My grandparents ran a large pub near the entrance to the first road tunnel under the Mersey, not far from the great shipyards of Cammell Lairds in Birkenhead, on The Wirral. Situated at 99 Hamilton street, it was called The Wellington and it was the only pub in the town belonging to the firm Greenall Whitley of Warrington. It's not there now, having been knocked down in the 1980s, to make way for the offices of the Land Registry.
To me as a child, it was an enormous place, with the ground floor given over to 4 bars and an off-licence. One of the bars – The Ladies' Bar – was never in use, and neither was the off-licence. I used to practice my darts alone in the The Ladies' Bar.
As you'd expect, the pub had a large underground beer cellar, with a ramp down which the barrels were rolled before being put on their stands. But it also had an unusual – much smaller - second 'cellar', constructed as an unusual mezzanine floor above the main bar. I've often wondered whether there was another of these anywhere in the UK but brief research throws up no answer to this question. Anyway, you had to pass the entrance to cellar as you made your way upstairs and then along a corridor to the living quarters on the first floor. This door was usually open and the smell of the place was hugely enticing.
From time to time, my grandfather would be working in there and I'd go in to chat to him. Usually, he'd be testing the beer in some way, using a long brass rod or dipstick. Showing me this one day, he pointed out how clean the bottom portion of the stick was in comparison with the top half. Brilliantly clean, in fact. “This,” he said, “is what the beer can do to the tarnished surface of the rod. So imagine what it can do to your stomach.”
I've never drunk much bitter beer in my life and I've always partly attributed my distaste of it to this revelation. But there's another beer which I'd never drunk in my life until very recently. Mild beer. Or mild ale, to be more accurate. This is usually black, so easily confused with the beer called 'stout', of which Guinness is the most famous brand. Funnily enough, one of the 7 or 8 varieties of stout – milk stout - was advertised as an aid to recuperation from illness when I was a kid. Even, perhaps, prescribed on the NHS.
Mild beer – though I never knew this until, as I say, very recently - has less of the bitterness of 'bitter' beer because it's 'mildly hopped'. Wikipedia says of it: Once sold in every pub, mild experienced a sharp decline in popularity after the 1960s and was in danger of completely disappearing. However, in recent years the explosion of microbreweries has led to a modest renaissance and an increasing number of milds (sometimes labelled "Dark") are now being brewed.
It was certainly sold in The Wellington as well as probably every other pub in the land when I was young. Often, though, it would be confined to the working class bars - 'the public', as opposed to where it was rather cheaper than the more popular bitter beer favoured more in 'the snug' bar.
But there's a reason why I never tasted mild beer until recently and this, too, was down to my knowledgable grandfather. Confiding in me one day, he advised me against it - on the grounds that it was customary to put all the bitter beer slops in the mild barrels. I wasn't sure back then what this really meant but it didn't sound good. And I knew for a fact 'slops' included the liquid that had dripped out of the bitter barrels and stayed around for a while. So I stayed off it until a couple of weeks ago, when I was more or less forced to drink it in the absence of anything else. Encouragingly, it came in a bottle and not from a barrel. So, I was less concerned about what might have gone into it since its manufacture. And, what do you know, I loved it.