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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

In All the Little Ways, Newcastle Really Says "Macro"

Last week we had some nice chat about a large beer brand proudly proclaiming itself "macro."  When one of these craft-vs-macro debates springs up, we always get lost in the definition weeds: what do the terms mean?  Back at the dawn of the new-brewery age, there actually was a standard charge against macro (a term born when craft beer was "micro").  It was made cheaply of filler ingredients, hid that it was made in a factory plant far removed from the town it claimed to be from, was owned by a foreign company, and survived mainly because of a massive ad campaign that kept the truth hidden and the reality safely locked away.

That actually doesn't sound like last week's macro--Budweiser--which has always been extremely forthright about their beer and production.  It does, however, perfectly describe Newcastle.  Behold:
A spokesman for Heineken confirmed: “We are in the process of changing our recipe for Newcastle Brown Ale and it will no longer include caramel colouring.

“We will now achieve the distinctive colouring and flavour of Newcastle Brown Ale, that our consumers enjoy, by using roasted malts instead.”  
This is pretty amazing--and revealing.  I thought caramel coloring went out with leisure suits.  I heard rumors that various companies would turn their regular lagers into "dark lagers" with judicious use of caramel color, but those were crude times when people thought "dark lager" was something impossibly exotic.  That Newcastle, presumably to shave a few pennies off the bottom line, has been using it well into the new millennium--well, just spectacular.  Better to spend all the money on ads like these instead:

Other things to know: the brand is owned by Heineken and brewed in this brewery, in Tadcaster, by John Smith's:

It is largely an export product.  Boak and Bailey, who sent me a wonderful report showing that it has only 4.5% of the bottled ale market in the UK (and ales are a wee minority of the beer market), said, "We've only ever seen it in bottles but it's pretty widely available in pubs in that format, hidden behind the bar in the fridges next to Hofmeister Pils and Mann's Brown Ale."  Mark Dredge agreed, "You might see it occasionally in supermarkets or a dusty bottle at the back of a bar fridge, but that's about it." 

For what it's worth, when I was writing The Beer Bible, I tried to contact someone from the Newcastle division to hear about how the beer was made and maybe get some archival photography.  It was I think the only English-language brand that completely blew me off.  I have a clearer sense why now.

So to recap: made cheaply of filler ingredients? Check.  Hid where it was made while still trading on the reputation of the old location?  Check.  Owned by a foreign company?  Check.  And finally, keeps the truth safely hidden away behind a massive ad campaign?  Check and check. 

You want an authentically crap beer where the cost of production is scrimped on to make way for the cost of sales?  You could hardly do better than Newcastle Brown.


  1. In Newcastle's defense caramel colouring is not unheard of in traditional English brewing particularly in many of the family brewers' dark milds.

  2. Totally off-topic, but the way Americans call it "Newcastle" weirds me out, every damn time.

    While the main beer is made in Tadcaster, I understand the special edition variants come from Heineken's Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh.

  3. The Beer Nut -- what does the rest of the world call Newcastle? (I realize that sounds like a set-up for a punch line...)

  4. "Newcastle Brown Ale". Acceptable abbreviations are "Newkie Brown" or occasionally "Newkie". Apparently it's known as "The Dog" in Newcastle, but I've never heard that usage in real life.

  5. Thanks. I remember hearing "Newkie Brown" and "Newkie" in the 90s when it was popular on draft. I wonder in the states, before the proliferation of breweries offering a number of different brews, folks tended to order by the brewery name w/o mentioning the full name of the beer -- I know I would have asked for a "Sierra Nevada" or a "Samuel Adams" when I wanted the Pale Ale or Boston Lager. Now of course it's pretty much impossible to do that save for a few exceptions.

  6. so the beer Sherpa does not recommend Newcastle?

  7. I've heard Newcastle and Newcastle Brown used (when they're used at all, which is damn near never). I think Americans tend to shorten everything, so given that there's no Newcastle pale or stout, the name of the brewery is adequate.

    Dan, no, I probably wouldn't. I don't think it's a terrible beer, but it is quite dated. If I were in the mood for something English, I'd prefer a beer where I could taste the malt and hops more clearly. If I wanted a brown I'd have a Turbodog, which is America's much-better version of Newcastle. Err, Newcastle Brown Ale (TM).

  8. "the name of the brewery is adequate"
    But that's the thing: there is not and never has been a brewery called "Newcastle". If you go back before 1960 there was "Newcastle Breweries", but in most people's living memories, Newkie Brown was a product of Scottish & Newcastle, and then of Heineken. The rule that applies to, say, Guinness or Bass, does not apply here. Or shouldn't.

    I'm the only person who gives a shit about this, aren't I? I get that a lot.

  9. Sorry Jeff, that was my attempt at poking a little humor at you. Of course I've had (and been disappointed by) Newcastle. I've not had Turbodog though so I will give that a try. If I want truly good English beer I just go visit Ted and Brewers Union 45 minutes away....

  10. Humor received and appreciated.

    Beer Nut, your pedantry is also understood and appreciated--but yes, you may be on an island of one on this.

  11. No, I reckon everybody on this side of the Atlantic agrees that calling Newcastle Brown "Newcastle" is indeed strange and jarring, one of those American peculiarities like referring to "Prime Minister Cameron" or saying "write your congressman". There used also to be Newcastle Amber, which was a 1030OG weak beer, sold in its own right but also the beer that was blended with a stronger, fruitier beer to make Newvcastle Brown in the first place: the real story is when Newcastle Brown stopped being made as a blend. As BN says, caramel has been an ingredient in British beers for years, and nobody here is bothered by it: frankly, I'd suspect you're more likely to get dodgy carcinogens from roasting grain as you are from caramel.

  12. Oops, sorry, it wasn't BN who said British brewers use caramel, it was Ann O'Nymous.

  13. It's news to me that caramel color is common--and I appreciate knowing it's so. But do breweries cop to the fact? Newcastle (err, Heineken) sure doesn't. It's an ingredient used to color a beer cheaply, and so they don't advertise it.

  14. Because of you, we (Boak and I) went to the pub last night and drank Newcastle Brown. It had been ten years since we last tasted it, at least. It wasn't as terrible as we remembered, and certainly much less sweet than we recalled, though it was skunked to high heaven. We won't be bothering again for another ten years...

  15. If you get a very fresh pint on draft - North America has a draft version, not sure bout U.K. - it's quite nice, a good first pint.