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.