Ales: Born to be Mild
The beer renaissance has spawned an assortment of new beer styles—either seminal in their own right, or redefinitions of classics, often at the expense of some archetypes becoming under-appreciated or ignored. Others, like regional or subtle styles (such as mild ale) are becoming rare or in danger of disappearing altogether. Tabbed “mild” because of its quaffable personality, soft hop impression and minimal punch, the moniker could not be more suggestive of its character. The ultimate session beer, mild is a product of, and vital component to, modest, proletarian regions of the North and Midlands of England, and the quintessential ingredient of that region’s most identifiable social institution, the pub. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that both nouveau and established brewers eschew mild when the propensity is to shove forward. But even in its homeland, where English brewers are experimenting more than ever, mild is often the forgotten brew. In a way, this may serve the style well, as those seeking the quaint offerings of pub or cask-ale culture in England ferret out the more traditional fare and ambiance. It is unlikely to vanish altogether, and perhaps its paucity and utility will keep it alive.
At times it is challenging to tease the various threads of the beer tapestry apart, there is nevertheless plenty of solid documentation regarding British brewing history. Prior to the 18th century, beer was primarily unhopped, brown, and unrefined. Brewing moved from the home to breweries because of the Industrial Revolution and the capitalists that it produced. A whole new class of manual laborers in villages and cities mandated larger facilities. As brewing could only be conducted during certain times of the year, storage became the most important issue confronting brewers. The practice of the day was to blend brews of various strengths and maturity. “Three threads” beer (blended from three casks) was the rule. Each component had its own tag, such as “strong,” “old,” “stock,” “stale,” and of course, “mild,” depending on its condition and age.
Mild was designated as such because of its muted strength and gentle nature, as compared to the mature beers. A method known as “parti-gyle” was employed during brewing. The grain grist is repeatedly saturated with water, mashed to achieve conversion and the wort then drained. Each subsequent wort is weaker than the previous until nothing more can be coaxed from the mash, the last of which might receive the designation “mild.”
This mild wort would ferment quickly and was added to the blend by the publican to reach the desired balance. In contrast, mild brews didn’t have the complex character of the mature beers, due to the fact that the ripened beers had been laid up in wooden casks. They picked up a myriad of sour, vinous, and musty nuances from the porous wood and its microflora. Fresh ale had little of this and, by comparison, was quite mild. To this point (the early 1700s), “mild” defined a condition rather than a style of beer, as all beer was made from the same raw materials, but differed only in age and strength. By today’s standards, though, mild was actually a formidable beer, coming in at around 7% ABV.
About this same time, pale malt was developed and hops were becoming more prevalent as a brewing ingredient. Brews made with this combination of pale malt and high hop rates turned the tide away from darker, sweet beers. Dark beers remained more of a commoners’ drink because pale malt was fairly expensive. Additionally, the original porters were being made from a single mash, rather than a mixture of beers; a blend of malts instead of a single rough, brown grain. As stout and porter defined themselves, stout being a strong version of porter, so is there evidence that milds were considered lower-strength versions of porter. In fact, today’s dark milds are similar to porters and brown ales.
Pale ales fairly dominated the world beer scene for about 100 years, until the mid-19th century, when bottom-fermenting brews became the rage. Dark beers tended to be more regional. Pale ales also diverged a bit. Bitters, closely related to pale ales, were favored in some circles as a more quaffable, less-hoppy alternative. On the low end of that spectrum, it is easy to see a trend toward what we now know as pale mild. Its character will be discussed later.
The taming of beer styles of this period was also directly related to taxation. Beer was taxed based on its strength in many places in Britain. Ale that was affordable to the masses, far and away the most prolific consumers, was also the most frugal to make. During the 19th century most ales in Great Britain crept downward strength-wise to keep brewers and publicans in business, and the working class content. Most styles of ale that we know today really took their modern form during this period. Quaffable, satisfying ales like brown and mild were preferred by the minions of manual laborers and farmers—something that could be consumed in some quantity, and refreshed rather than inebriated.
The final refining period in the evolution of mild, came in the early part of the 20th century, as England was forced to ration brewing ingredients in deference to the war effort. Of course, some beer style had to occupy the lowest wrung on the ladder. That fate fell to mild ale, with ordinary bitters and brown ales just above. It is a distinction, though sometimes nebulous, that remains today.
A Taste of Mild
mild ales are a bit more disparate bunch and are tougher to pigeonhole than most styles. They can resemble brown ale, porter, bitter, or even old ale. If the brewer calls it a mild—then, by Jove, it is. In general, mild ales can be considered pale mild, dark mild, or historical mild and are always characterized by an easygoing hop temperament. They are all, if authentic, unmistakably British. American-brewed versions might opt for a more neutral product, but as any beer aficionado can attest to, US brewers are as likely to bow to tradition as they are to buck it. The real challenge to making a mild is to make a low-gravity beer that’s dripping with flavor. Using British ingredients goes a long way toward that end. In fact, the individual components may be a bit more important in a beer such as mild, given the subtlety of the style.
A country’s definitive beers owe much of their character to the malt that they use. In the case of British ales, their “maritime” malted barley fairly imprints all of their ales. Grown in a less forgiving climate than its continental counterpart, the inherent heartiness is manifested in the beer. It is firm and chewy on its own, and perfectly suited to low-gravity ales. milds rely heavily on this attribute. There are dozens of high-quality maltsters serving brewers in the UK. Some insist on traditional floor maltings, while some are proprietary.
Pale milds, ranging from burnished gold to full amber, deepen the color and overall character of the brew by using crystal malts and small portions of dark malts like chocolate and black. These additions also give a bit more body to the brew, an essential quality for a beer of such modest fortitude.
Dark milds, dark amber to ruby to dark brown, are reminiscent of Brown Ales and Porters, albeit of lower gravity. Dark crystal malt, and more liberal quantities of chocolate and black malts, help define the dark versions, which are the most common. It is not uncommon to include adjunct grains (such as corn), or any number of sugars (such as demarara, treacle, golden syrup or simply dextrose). Some purists might cringe at this notion, but it is wholly acceptable in most of the world’s brewing circles. A wort that ferments to 3.0 to 5.0% ABV, with 3.5% being about average, is the range for a mild. A historical mild might be around 5.5 to 6.0%.
England was slow to embrace hops as a brewing ingredient, but now produces some of the finest ale hops. John Golding selected and propagated a hop that he found suitable in 1790, and to this day his stock is the exemplary British ale hop. Goldings grown in East Kent are considered the best. The soft, herbal fragrance is familiar to anyone who enjoys British brews. That temperate quality serves to prop up malt nicely without being forceful. Fuggles hops are a bit earthier than Goldings and is at its best as an aroma hop. North American brewers might use the hops they are familiar with, but there are some, such as Bramling Cross and Willamette, that carry an English pedigree. Hop rates around 25 IBU are typical, with a minimal emphasis on late hop additions for aroma.
Classic house strains put the final footprint on a fine mild. English yeasts have plenty of character on their own and, to make a mellow ale where subtleties matter, any ingredient that adds to the palette is best. To try to lump the yeasts together based on these nuances would be impossible. The effect, though, is rather apparent. It is more than likely a choice of region, a yeast that has been selected to mesh with the local water supply.
Though this author has enjoyed a few pretty decent versions made in the United States, mild is best enjoyed in its elemental Britain. It is especially suitable for cask dispensing, yet another nod to classic British beer culture. Though mild sales reportedly make up less than 1% of the beer sold in the UK, it is readily available. A good resource to uncover these gems would be any one of the CAMRA guides. There may even be a slight resurgence in the style, thanks to some wheedling by CAMRA. Among the best is Timothy Taylor Golden Best, a classic example of Pale mild. Some are bottled and shipped abroad, and usually they are the stronger examples. American brewers delve into mild on occasion, and may put an American twist to it regarding strength or hops, but most I’ve had are brewed to fete the authentic versions. Some are seasonal, and based on their scarcity, it would be wise to sample them if possible.
Mild ale is one of those styles of beer that has a somewhat staid, old-fashioned reputation. It is much more optimistic to view it as quaint, unassuming and traditional. Like other low-gravity styles, it is designed as the ultimate session or sociable delight. As such, it still brings people together, much as it has for 300 years―a chance for hours of camaraderie over pints. Simply put, mild affords the beer lover a long stint of subdued enjoyment, a metaphor of the beer itself.
Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby MildABV: 6.0
Tasting Notes: From the Sarah Hughes Brewery at the Beacon Hotel in England’s West Midlands, Dark Ruby is a classic example of a Historical mild. The brewery closed in 1957, but was resurrected in 1987. Deep mahogany in color, with a bubbly brown head, the aroma is reminiscent of dark fruit and chocolate. It has a slick mouthfeel, is somewhat sweet, but malty and rich. There are also some tart, wine-like notes and little in the way of hops. This brew hearkens back to when milds were stronger and similar to today’s Old Ales. Bottle-conditioned.
Gale’s Festival MildABV: 4.8
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Hampshire, England by George Gale and Co. Limited. Festival mild pours deep brown with red highlights, the bottle conditioning gives up a shallow, fleeting head. The aroma has raisin and toffee, with a noticeable hop nose. The flavor is full, malty and full of dark, ripe fruit. A sweet chocolate finish is clinched with a light bitterness. This is a fairly forceful Dark mild, but still an excellent session beer.
Young’s Dirty DickABV: 4.1
Tasting Notes: A Dark mild brewed by the renowned Ram Brewery of Wandsworth, England. Caramel-brown in color, with a beige, fluffy head. Earthy hops and caramel decorate the aroma. Lightly sweet, nutty malt and biscuit in the flavor with a nice bitterness, making for a sturdy finish. Overall, it is a quenching session beer that isn’t too heavy on the dark malts.
Milltown MildABV: 3.3
Tasting Notes: Brewed by Victory Brewing in Downingtown, PA. This was sampled on-cask at the Victory brewpub. Deep amber color, well fined and clear, with a minimal, off-white head. The aroma is rather soft, with a toasty, bready character and a spicy hop background. The flavor is a mixture of caramel and nuts, with a decent hop dose to render the beer complex for a mild. It is obvious that this is a low-gravity beer upon taste, but has enough backbone to make it interesting and inviting. It is available only on draft at the brewery, usually in the fall.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is a research analyst in Durham, NC and an award-winning homebrewer.