupulin ore through the strata to expose more citrussy, greener, glaring and exotic seams.
When I have a McMullens beer I’m taken back to the experience of ale in my teenagehood. It’s all about the more benign shades of apricot, marmalade and blackcurrant. These tastes have been usurped by lime, kiwi, lychee and grapefruit. I love the latter tastes but they’re often too pungent to lend themselves to sessioning – a rite I seldom do anymore.
I sipped a pint of Country Bitter. It’s so gentle. It’s of the apricot, honeysuckle and Victoria sponge. Put up against a pint of Oakham Ales Citra, for example, this could come across as sickly by comparison. If I hadn’t started out on bitters like this, I might well be giving them a miss now. My buds have been warped by the alpha acids of modern hop profiles.
These older ales’ qualities are revealed through accretion – slowly drinking several pints until you can poke your tongue around the latticed barley pattern inside your head. The repeated unctum of the yeast is as familiar to you as your own body odour. To have “a skinful” is spot-on as a term as you feel the germination of the malting floor in your system: beer as food.
This seismic shift in beer taste has led to an odd legacy: the term bitter – to the modern palate – has become an oxymoron.
These staples are still beholden by older drinkers, but the problem is their ranks aren’t being added to anymore.
AK doesn’t taste like any other ale on the market (and its name is subject to huge controversy). It’s like a desiccated chocolate or coffee cake crumbling to dust. There’s no aftertaste. As an ale, it’s been brewed by McMullen for over 180 years now.
McMullen’s IPA is dark, sweet and a bit chalky. Try relating this to the imbibers on the Bermondsey Beer Mile. IPAs are supposed to be golden, parching and smack of loquats, surely? Well, Mac’s offering predates them and was conceived contemporary to when IPAs were being sent on their cross-global voyage to the British Raj in India. Could it be that this darker, softer and less astringent ale is more authentic to the original style?
It started life as East India Pale Ale as far back as the 1840s and so is one of the oldest IPAs (as we now call them) in the world still extant on the market.
And that isn’t the only tendril reaching into the past for this particular beer style, because when the East India Company was founded, its administrators were trained in Hertford Castle in what has since become the prestigious Haileybury College.
Sinking McMullen’s core range again for this post has taken me back to my earliest memories of cask ale when my father would simply get up and ask for two pints of bitter or two pints of best.
The alter ego
When I first saw McMullen’s new Rivertown alias, I found it weak. To me, the art on the pump clip looks like it’s trying not to get noticed. It reminds me of wallpaper. However, a trip to Hertford put it into perspective.
Hertford is indeed a river town. It’s the confluence of the Ash, Rib, Mimram and Beane that run into the Lea on its long meander towards Limehouse in east London.
A block from the town centre, there is a widening of the Lea. It’s a sedate space to watch the gentle water wend its way eastwards. The picture is framed by the profiles of weathervanes, pubs and brewery architecture.
It’s an odd facet of modern identity and branding that a brewery needs to invent an alter-ego to trial beers. This is so as not to cold-shoulder its loyal drinkers but also to introduce the brewery, in disguise, to a wider craftier audience even though everyone knows it’s them. It’s the brewing equivalent of a Venetian ball.
For this side project to be viable, the beers do need to be ambitious and this was my main criticism of McMullen’s Rivertown range – too staid and, so far, clones of McMullen’s core range.
But whilst contemplating this post, I was drawn to the imminent introduction of the latest in the Rivertown range: Proper Porter. This has galvanised me – I need to go out and find it.
A little further along the Lea, I visited the Woolpack – the pub that serves as McMullen’s unofficial tap – and found a keg Pilsner! It was gorgeous – straw on the palate along with copper and a throbbing dry aftertaste – in other words, a perfectly refreshing example of the style.
Maybe a revised criticism is that it doesn’t let the public in on its products. This Pilsner is nowhere on the website.
New breweries – of which the majority in Britain are – can put themselves immediately in the vanguard of contemporary culture. It’s their first foray and they’re jumping in. To be able to carve out your brand identity from scratch is a bracing freedom.
Over the past ten years – a blink of the eye in this leviathan’s terms – the beer culture in Britain has exploded out of all recognition. If it wasn’t for the fact this giant has resurfaced and is rising to confront it, I wouldn’t be penning this.
Being involved on social media, especially if you’re a business using it in some part to advertise your products, can be a tricky business. With almost two centuries of having a tied business portfolio which is deeply entrenched into its locality is heavy baggage to deal with. McMullen has been the local face of industry and capitalism for generations. To attract a new younger audience is difficult when it’s used to the cross-Atlantic influence from new world hops and your core range doesn’t reflect that.
I can understand how an older brewery, perhaps less savvy, might want to take minute unambitious steps to test the waters on social media first so I’ll give McMullen the benefit of the doubt. It can’t abandon its original customers, either.
In 2017, McMullens collaborated with the South Herts branch of CAMRA to brew a beer called Golden Years for the St Albans Beer Festival. This ale was more biting, tighter, terse than McMullen staples. It has burnt caramel and hits out into dryer climes. It’s been brewed with American hops. Pub-going folk I know who have known Mac’s longer than me were surprised.
McMullen has also halted the closure of any more of its managed or tenanted pubs and has taken over the Swan in Pimlico and is opening the Princess Charlotte in Colchester this December.
In its labyrinthine corridors and out-buildings, McMullen has suddenly come alive again. We’ve seen the very welcome return of its dray horses riding out to slake the thirsts of communities across Hertfordshire and a sudden increase in charity events and open days at the brewery.
It’s a company that’s still family run. Also, they look like how brewers used to look. It’s not the tats, beard, cap, dungarees and wellies but the white smock, tweed, red tie, shirt, trousers and wellies (so there is one sartorial common thread!). The tweed is passed down genealogically through the X chromosome
McMullen predates the current explosion in both beer and breweries and the people like me driven to blog about them.
My advice to the brewery would be not to keep its beers under wraps. I researched proper bottom-fermenting yeast lagering in Hertfordshire earlier this year but was ignorant of McMullen’s Pilsner because it couldn’t be found online! Yet McMullen is the county’s default brewery.
McMullen needs to devote more space on its website to its specials because otherwise, people like me just down the road will never know about them. If necessary, give your Rivertown range a separate website because outside of Hertford, I don’t think it’s registering on the beer cognoscenti’s radars.
Secondly, you need to stop depriving us of Stronghart. The time for high strength ales along the beer engines is here – it’s virtually every day I see a 6.5 to 9 % ale in a pub. On cask, it could compete against Tring brewery’s Death or Glory or even Fullers Vintage Ale. These are mythical ales that, once tapped, often sell out on the same evening.
Beers like Stronghart are sublime and with its enveloping warmth, could turn the craftiest Hackney hop-head onto cask ale as it’s an experience they won’t have had. It’s more intoxicating, spiritous and arresting than most Imperial Porters or DIPAs on key keg.
It’s great to see an established brewery finally determined to turn itself around.
To put McMullen’s timeline in perspective, in the year it was founded – 1827 – the first friction matches were invented in Britain, slavery was abolished in New York and thousands attended the funeral of Ludwig van Beethoven in Vienna. Now in 2017, it seems keen to show its face again and is just as eager to cement its future as its past.