Here’s a top contender for “vanished beers I wish I’d tasted” – Meat Stout. A mixture of serendipity and synchronicity led me to discover Mercer’s Meat Stout this week, a brew I’d never previously heard of. Serendipity (the art of finding something valuable while looking for some other thing entirely) because I was actually searching for pictures of Ena Sharples in the Rovers Return to illustrate a comment I was making at Alan McLeod’s blog about Imperial Milk Stout. Synchronicity (the occurrence in a short space of time of two random but apparently connected events) because I had been reading just a day or so earlier about the attempt by Stuart Howe of Sharp’s Brewery in Cornwall to brew Offal Ale, containing liver, kidney and heart. (Incidentally, Stuart’s “Real Brewing at the Sharp End” is one of the best brewer’s blogs around: sharp, indeed.)
Revenir, literally, à nos moutons (or similar livestock): Mercer’s was a small brewery in Lower Adlington, near Chorley in Lancashire, that apparently grew out of an own-brew pub called the Plough. Its best-known brand, evidently, was a bottled product called Meat Stout, a “nourishing stout brewed with the addition of specially prepared meat extract – highly recommended for invalids”. When Mercer’s was taken over by Dutton’s of the Salford brewery in Blackburn in 1929, Meat Stout was popular enough for Dutton’s to continue making it under Mercer’s name: the Plough Brewery only closed in 1936, so for seven years, presumably, Meat Stout was still coming out of Adlington.
Dutton’s pushed Mercer’s Meat Stout hard enough to advertise it on the front of its pubs, but at some point it vanished, as did Dutton’s itself, swallowed by the London brewer Whitbread in 1964.
What lay behind the invention of Meat Stout? According to one Blackburn historian, Colin Pritt, “It is rumoured that the natives complained about the gravity or quality of the stout, so the brewer threw a side of beef, or similar, into his next brew and it gave it more ‘body’. They then added some meat product to the brew ever after (probably offal, as it was cheap).”
More likely, however, it was invented as part of a general trend at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th to push stout as “good for you” (something a well-known Irish brewer and a Kentish brewer with a Scottish name picked up on for their advertising). This ad from the Blackburn Standard of 1888, for example, heavily plugs William Smith’s “Double Extra Nourishing Stout” as “a remarkably good Stout for Invalids and Persons of Weak Digestion”. At 7 per cent alcohol (by weight, I suspect – 9 per cent abv) it was powerful enough, but it also contained “more dry solids than any other Stout to be had”, topping eight per cent by weight. A meal in a glass indeed: four per cent solids by weight, or less, is more normal.
If Mercer’s brewery was having to compete with rivals such as Smith’s Double Extra Nourishing Stout for the Lancashire “I only drink this beer because it’s good for me” market, throwing meat into the brew must have seemed an excellent idea: “Forget the ‘milk’ in milk stout [actually unfermentable lactic sugars, of course], swallow Mercer’s Meat Stout and it’s as good as Betty’s hotpot.” The meat extract may well also have added to the umami character you can find in some stouts and strong dark ales.
How much meat extract actually went into the beer? According to The Brewing Industry: A Guide to Historical Records by Lesley Richmond and Alison Turton, Mercer’s papers, including, perhaps, brewing books, ended up, via Dutton’s, in the Whitbread archives. I suspect when Whitbread got rid of all its records some years ago the Dutton/Mercer bits ended up back in a local history collection in Lancashire. Perhaps the recipe for Meat Stout is lurking still somewhere in an archive back in the land of the Red Rose, mixed up with dirty deeds and dusty omnibus conveyances.
If anybody wants to recreate Meat Stout, I’d suggest experimenting first: as Stuart Howe points out, any fat from the meat getting into your brew is going to make obtaining a good foaming head on the beer more difficult (though dark malts normally achieve good heads), and can also give you rancid off flavours as it ages. Stuart apparently grilled the liver, hearts and kidneys for his “Heston’s Offal Ale” (named after the M4 motorway service station, he claims) to get rid of as much fat as possible before adding the meat to the wort at the start of the boil. However, although he calls it an ale, judging by the grain bill, which includes black, crystal and chocolate malts, it looks like Sharp’s is really making another Meat Stout. Brewing started, apparently around April 9: I look forward to some tasting notes shortly. Vegetarians need not apply.