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A brief history of milk stout


Milk stout was first produced by the Mackeson brewery in Hythe, Kent in 1909 and was a runaway success. Part of its popularity was undoubtedly due to the way in which it was advertised. This was not just another beer to be drunk by men in their local pubs, but a beverage which could be enjoyed by respectable women at home and in company. It was also, the publicity claimed, actually very good for you.

Milk stout was launched with a booklet headlined ‘Make Stout More Nourishing’, which claimed that the beverage gave drinkers ‘energy, stopped distension, fulness, indigestion and headache, prevented rheumatism and was ideal for nursing mothers and invalids.’ The bottle label announced that ‘each pint contains the energising carbohydrates of 10 ounces of pure dairy milk.’ The claimed restorative properties of the drink were extravagant and entirely unproven, but the Mackesons, like all brewers, were in competition with a powerful Temperance movement and did not have to worry about an Advertising Standards Authority.

The Temperance organisations had been very successful in publicising the social and personal harms caused by consuming alcohol, and brewers and distillers were fighting back. Wolfe’s schnapps was, it was claimed, ‘recommended by hundreds of doctors’ because ‘it is a real health tonic owing to its cleansing action on the liver, kidneys and other organs’; Worthington’s ale ‘builds up the constitution and promotes energy and stamina’; and Wincarnis tonic wine ‘revitalises and rejuvenates the vital organs of the body.’

In 1922, the Mackesons went a step further and milk stout was advertised as being ‘recommended by the medical profession’, a statement which was sufficiently vague to withstand any challenges. Their health claims from then on became increasingly non-specific, as were those for milk stout’s rival drink, Guinness, which, it was claimed, was simply ‘Good For You’. In the Royal Jubilee year of 1935, milk stout was promoted to foreign visitors to the celebrations as ‘one of England’s glories’ which would keep them ‘absolutely fit’.

When war was declared, there was a shift in emphasis. Perhaps the dangers of warfare meant that advertising ‘healthy’ drinks was no longer appropriate and, in any case, the Ministry of Food had decreed that the drink could no longer be described as ‘milk stout’. A shortage of whey had meant that its use in the recipe had been reduced. So, in 1940, it was a bottle of Mackeson Stout which would ‘keep those wartime worries at arm’s length’. It was, apparently, ‘doubly good for you’, endowing the drinker with ‘new heart and new energy’, both of which characteristics were especially desirable in time of war.

In peacetime, the advertisers began once more to target women drinkers. One advert showed a glamorous woman relaxing in an armchair with a glass of Mackeson Stout and the claim that the drink was ‘cheering and reviving at the end of a day’s housework’. The woman in question wore high heels and a low-cut dress, her hair immaculately coiffed, probably not the look achieved by most housewives after a day’s cleaning without modern labour-saving equipment.

Advertorials followed, inserted into local newspapers always implying that the citizens of the relevant area were people with refined palates, because ‘Mackeson Stout - it’s a matter of Taste’. What all these promotions lacked was what Guinness had used from the start – humour. It was this that made their campaigns so memorable, from performing circus animals to Alice in Wonderland spoofs and a toucan. The best Mackeson could offer in the 1950s was the rather uninspiring ‘try Mackeson Stout – you’ll like it better’ and ‘it’s better – not bitter’.

TV advertising was now reaching a wider audience and a different sort of promotion was needed. At the very end of the decade, Mackeson Stout got its own jingle. The brewery was now owned by Whitbread and in 1959, 300 pub landlords were bussed to the Royal Star Hotel in Maidstone, together with Hythe’s M.P., Brigadier Sir Harry Ripley Mackeson and Mr H. C. Whitbread. There, they were the first to hear the lines:

‘Mackeson, Mackeson, makes you feel so good:
Enjoy life, enjoy life, exactly as you should.’

Probably most people remember the TV advertising jingles of their youth. This is unlikely to be among them.

It was not until the mid-1960s that a Mackeson Stout advertisement became as memorable as those of their competitors. The character actor Bernard Miles was recruited for TV advertisements in which he declaimed, in a broad Mummerset brogue, that Mackeson Stout: “Looks good, tastes good and by golly it does you good.” This was preceded by an amusing anecdote about the restorative qualities of the stout.

Memorable they might have been, but the adverts did little to slow the decline in sales of Mackeson Stout. They were targeted at the middle-aged and older, but in the Swinging Sixties, young people set the trends and they would not want to be seen with drinks associated with comic old country bumpkins. They preferred modern keg beers such as Watneys Red Barrel (‘What We Want Is Watneys!’) or Double Diamond (‘I’m Only Here for the Beer!’), or maybe Babycham (‘I’d Love a Babycham!’). The fact that Milk Stout was the favourite tipple of the hair-netted and sensibly-shod Ena Sharples in Coronation Street must have reinforced the nation’s opinion that the drink was for old biddies.

After this brief renaissance, the advertisements gradually disappeared. Mackeson Stout became a ghost brand, still available if you look hard enough, but not promoted. Today it is European-style lagers which are fashionable and a carefully controlled advertising environment ensures that consumers know exactly how many units of alcohol and how many calories are in each can or bottle and are told firmly to ‘Know Your Limits’ and ‘Drink Responsibly’. As for Guinness – well, that’s another story.

By Anne Petrie 

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