Mild ale, a quintessentially British beer style, has been in terminal decline since World War II. Now, despite a long-running campaign to save it and numerous false dawns, it may finally be getting the boost it needs, but will it be at the cost of its identity?
Mild reached the peak of its popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it was the standard drink of working folk, often branded as something like ‘X Ale’. Served fresh rather than matured it was sweetly nourishing and cheaper than pale ale. Milds became weaker after World War I and, perhaps to compensate, some also became darker. By the 1950s mild had settled into its late 20th century incarnation: low on hops, with an ABV of around 3%, and coloured black or near-black with hefty amounts of caramel. This is the type of beer most people have in mind when they talk about mild today.
Already diminished, its reputation suffered further as it became common knowledge that, being cheap and almost opaque, it was frequently the dumping ground for leftovers and spoiled beer (‘slops’).
From the 1960s its popularity waned as first draught bitter overtook it and then lager, both of which were relatively expensive premium products and ‘cleaner’ in appearance and flavour. By 1976, according to figures from industry body the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), dark mild made up only around 9 percent of total beer sales in the U.K.
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), founded in 1971, may have been successful in reviving interest in traditional cask-conditioned draught beer but the so-called ‘real ale revolution’ was centred on bitter, best bitter and strong ales such as cult favourite Fuller’s ESB. Mild was largely sidelined. For some diehards, however, mild was the very symbol of what was being lost by the takeover of British brewing by huge firms: a working class drink made to be consumed in volume, cheap to buy, and, at its best, expressing a distinctive dark-sugar lusciousness. In 1977, by which time CAMRA was considered by many to have achieved its aims, a new sub-campaign launched aimed at boosting mild’s profile. For almost 40 years CAMRA has declared May the Month of Mild and urged pubs to mark it by offering mild as a seasonal specialty. It has not, on balance, been a success: by 2011 mild represented a mere 0.5 percent of total U.K. beer sales (BBPA). The association with CAMRA, which has not itself always had a good public image, has perhaps done mild more harm than good and, where once mild was dismissed as a drink for old men, it is now dismissed as one for really old men and nerds.
As a result of that poor public image, and poor public knowledge of what to expect from a beer labelled as mild, many breweries that do produce examples of the style have taken to giving them names like Black, Dark or even Old (literally the opposite of mild) implying robustness and perhaps hinting at a connection with stout that isn’t supported by history.
There have been many false alarms in the longed-for revival of mild—MILD EUPHORIA AFTER BREWERS’ LAGER OFFENSIVE read the headline of one typically over-optimistic story in the Financial Times in 1997. When it comes to writing about beer, journalists are naturally drawn to tales of doom-and-gloom or triumphant resurgence, with little room for anything in-between. Nonetheless, the last five years really has seen some hopeful developments with unusual takes on mild emerging from distinctly non-traditional breweries.
Dark Star, best known for its pale and hoppy Hophead, first brewed Victorian Ruby Mild in 2009—a 6% beer that departed from 21st century dark mild style guidelines and pointed the way for others that followed. The Kernel, a London brewery known as much for historically inspired dark beers as much as American-style IPAs, dabbled in strong mild on more than one occasion from 2011 onward. Andy Smith of Partizan Brewing recalls the development of his X Ale which has been in regular production since 2013:
The beer was originally simply called mild. We wanted to generate a bit of conversation from the surprise that a bottle of mild was 6.5%. Turns out no one wanted to buy mild and as a result we had very little discussion about its strength with anyone. We then decided to rebrand as X … This worked OK but not as well as we’d hoped. It was at this stage we put dinosaurs on the label and sales rocketed! I kid you not. It sells as well if not better now as our other dark beers. Dinosaurs!
The beer that might be said to have kicked off 2015-16’s quiet boom came from Buxton Brewery in Derbyshire in the English Midlands. Buxton’s Ring Your Mother was brewed as a one-off collaboration with Dutch breweries Rooie Dop (now Oproer) and Oedipus. Head brewer Colin Stronge explained how it came about:
We flitted through some ideas but the one we all found ourselves repeatedly drawn to was a turn-of-the-century mild. The recipe was a play on two Truman’s recipes for Milds which we combined and added a small twist with some modern new world hops. (Nothing too over the top as we wanted to keep the beer fairly traditional.) We wanted to revisit when a mild meant a fresh rather than an aged beer, not the more modern interpretation.
Ring Your Mother, despite its historical bona fides, was almost calculated to startle a conservative mild drinker with an ABV of 9.5%, a pronounced hop character, and an amber-to-red hue instead of the customary brown-to-black. Stronge himself is not a fan of standard dark milds—‘Most modern takes on the style are pretty bland’—but has a soft spot for Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild, an outlier at 6.5% with a cult reputation. Ring Your Mother seems to have excited more interest than many of the earlier examples listed above and is currently, by some distance, RateBeer’s top ranking, and most-rated, mild.
Another brewery that has started experimenting with mild only in the last year or so is Liverpool Mad Hatter Brewing Co. This turn is all the more surprising because it is best known for bizarre but often effective flavour experiments with non-native styles such as Tzatziki Sour (a Berliner-style weisse with cucumbers and mint) and Rhubarb & Custard (a saison with Yorkshire rhubarb and vanilla). Gaz Matthews is Mad Hatter’s co-founder and self-styled ‘recipe writer’ and he too struggles to see the appeal of mild as it lingers on in the mainstream: ‘I don’t know why anyone would drink those standard 3% dark milds when there’s session IPAs around with so much more flavour going on.’ Like Colin Stronge he came to the idea of strong, rich milds having read about Victorian examples:
I got into this idea that they could be a treat—not a beer where you say, ‘Oh, I know where I am with this,’ and drink six pints—something chewy, a sort of dessert beer. They don’t have to be dark, they’re nothing to do with stout or porter. You raise the mash temperature a bit, put in some body building elements with the malt, and you brew something that’s really pale, un-aged barley wine… It’s sweeter and, if you like, stodgier than porter—more of a strong dark ale, like [Theakston] Old Peculier. But I think I’m still working it out as I go along. My current thinking is that it’s the beer everything else isn’t, do you know what I mean?
In recent months Mad Hatter has produced at 6.7%, 7.2% and, most recently, 10%, the latter being a salted caramel mild brewed as a one-off collaboration with another brewery. Matthews is in no doubt that there remains a challenge in getting drinkers whose interest in beer was bred on big, flowery IPAs and sour beers to give mild another chance:
I think if you give them a twist to grab people’s attention, an interesting name, and they see that they’re strong—‘Oh, hold on, 10%?’—they realise it’s not for glugging down, it’s something interesting, a sipping beer. You’ve got to break down people’s idea of what mild is and then build it up again.
Andy Parker is in the process of establishing a new brewery in Berkshire in the south of England. A former IT professional, he has brought an analytical, logical approach to deciding which styles to include in his repertoire. He is quite open about his motives for brewing mild:
I’m doing it to have a regular beer that doesn’t use too many hops—just 10 IBUs solely from Target to be precise—so from that perspective it’s a practical decision rather than a romantic draw towards the style. I think we’ll see smaller breweries exploring malt-forward styles more this year.
On the face of it his mild, designed to be served as a cask-conditioned beer, seems ostensibly less outré than the Buxton or Mad Hatter takes but in fact has a twist of its own calculated to appeal to dedicated craft beer drinkers and raise eyebrows among the old school: it is made with 25 percent smoked malt. He also has plans for a strong historically-inspired mild to be released as a winter special at the end of this year.
All four of the brewers above mention having been inspired in one way or another by one person: beer historian Ron Pattinson. Gaz Matthew says:
I got his book, The Homebrewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer, and I was blown away by the 19th century recipes for mild. They’re 10%, 11% … All mild meant then was that they were served fresh.
A confirmed fan of sessionable mid-20th century dark mild, Pattinson has spent the last decade battling against persistent myths that surround the history of the style. He has little patience for outdated ideas about dark mild being a degraded descendant of porter and, if you want to provoke him to rage, try telling him that the name ‘mild’ is a reference to the fact that the beer is traditionally weak with low levels of hopping:
Educating people about Mild—in particular how much it’s changed—has been one of the main themes of my blog. The history of mild, because it’s unexpected—many old milds are strong and crazily hopped—attracts attention.
He personally collaborated directly on the brewing of two milds with now-defunct American gypsy brewers Pretty Things in 2010 and 2011:
I never thought they’d brew the sub-3% ABV version—it looked like a commercial non-starter to me in the U.S. They did manage to sell it all but I don’t think it was easy. Most new breweries go for pre-WW I versions.
In the U.K. many breweries that have arisen in the boom of the last decade model themselves to a greater or lesser extent on American craft brewers and so perhaps it’s no surprise that they too have seized upon strong historic mild while generally ignoring the straight-up three-point-something style of the mid-20th century.
Do these handful of left-field milds herald a great comeback? Colin Stronge doubts it: “I think people are just too in love with hop-led beers for the time being for them to really become the go-to style.” Andy Smith at Partizan is a little more hopeful. He observes that the historic weakening of mild was partly driven by the need to meet a price point demanded by consumers and that craft beer drinkers are willing to pay more for stronger beers. He is only half-joking when he adds: “If Victorian strength milds become as popular as IPAs then I guarantee the obvious continuation will be the ‘seshun Victorian X mild 3.5% beer’, AKA mild.”
In the meantime, how does the rather novelty-averse Ron Pattinson feel about the idea that his historical research has inspired a 10% salted caramel mild from Mad Hatter? “I’m speechless,” he says diplomatically.
Boak & Bailey have been blogging at boakandbailey.com since 2007. They were named 2014 beer writers of the year by the British Guild of Beer Writers for Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer. They live in Cornwall in the far west of the U.K.