Saying the words, “Who wants to go drinking around Dudley?” doesn’t exactly have a big appeal for the curious beer traveler, but you should consider it as one of those interesting pockets of brewing, specializing in West Midlands Bitter and Mild, with the beer served in some traditional storied pubs.
The center of this trip should be the Beacon Hotel for Sarah Hughes’ Dark Ruby Mild (see post 83), but there are a lot more pubs nearby, all easily accessible either by jumping on a local bus, calling a cab, or on foot (there’s a few soberingly brisk 30-minute walks).
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Bathams Brewery’s Bitter is one of those local beer legends—mention its name to those in the know and they go glossy-eyed. But it’s also a beer that a lot of people have never heard of. The best place to drink it is The Vine pub, better known as The Bull and Bladder (it was originally a slaughterhouse), which is attached to the brewery (Delph Brewery, Delph Road, Brierley Hill, West Midlands DY5 2TN; www.bathams.co.uk).
There’s a small front bar on the right as you enter and a comfortable lounge to the left, with further spaces out back. It’s a quintessentially old, untouched, and much-loved pub: fireplace, wooden seating, old photographs, brewery memorabilia, well-worn carpets, chatting locals, and a friendly welcome. As for the beer, the Mild is a bright ruby-brown; there’s a fullness of malt flavor, a sweetish caramel flavor, and a lightly fruity aroma. You’ll drink a pint of it without even noticing. Likewise with the Bitter, which shares many flavors and a similar sweet malt depth—it’s golden and smooth, very light yet still full in the body, with some fruity, peppery hops. They are both characteristic of the beers from this particular region and that means they are sweet in comparison with other areas.
The Old Swan Inn (85-89 Halesowen Road, Dudley DY2 9PY), in Netherton, is home to the Ma Pardoe beers, which are named after Doris Pardoe who managed the pub with her husband from 1931. It’s notable as a long-running brewpub, with brewing beginning in the 1860s and running through until 1993. The pub closed in 2000, but it was revived, along with the brewery, in the following year.
Start in the front bar for the oldest part of the pub (there are two entrances—aim for the one on the right). There’s a royalred bar and patterned ceiling, complete with an old white swan, and a line of hand-pulls serving the house beers. The Old Swan Original is a lesser-spotted Light Mild. It’s 3.5% ABV, and very light in color and body; where sweet malts add some chew in the middle and there’s a light fruitiness—it’s excellent to be able to drink this rare style. Dark Swan is a 3.9% ABV Dark Mild that’s creamy and chocolatey and a little sweet, plus there are some tea tannins and general fruity aromas from the yeast. Entire is a traditional 4.4% ABV Best Bitter that has the hallmarks of the style in this area: a roundness and sweetness of pale biscuity malts, dry bitterness, and a good balance.
Holden’s “Pure Black Country” beers are available in a number of their own pubs, including the Park Inn next to the brewery (George Street, Woodsetton, Dudley DY1 4LW;www.holdensbrewery.co.uk). This has been in the Holden family since 1915 when they bought the pub and the adjoining brewery—at that time they brewed dark, strong Milds, presumably similar to what Sarah Hughes would start brewing later.
Today the pub lacks the atmosphere and old feeling of the others mentioned here (there’s sport on TV and flashing quiz machines), but it’s a good place to try the Holden beers, including Black Country Mild, a 3.7% ABV Ruby Ale that tastes like sweet tea and tobacco (my notes —and bear in mind I’d had six pints by the time I wrote this—say “tastes like how I think my nan’s curtains smelt in the late 1980s and it tastes like it’s not from today”). I think this was actually a compliment, as I enjoyed the beer. Their Bitter is bright gold and 3.9% ABV. It’s malt sweet and barely bitter, some fruity, bubblegum esters pop out, and it’s relatively dry and refreshing. A filling pub meal is good value too.
The beers of the West Midlands are almost uniquely local in how they taste. They all share a similar British malt depth and they’re all low in bitterness but high in drinkability for their sweetness—they all have a creamy fullness, which you don’t taste anywhere else in Britain. More than just the beers, the pubs are worth visiting for their atmospheres, their many stories, and their place in local history.
The Old Swan Inn features on CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, thanks in part to its distinctive enamel ceiling.