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Classic Beer of the Month August 2010: Brains Dark

Brains Dark, 3.5% (UK)

The news that mild, as a style, is on its way back is very welcome. Thanks largely to the efforts of British microbrewers, the low-alcohol, full-flavour, less-bitter ale is now reasonably widely available in pubs, after a period of almost invisibility.

Brains DarkNot all parts of the UK completely lost touch with the style, however.

The Midlands and the North-West, for example, continued to offer a good selection of mild beers even as lager surged to its position of pre-eminence, and another area that remains true to its mild roots is South Wales, or more particularly the city of Cardiff, thanks to the survival of Brains Dark.

Mild is a beer that is inextricably linked to heavy industry.

Miners, steelworkers and the like favoured this sort of beer because, at the end of a dusty, dirty, sweaty shift it offered refreshment without too much strength, a dose of restorative sugars and plenty of rehydrating liquid with the added bonus of a little alcohol to ease the stress of a day’s punishing graft.

Up until the turn of the 1960s, mild was the most popular beer style in Britain, but as those grimy industries declined, so did its consumption. It’s no coincidence that the areas that persevered longest with mild were those where heavy duty employment lasted longest.

In Cardiff, mild’s popularity was sustained by the local steelworks and the city’s busy dockyards, and Brains Dark remained the brewery’s strongest brand right up until the early 1980s.

As the city’s wealth has increasingly been fuelled by leisure, sport and retail, Dark has been overtaken by other beers in the Brains stable but it’s still not difficult to find a pint of this outstanding beer in the pubs of Wales’s capital city.

Dark was one of the earliest beers SA Brain & Co produced. Its precise origins are unclear but it was possibly part of the portfolio when Samuel Arthur Brain acquired the Cardiff brewery in 1882.

Cardiff's Heritage

Over the years it has seen slight variations in its name, from Red Dragon to RD, but today a pint of what is simply known as Dark is as much part of Cardiff’s heritage as Shirley Bassey and the Millennium Stadium.

The beer is made from pale and chocolate malts, with a seasoning of Challenger, Fuggle and Golding hops that ensure the beer is not overly sweet. Handpulled into the glass, it looks moody and magnificent, deep mahogany below and frothy and beige on top.

At just 3.5%, it slips down beautifully yet still manages to pack in a welter of harmonious flavours, from dark chocolate, liquorice and roasted grain on the palate to nutty coffee in the finish. It’s little wonder to me that gallons of this stuff are tucked away before, during and after Cardiff’s many rugby matches.

The bottled version is pasteurised and, despite being a touch stronger at 4.1%, doesn’t, of course, quite deliver the same experience, although if this is the only way you can get hold of Dark, then please don’t miss out as it’s also a rather versatile beer.

In winter it has that nourishing malty quality that hits the spot on cold, bleak days. In summer, served refreshingly cool, it manages to hold onto its rich flavours even when chilled right down.

The competition is greater today than it has been for many years but, if Brains Dark is not the best mild in the UK, it’s damn near close.

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