All About Beer Magazine - Volume 32, Issue 1
March 1, 2011 By &

Coming soon to a bar near you: mild ale.

This traditional English beer, once the most popular style in the country, fell from favor in the last century. However, it is staging a comeback in its native land, and has even made its way onto U.S. shores. You’ll have to do your research if you want to try it this side of the Atlantic, but mild—sometimes dubbed the original session beer—has qualities that make it a great choice for American audiences.

Mild is a malty, low-hopped, low-alcohol, and light-bodied beer. The style is highly diverse: milds vary in color from light amber to dark brown and black.  They range from warming roasty examples to more refreshing summer lunchtime choices.

The name “mild” comes from the fact that the style is low in hop bitterness: in that, it is mild compared to the other English pub staple, the style called bitter. Mild dates back to the late 18th century, and grew to meet the demands of a new class of industrial laborers. It became particularly popular in the Midlands, a heavily industrialized area of England. There it was drunk by miners and factory workers looking to quench their thirst after a hard day’s labor—people who were also looking for a value beer.

Then, in the 1950s, the popularity of mild began to slip. Britain’s industrial base declined and, with it, the demand for this sweet, sustaining, low alcohol beer. Mild’s reputation was not helped by the publicans (however few) who dumped drip tray waste and cellar waste, known in the industry as “slops,” back into the beer.

Things became even worse for mild in the 1970s when large breweries introduced keg beer, which was filtered, pasteurized and dispensed with the use of added carbon dioxide. Publicans liked keg beer, which had a longer shelf life and required less care, but the new method displaced the older cask-conditioned method of tending and serving beer to which mild and other traditional beer styles were well suited. Beers dispensed in this manner from the cask declined dramatically. Shortly afterwards, light lagers started to take hold.

Fewer and fewer breweries by the 1970s were producing mild and those that were tended to drop “mild” from the names of those beers. Soon, mild became something that old men drank and “beer” became pretty synonymous with fizzy golden liquid.

Mild stayed out of favor until the 1990s. By then the practice of putting the slops back into the beer had been stopped. “There was a lot of opposition at the time but now it’s virtually unheard of,” said Graham Yates, licensee of The Brunswick pub in Derby in the Midlands, who worked for big brewer Everards at the time of the changes.

“[Adding the slops] was done because the licensees were all being pushed on profit, to make sure any beer that was in the barrels or in the bottom of drip trays was returned to the mix,” he added. “It was easiest to put it in the mild because it’s a dark beer.”

Mild Rebounds

Although mild ale can be served in any format, including bottles and conventional kegs, in its heyday it would have been found most often in pubs as a cask-conditioned beer. So it is fitting that supporters of this form of beer, also known as “real ale,” have been instrumental in mild’s return.

In 1971, CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale was launched to bring cask-conditioned beers back from the brink of extinction. Now 100,000 members strong, the organization is backed by plenty of Brits tired of drinking poor quality beer. CAMRA promotes good-quality real ale (defined as “beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide”) and the pub as a focus of community life.

CAMRA has focused extensively on mild and every year runs its Mild in May Campaign, through which it encourages its 200-plus branches (which are spread through the U.K.) to encourage at least one pub in their area to stock at least one mild during the month.

Over the years, more and more pubs have begun participating in Mild in May. But some pubs in England have success with mild all year long. One is The Brunswick, where they’ve always done well, said Yates, constituting 8 percent of sales.

Yates sells two milds at all times, and four during the Mild in May promotion. Recently on tap was Black Sabbath, which at 6 percent ABV is a very strong mild, and Midnight Express, which is a more standard 3.6 percent.

“There’s a general trend back towards traditional beer, brewed in the old way and as part of that, mild’s becoming more popular,” said Yates. “Mild used to be just drunk by old men over 60, or in certain areas, like Birmingham, where a lot of mild is drunk. But I’ve noticed more and more, even young girls come in and drink it now, although not too much of the strong one. It’s because they like the flavor.”

Kelham Island Tavern in Sheffield, in the north of England, always has a mild on tap, such as Thwaite’s Nutty Black (3.5%) or the slightly stronger Cock Mild.

The milds vary from 3 up to 5.5 percent, but people tend to think mild is a weak beer,” said licensee Trevor Wraith. “That’s not true—they’re mild as opposed to bitter; they’re lacking in hops.”

Mild started getting more popular at Kelham Island about four years ago. “We always would try from time to time, but we didn’t always have one on permanently. More people have become interested in it. It did have a bad reputation in this country,” said Wraith.

Iain Loe, research manager and national spokesperson for CAMRA, thinks mild will continue to be popular, but will remain a small proportion of the real ale market.

And much of the mild, he anticipated, will come from the small and medium-sized breweries. “The people in the smaller and medium-sized breweries are coming into the industry fresh and are not burdened down by the fact that they have to make certain numbers for their shareholders and have to appeal to lots and lots of beer drinkers,” said Loe.

“The big brewers tend to brew beers that no one objects to the taste of. The smaller ones make beers that some people love and some people loathe, but that’s great, because the people might hate one beer you produce but love another one. The smaller brewers can afford to be more innovative and experimental. They also network more and get ideas from within the country and aren’t afraid to get ideas and even get ingredients from abroad.”

Mild in America

So mild’s taking hold again in the U.K., but what’s surprising is that breweries and brewpubs in the U.S. are starting to serve it, too.

Brewers Union Local 180 is a tiny brewery/pub in Oakridge, OR. This summer it served a pilot batch of Light Rye Mild (3.1 percent ABV) and the 3.6 percent Cwrw Bach, which means “small beer” in Welsh. The latter came out a little thinner than was intended, said publican and brewer Ted Sobel. It’s a dark mild that contains a little peated malt, but Sobel would like to try it with more chocolate and maybe some oats.

Brewers Union Local 180 is located in the Cascade Mountains, an area that’s becoming a destination for mountain biking, so 75 percent of business comes from tourists.

The mild does sell and we’ve not had a cask go bad, but by far the tastes out here are big (for big beers). But I do get requests for mild, especially more from the ladies. With mild, people are looking for less alcohol, less hops, something a bit on the sweet side, something refreshing.” Sobel typically serves mild during the summer and fall.

This is a big discovery for some people. Many people don’t understand what [mild] means, so some brewers call it something else. People see the word mild and it scares them away. But our place seems to be unique because we’re hidden away and people want to try cask ale. We sell way more cask beer than CO2” said Sobel, referring to the added carbon dioxide used to dispense conventional draft or keg beer.

The Happy Gnome in St. Paul, MN, serves the seasonal 4.2 percent Surly Mild from Surly Brewing Co. in Minneapolis. “It sells well, especially for people who hate hops,” said general manager Catherine Pflueger. “The nice maltiness means it pairs really well with food. It also has nice caramel and chocolate flavor.”

Around 70 beers are offered on tap at The Happy Gnome, and mild is offered as often as it is available. “Because it’s low alcohol, it’s really easy to drink but might be a little dangerous ultimately. It’s perfect for the spring because it’s lighter and everyone drinks it,” said Pflueger.

Milds deserve more recognition, she said. “I think it’s harder to make a non-hoppy beer than to hop things up. You can always add hops, hops, tons of hops and at some point it gets a little much.”

Church Key is a high-end beer bar in Washington, DC. It serves five cask ales and one of those is almost always a mild. The milds most consistently come from Pratt Street Ale House in Baltimore, brewed by Steve Jones, a Brit with a biochemistry background.

This summer, Church Key served Oliver’s Dark Horse (4 percent), which beer director Greg Engert described as “a little malty, not bitter but a little dry. Coffeeish with some nuttiness but hardly any roast to it.”

The bar also serves Black Cat from Moorhouse’s Brewery in Burnley in the north of England. Unlike most of the other beers poured here, it comes in a bottle, so it is not as fresh as the cask mild from Pratt Street Ale House.

So it will run the risk of oxidation, or a sort of deadened aroma, or even some skunking from UV light infiltrating the glass bottle,” said Engert. “Since mild is a mellow and delicate brew, the fresher and more natural the product, the more flavorful and rewarding it will be. Mild really should be brewed locally and dispensed from the cask.” The two beers are also different in price. A pint of Oliver’s Dark costs $5 but a 16.9-oz. bottle of Black Cat runs double that.

People who drink mild are typically the people who are more informed about beer, said Engert. “It’s people who want a few beers without being inebriated. It’s almost trendy to drink low-alcohol beers now.”

Portsmouth Brewery in New Hampshire attracts quite a few beer geeks according to brewer Tod Mott, but he said that the pub gets great kudos from any visiting Brits for the milds it serves.

It has a British-style dark mild called the Dark Light, and an American mild that’s closer to an IPA, but containing late kettle addition hops so it’s a little milder and around 4.2 percent alcohol—a little stronger than most British milds. The American mild, Whippersnapper, is more popular.

Milds, said Mott, are “the original session beer. As soon as we turn people onto them, they get it.”

Portsmouth typically serves its British mild in the fall or winter because people think it’s a huge, dark beer and it pours the American mild three times a year. Mild, pointed out Mott, is easy to brew: it only takes five to seven hours, another three-day primary fermentation then about 10 days of conditioning.

Dave McLean is brewmaster and owner of Magnolia Pub and Brewery in San Francisco and serves mild, he said, because he loves it. Since he opened the pub in 1997, it’s had a strong English influence.

Magnolia pours two milds: Sara’s Ruby Mild is a deep red/amber color and has a sweetness from crystal malts. Dark Star Mild is a brown to black, almost opaque beer, whose color comes from black and chocolate malt rather than crystal, rendering it a little more crisp and sharp. The hops are fairly similar. Both have a base of floor-malted Maris Otter barley and are fermented with the house strain of an English ale yeast.

Sara’s Ruby Mild is the most popular, but McLean said that is, in part, because he’s been making it for nearly 13 years, it is regularly available, and it won a gold medal last year at the Great American Beer Festival.

We’ve been successful in developing a reputation for lower gravity, English-style beers, so many of our customers are conditioned to check in and find out which beers in that category range are currently on tap,” he said. “We also use these beers to educate newcomers about the styles and how we approach our craft. Sara’s, especially, is a great introductory beer for this.”

Regarding milds, specifically, I love the way in which premium, heirloom barleys like Maris Otter really get a chance to shine when they are used in a balanced beer like a mild,” he explained. McLean is hopeful for the future. He hopes session beers will become as popular as they once were, both as everyday ales and good food pairing beers.

The future looks bright on both sides of the Atlantic.

It’s in the past decade, and especially the last couple of years, that mild has really gained traction with the British public. In fact, according to CAMRA, there are now more than 200 milds brewed in the U.K.

According to Duncan Woodhead, CAMRA national beer styles coordinator: “Some of the U.K.’s leading brewers have reverted back to calling their renowned brands a ‘mild,’ and with the overall growth of the real ale industry coinciding with figures showing 50 percent of U.K. drinkers have now tried real ale, there’s a real opportunity for the mild to return to its former glory, when in the 1950s it was the nation’s most popular beer style.”

It’s unlikely mild will ever be that popular again, but with the increasing demand for local products, session beers and support for local breweries, it could have a little more sticking power the second time around.

Julie Johnson
Julie Johnson is the technical editor of All About Beer Magazine.