The stout that dare not speak its name

Sainsbury's Celebration Ale labelHave public perceptions of beer styles become so skunked that it would be a marketing disaster to call a beer by its proper name? On a rare trip to Sainsbury’s I picked up something from the supermarket chain’s current Taste the Difference beer range that it calls “Celebration Ale”, and which announces itself as “A rich, dark winter warmer”. It’s brewed by Black Sheep of Masham, which is a recommendation, for me, and since I couldn’t see McEwan’s Champion Ale on the shelves (a truly excellent Edinburgh Ale/Burton Ale) I though it might make a good substitute.

I know I’m not the average supermarket beer shopper – I write a beer blog, for a start. So my expectations might well not be the same as everybody else’s expectations. But when I see a 6 per cent abv beer described as “a rich, dark winter warmer”, I’m expecting something ruby-coloured, fruity, strong and slightly sweet, though, hopefully, with a good bitter kick. Back home, however, when I opened “Celebration ale”, it poured dark brown-to-black, with a firmly chocolate-roast nose.

A look at the back label (printed, as is typical for back labels, in the tiny 4pt type that requires anyone over 45 to find their glasses) shows that this is in fact, as you’ve probably guessed, not an Owd Rodger-style ruddy ale but “a dark, velvety stout”. Indeed, the allergy-alert ingredients listing on the back reveals that “Celebration ale” contains “cow’s milk”. What that must mean is milk-derived (and unfermentable) lactose sugar: and there’s only one style of beer I know that contains lactose. Yes, “Celebration ale” is not just a stout, it’s a milk stout, albeit a milk stout that seems afraid to reveal itself as such.

Why? I can imagine Sainsbury’s corporate lawyers might fear the wrath of the neo-temperance army if they sold a product with the word “milk” in its description that contained alcohol (supermarket promotes beer to milk-drinking children shock! horror!), but that doesn’t seem to have stopped the Bristol Beer Factory promoting its own Milk Stout, with pictures of milkmaids and cows.

Is it the word “stout” that is the problem, fit today only to be printed in tiny letters on the back label, in case it frightens the shoppers? Is “stout” so completely associated with the Guinness-style product that Sainsbury’s fears that non-Guinness drinkers won’t buy a beer too clearly labelled a stout, and that Guinness drinkers will take the bottle back once they try it and find it’s nothing like the beer they’re used to?

Whichever, it’s a backwards step in beer education if a major UK supermarket feels it cannot describe properly a beer appearing under its imprimature, in apparent fear that the beer-buying public won’t understand accurate terminology. If you’re selling a milk stout, Sainsbury’s, call it a milk stout, not “Celebration ale” or “dark winter warmer”. THEN we can celebrate.

43 thoughts on “The stout that dare not speak its name

  1. Is it possible the product was once bottled and labelled honestly as a stout, but is now being sold under another description for marketing purposes, thus gaining another product for the portfolio without the hassles of developing a new one?

    I’m sure you know about it, but I have to rave about Durham Brewery’s White Stout. The name may well get the sillier PC-types waving their arms in the air and guarantee a ban by over-sensitive retailers, but it needs the qualifier “white” because of those very same public perceptions, i.e that “stout” is always dark porter.

      1. I would have preferred that they told the tools in the marketing department to keep their hands off the beer. They really should be banned from beer related activities and go back to heamaroid cream or whatever it is they do better

  2. I considered blogging on this myself – like you, I assumed that anything labelled ‘winter warmer’ (even with small Ws) was going to be in the old ale area – but the beer was so undistinguished that I forgot about it. It wasn’t bad, just a bit ho-hum.

    The ‘milk’ detail is extraordinary, though, and had completely passed me by – they cop to it being a stout on the back of the label, but it never occurred to me to check the ingredients list for style information!

  3. They might also have baulked at calling it a “milk stout” given the mental image that always conjures up of three elderly women supping in the snug of the Rovers Return on Coronation Street.

    1. Well, it conjures up the Rovers for me, I agree, and it clearly does for you too, but can anyone under 40 remember Ena Sharples, let alone Minnie Caldwell, or the third of the Street’s milk stout-drinking harpies, Martha Longhurst? I’d have though milk stout, like the dimpled beer mug, was definitely due a retro come-back …

  4. Wonderful post. I’ve learnt something new, I never knew of ‘milk stouts’ I’ll have to go looking next time I’m out. Looks like you have to do some sleuthing though to find it! I’ll definitely try reading the ingredients list next time!

  5. Great post. Love the neo-temperance army bit. Over here you’ll often find stouts, besides Guinness, in the supermarkets, usually from the local regional microbrewery. In my case, even in rather rural Missouri, albeit a college town, we get Boulevard’s (KC) Stout, Schlafly’s (St. Louis) Oatmeal Stout, Founders and Bells (both Michigan) stouts, including their incredible Cherry Stout, Goose Island (Chicago), Left Hand, Sierra Nevada, Deschutes, etc. The list goes on. The variety and reach of beer in America is very good right now. Happy days indeed.


  6. One of the most surprising differences in the ale markets in the US and UK is the embrace of dark beer. When ales returned to the US, dark versions became a necessary segment. Many drinkers are dark beer drinkers almost exclusively, and although I’ve never seen any figures, I would estimate the market for stouts and porters to be around 10-15% of the total ale/craft segment (excluding Guinness). It’s next to impossible to find a brewpub that doesn’t have one, and if you walk into any average grocery store, you’ll have a few choices.

    Visiting Britain last year really brought home to me how different things are. I come from a state where the weather is nearly identical, and when the air turns chill, we start drinking dark beers. I landed in London in November–London, a city associated with porter the way Rome is associated with Catholics–and couldn’t believe how rare they were. I know the history, and I know the trends in the English market. BUT STILL. It blew my mind. We spent a couple hours hoofing it around the city one day, and I would have paid twenty pounds for a pint of stout when we came in out of the cold. Had to content myself with a bitter.

  7. My experience in London and Leeds last year was similar to Jeff’s: stout and porter, Guinness apart, was quite hard to find on a casual basis. There was lots of bitter ale, in different colours and styles, but little black beer and almost no mild. (In one pub that did offer a mild, it was sourish). However, there was excellent porter in beer specialty shops including from The Kernel and Meantime, but also Thornbridge, Orkney, and many others. So it’s really a bottled specialty there at least viewed in a mass market prism.

    Left Hand has really carved a niche for its milk stout in the States, you see it all over. Theer is also the Keegan’s brand, or Mother Keegan’s perhaps it is called. Both are excellent.


    1. I’m not sure you’re comparing like with like. The thing about beer in Britain, as distinct from the US, is that we never stopped; even in the depths of the pre-CAMRA 1960s there were regional and family brewers making good beer, and some of them are still doing it now. There have been successive new waves of brewers, but mostly they’ve been grafted onto what’s still a reasonably healthy root-stock of mass-market, no-nonsense, working-man’s-drink real ale. Tastes change, and the British no-nonsense working man doesn’t drink nearly as much porter as he did 150 years ago, or as much mild as he did 100 years ago (I think those dates are right); if you see a cask ale on sale in a pub, the chance that it’ll be bitter is somewhere north of 95%. But then, at one time it would probably have been hard to get anything but porter in some pubs.

      Variety is for the beer geeks – and for the breweries that want to strike out in new directions every five minutes. But beer geek culture is still only one strand of British real ale culture, most of which goes back to before real ale was called real ale.

      1. The bitters are what make British beer culture superb IMO. But I’ll also take the variety as a beer geek–and I don’t see the pejorative nature of that term that you use. Where America is now compared to twenty years ago is worlds removed. Not only do the local brewpubs generally have good quality and fresh beer on tap, they always have four or five of their styles (amber, IPA, something lighter, a stout or porter, and a seasonal). And you can take a growler home is you like, The excellent micros like Dogfish, Stone, Bells, Great Lakes, Firestone Walker, and so on have expanded their reach beyond regional areas due to improving distribution. Just as I don’t like eating the same meal every night; I don’t like drinking my fave IPAs every Friday. I might want a Fuller’s London Porter or an O’Dell’s (Colorado) Porter, both of which are available even in my backwater town, or maybe some experimental beer from Denmark or Chicago. I think it’s the beer geeks who have saved beer in America.

        1. I’d say that I’m a beer geek myself – I made a special trip out the other evening because I’d heard that a bar up the road had a (cask) imperial stout on – so I’m not really using it as a pejorative term. And it certainly was the beer geeks who saved beer in America – that’s pretty much historical fact.

          But part of me does hanker after a world where you would go to your local pub and drink one of two or three beers, week in, week out – and if you went fifty miles down the road you’d find pubs where people were drinking two or three slightly different beers week in, week out. And these would all be decent beers, worthy of inclusion in a present-day beer festival (if some passing time-traveller brought back a barrel). I think it’s because that kind of approach to beer-drinking is still alive in Britain that a lot of our newer breweries look relatively unadventurous from a USAn standpoint – they’re not trying to be new and different, they’re just trying to brew a decent beer. And it’s because that world is as dead as a doornail in the US that your beer scene looks so hyperactive and bleeding-edge viewed from over here.

          1. I hear what you’re saying. We can thank Prohibition for killing the regional and unique historical breweries, although All About Beer is running a story about Heritage Brewers here ( Now that we’ve emerged from the long dark winter of tasteless pale lager, American brewers since Anchor and Sierra Nevada got going have a gone a bit bonkers, pushing the envelope on many styles and essentially turning them into new styles. But since the quality regionals had been killed off by “the noble experiment,” this new breed of brewers were sort of rudderless and had to improvise, right? But now look at the Scandinavians who are getting rather experimental too.

            I do think us Yanks have developed a bit more of an aggressive hops taste than your bitters provide. When I’m in the UK, I’m always looking for the closest hophead beer I can find. Any recommendations?

          2. “When I’m in the UK, I’m always looking for the closest hophead beer I can find.”

            That’s like saying “When I’m in Italy I’m always looking for the best hamburgers I can find.” When you’re in England, why not look for what you can’t find very well in your own country?

          3. It appears from Phil that several breweries do push the envelope a bit with more aggressive hops (thanks for the recommendations), so I will search them out when I’m visiting this summer. A quick visit to the real ales of one of your chain pubs shows several new brewers and ales I’ve never seen before. Dynamic indeed.

            But I’m not really one of those Americans who demands to have American-style food and beer when I travel. Really. But I’ll serve as a straw man if need be. I always sample the bitters and they are wonderful (most of them–don’t care for Marston’s Pedigree). But since I generally have more than one, I also like to try what’s new in the brewing milieu. That means following up the best bitter with a stout or a red ale or a golden ale or a mild.

            I’m not looking for Firestone Walker’s Double Jack IPA in the UK; although, if you can get your hands on one of those, it’s the best-tasting imperial IPA I’ve had.

          4. There are a few breweries who produce pale hoppy bitters, even hoppier IPAs and not much else: Marble, SWB, Abbeydale, Oakham, Steel City, Pictish, Magic Rock… (OK, Marble produce quite a lot else, but pale-and-hoppy is their core range.) It partly depends where you are in Britain. (Well, England – Wales and Scotland aren’t great for pale beers.) Anywhere from Sheffield to Manchester, anything on the bar with ‘silver’ or ‘gold’ or ‘pale’ or even ‘blonde’ in the name should fit the bill. Hawkshead in the Lakes do some lovely hoppy beers (skip the Lakeland Lager, though) as do Dark Star down in Brighton.

          5. I find the distinction useful, between American hoppy and English hoppy.

            Classic English bitter was and is very hoppy. It’s just that the smell and flavour are different to those of American Pale Ales and their IPA derivatives given the latter usually use assertive, citric West Coast hops.

            In any case, the number of English beers using American hops has increased a lot in recent years. I don’t know for sure that Thornbridge’s Jaipur IPA (circa-6% ABV) uses U.S. hops but it tastes like it to me with that huge hit of grapefruit-like hops, it’s similar to the best North American IPAs I’ve had. I found it on cask in a pub off Leicester Square… Things are changing in Blighty, which is fine, as long as they don’t jettison the classic English taste which Michael Jackson wrote so lyrically about.


  8. Good points, Phil. I’d add to it, that it wasn’t just the family and regional brewers which made fine beer pre-CAMRA, many national brewers did, too. Courage did, and Whitbread, and Bass Charrington. One of the losses of recent years is the stylish bitter of these national concerns. Only Fuller’s beers really fill the gap there, IMO.


    1. Gary
      Fuller’s is a regional, family brewer, not a national one. You won’t find it in Leeds or Manchester. And I don’t really think London Pride is that “stylish” – it’s a good solid middle of the road bitter, which is what it is supposed to be.

      1. Its funny to me that you wont find Fuller’s in Leeds or Manchester, as I have no trouble finding them in the US.

        Its rare to see anything other than the ESB on tap, but I can get London Pride or Porter in bottles 2 blocks from my house.

          1. And for years you couldn’t buy Guinness FES in England or even I believe Ireland, although this has changed I understand.

            There is an old saw, a country exports its best…


        1. Fuller’s London Pride is marketed nationally via wholesalers and pubcos, and the other cask beers are often found on wholesalers lists. I can think of a number of pubs fairly close to me on Tyneside that sell London Pride permanently. Fuller’s bottled beers are found on every supermarket shelf in the country.

      2. I live outside Nottingham and Fuller’s beers are pretty easy to find.Apart from London Pride which is nigh on ubiquitous I’ve had pretty well all the range without having to travel more than a handful of miles.And this doesn’t include Nottingham itself.

  9. Rod, on the first point true enough and I know of course that Fuller’s is a London-area brewery with its pubs there, indeed it’s the only survivor of the old-established London brewing concerns. While prominent in the public imagination in the UK, it’s not national in the sense that Greene King or Wells Young has become. However, given the prominence of the Capital in public life and the fact that Fuller’s beers do guest often outside London (e.g. I’ve seen them in Edinburgh), it seems a quasi-national brewer, is maybe a better way to put it. Certainly it has a high profile in export markets, which assists that perception.

    I’ll have to disagree with you on the second point, to me London Pride is the classic city beer of today with an elegant, consistent taste. It takes the place for me of Courage’s Best especially when the latter was higher-profile and brewed in London, or Bass or Ind Coope’s Burton Ale. And I much prefer London Pride to John Smith’s, say, or Abbot, or any of the Sam Smith’s line. As always these things are filtered through personal preference and perspective though.


  10. Funnily enough…. One of my local pubs, the excellent Red Lion in Leytonstone, East London, had two cask-conditioned Milk Stouts on the bar at the same time one Saturday evening recently. They were Dark Star Milk Chocolate Stout 4.5% and Pin-Up Brewery Milk Stout 4.7%, the latter brewed at Harwich Town Brewery. This particular pub makes quite a feature of dark beers (“because they sell well”) and has its finger pretty firmly on the pulse of the booming London real ale scene. And I keep seeing the Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout all over London at the moment. Could it be that Sainsbury’s have the product but are missing the trend?

    1. Always been surprised to hear that “dark beers don’t sell”. Guinness seem to be making decent money at it and whenever I go out with non-beery mates, if there’s a dark beer on offer, that tends to be what they go for. Fuller’s London Porter and Budvar Dark in particular seem to get people a bit excited, and Oscar Wilde dark mild always sold well at our local in East London, too.

  11. Interestingly enough, also in the new issue of All About Beer, the reviewers examine Lancaster Brewing Company’s Milk Stout. (Lancaster, PA). At a rather high abv of 7.9%, it appears from the reviews to be chocolate milk-like in the nose and fruity-cocoa-ish on the palate, but both lament it being rather thin for a stout. Above the big block letters announcing the simplistic name of the beer is an image of a cow head, giving the entire package a wholesome appearance for a beer brewed in Amish country.

  12. I am writing a sequel to Hangman’s Point, a novel set in Hong Kong in 1857. Assuming a tavern owner attempted to use a beer pumping machine and had to clean the lines, I have some questions to ask. Such as what would the lines have been made of and what would the cleaning solution have been. Seamus Campbell was kind enough to give me Martyn’s name. If Martyn or anyone with knowledge of beer-in-tavern history would contact me I would much appreciate it. Dean Barrett

  13. I am working on a startup around the craft beer industry and would love to speak with a few beer lovers to get a better sense of the lovers of craft beer around the US and the community around craft beer. I want to create a product that adds to the experience and helps to promote and expand the market for craft brews.

  14. Martin, Is this the same thinking as the many “Dark Ales” in the market – the ones I’ve had, some could have easily been labelled as “Porter” and others “Dark Mild” I’d love to know your opinion and experiences of beers labelled with this broad catch-all term.

  15. Naming a beer simply “dark” is a marketing stratagem as few drinkers are willing to give mild the benefit of the doubt..Mild is unfashionable and has an image problem particularly among the younger brewers.Many brewers don’t even call it dark – Grainstore’s Rutland Panther is an example-people order it from its pump clip and are surprised to find a black beer! generally they are pleasantly surprised when they drink it and find they like it!

  16. I’m trying to find the nearest Milk Stout to what used to be Jubilee Milk Stout brewed in Sheffield (and no, Mackeson’s is nowhere near)

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