Can Mild Ale Make it in America?
Alistair Reece is a peripatetic Scot currently living in Virginia, and a bit of a contrarian. “My dad used to tell me as a kid that ‘if it’s easy, it’s not worth it,’ and anyone can advocate for super hoppy strong ales when they are 10 a penny.” So of course he’s championing mild ale, a style so obscure many Americans have never encountered it in the wild. Each year, the United Kingdom’s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) promotes mild ale in May, and Reece decided to launch American Mild Month to run concurrently on this side of the Atlantic. “Mild is such a rare beast that I wanted to give it it’s own moment in the spotlight.”
Rare this beast is—even in England. Mild was, as recently as the 1960s, the best-selling style in Britain. (Just after World War II, it had a staggering 70 percent market share.) Bitters finally supplanted them in 1968, and milds went through a precipitous drop in popularity, bottoming out at around 1 percent of the market. It got so bad that CAMRA created Milds in May to promote the style. Ales have made a booming recovery in the U.K., but stronger, hoppier beers are leading the resurgence, and milds look out of step with the times, even there.
Recently, the Guardian published what amounted to an obituary for the style, arguing, “Tastes have changed. People have moved on. Mild looks destined to wither away. … During Mild Month, CAMRA encourages pubs to carry at least one mild, but the idea it will ever return as a regular feature feels farcical. Tastes are heading in the opposite direction. Modern beer drinkers crave flavour—trying to hold back that tide back seems pointless, retrograde even.”
And that’s what they’re saying in England.
But hold on. There’s a countervailing trend in the U.S. toward smaller beer, led by the rapid growth in “Session IPAs.” Furthermore, the “traditional” British mild is actually vastly different from milds of earlier centuries, so we can’t foreclose the possibility of further adaptation. What Reece proposes is not the manufacture and sale of extinct curiosities, but something living, speaking with an American accent. “Part of the project has been to encourage brewers to create an ‘American Mild’ style using American ingredients,” Reece explained. “So while I love the traditional dark mild, I am happy to try new things within the style as well.”
All About Mild
Let’s back up and look at that nearly-extinct curiosity struggling to survive in Britain. From the 1700s through to the early 20th century, a mild was any beer served fresh, rather than aged (or “stale”). Ales aged in casks picked up the characteristic flavors of Brettanomyces, which the young ales lacked. The word “mild” could apply to any beer, light or dark, weak or strong (and a lot of them were quite strong), so long as it was un-aged. It was an adjective more than a style.
Modern milds developed as a consequence of two events. The first, in 1880, was a change in the law that allowed brewers to use sugar and adjuncts in beer. Then came the world wars, rationing, tax hikes and what came to be known as the “great gravity drop,” as ales made do on far slighter grists. Milds, typically dark, weak (3% to 3.5%), and, well, mild-tasting, emerged after Hitler’s fall and slaked the thirst of the war generation.
They declined in the 1970s in part because they seemed out of fashion and in part because they were made very cheaply, but then enjoyed a quality renaissance when the first wave of small breweries started arriving in the 1970s and 1980s. (Unlike modern British “craft breweries,” these earlier pioneers made classic cask ales.) One of the practitioners of quality mild is John Boyce, founder of Essex’s Mighty Oak Brewing. His Oscar Wilde Mild has won the mild category twice and in 2011 won Champion Beer of Britain, the country’s highest laurel.
Boyce believes good milds should be made with quality malts and no sugar. “Milds are predominantly dark colored beers,” he says, outlining the style. “They usually use black malt to build some burnt/malt flavor to make up for the low bitterness.” The malts should layer in flavor, and the hops, “traditional English varieties such as Goldings, Fuggles, Challenger,” should round out the flavor profile, making a classic British cask tipple. Boyce’s is stronger than most milds (but still just 3.7%), and when it won champion beer, judges said it had a “great depth of character, and for the style has a lot of hop bitterness as well.”
Milds may be a niche style in Britain, but at breweries like Mighty Oak they manage to become flagship brands. The Guardian’s opinion notwithstanding, there’s no reason to think characterful examples of mild won’t find an audience in Britain.
That can’t be said for the U.S., though. Milds still fall (barely) within the British palate, but even great beers like Boyce’s are well outside America’s. They start out with three strikes against them: 1) they’re weaker even than light beer, 2) they’re mostly dark, and 3) they depend on an appreciation of subtle flavors. Americans are warming to session beers, but anything below 4% isn’t going to fly unless it’s intense. Dark beers are on the wane in the age of hops, and Americans love strong, vivid flavors. So while a Berliner weisse (super-low alcohol, but super-high flavor) or a session IPA (low alcohol, high hops) might make it, English-style milds are doomed.
But could they be Americanized just enough to creep into our preferred palate? What if you dialed down the color a notch or two to something between an amber and a brown, added a specialty malt or three (oats, rye, or something curious like buckwheat, spelt, or quinoa), and added the requisite level and type of American hopping? Would a dark amber oatmeal mild, dry-hopped with Citra, sell in the U.S.? And perhaps as relevantly, would an amber oatmeal Citra mild still qualify as a mild? (Color Reece skeptical. “Just because Citra tastes great doesn’t mean Citra is all I want to taste in my beer.”)
I’m willing to see boundaries stretched. While I love a proper English mild, I think I’d really enjoy this oatmeal Citra mild, too. Styles survive when they evolve with the times—and they die off when they stick needlessly to tradition. (Had any good Cöpenicker Moll lately?) I have no idea if Americans and milds can come to a meeting of the minds, but I’d like to see them try. Alistair Reece has managed to coax 48 breweries into making a mild for this inaugural Mild Month, which seems like a decent proof of concept. I hope others join in, and I hope even more come back next year and try their hand at a mild.
(Extra credit to anyone willing to try a dark amber, oatmeal Citra mild.)