Go Wild for Milds, Britain's Original Session Beer

November 26, 2018

By Norman Miller, November 26, 2018

There are great American milds like Lion Bridge's Compensation, a gold medal winner at both the 2014 and 2016 Great American Beer Festival. But milds are the most quintessentially British style of beer, and imbued with social history.

For 150 years, from around 1800 to the 1950s, mild dominated British pub taps as a liquid icon of Britain's blue collar millions—a silky-smooth refresher whose low alcohol slaked thirsts without a raging hangover. “Brewed as a less bitter and hoppy alternative to stout and porter, mild was drunk in vast amounts by industrial and agricultural workers,” explains British beer guru Roger Protz.

Before 1800, however, mild as a specific style didn't really exist. The name instead marked any ale that had not been aged, with references to “mild ale” going back a thousand years. The 17th and 18th century saw a new trend for aging beers to produce bitter brews that commanded a premium. Legend has it the standard price for a pot of mild was a penny, while aged ale cost tuppence.  

Though briefly rivalled in popularity during the first half of the 18th century by London porter, mild re-asserted its pre-eminence as Britain's go-to brew. Mild was even part of the pay at breweries such as Robinsons who, until health and safety regulations intervened in the 1990s, allocated workers four pints a day of its 1892 Mild (sadly, discontinued)—with most of the allowance generally consumed before midday.

If you think knocking back four pints during a morning shift could cause problems, a key point of most milds is low alcohol content—around 3% is not unusual. Another selling point is a reliance on malts, not hops, for flavor. Brown and chocolate malts underpin dark milds' chocolate, treacle, and coffee flavor profiles, while pale malts give lighter milds more caramel notes.

Shunning the modern-day hop mania is part of the special appeal of milds. “In today’s brewing, hops are the queens of the scene in terms of aroma, flavor, and the beer conversation,” says leading British beer sommelier Jane Peyton. “Milds offer alternative flavor and aroma—and tending to be lowish in alcohol, they make very good session beers.”  

A traditionally British blue collar brew drunk by workers with limited disposable income didn't fit a world of craft ales where hipsters paid top dollar for this week's novel IPA.”

Social shifts after World War II saw mild's blue collar association trigger a fall in fortunes, however. This worsened in the 1960s as increased foreign travel made British drinkers think drinking continental European lager was a sign of well-travelled sophistication rather than a terrible error of judgement.

Even then, mild held out in historic strongholds like the Midlands, south Wales, and northern England, where factories and coal mines still provided the heart of many communities. In the mid-1970s, Britain's annual Good Beer Guide published by CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) still listed 130 milds brewed by 106 brewers.  

Sadly, that number slumped as multinationals took over smaller breweries and ditched milds to focus on beers that turned more profit. A traditionally British blue collar brew drunk by workers with limited disposable income didn't fit a world of craft ales where hipsters paid top dollar for this week's novel IPA. 

But widening tastes and deepening awareness of heritage beers are fueling a slow but steady comeback for milds in their spiritual home. CAMRA has designated May as “Mild Month” to encourage breweries to release new examples, and 21st-century milds have repeatedly scooped Britain's top beer accolade, with Rudgate Ruby Mild, Moorhouse's Black Cat, and Hobson's Mild all named Supreme Champion Beers of Britain.

Fine pale milds are reappearing too, such as Timothy Taylor's Golden Best. Roger Protz reels off some of his other current British mild favourites: Castle Rock Black Gold; East London Orchid Vanilla Mild; Greene King XX; Holden's Black Country Mild; Penzance Mild; Rhymney Dark and Strathaven Craigmill Mild.

Another mild fan is Steve Keegan, head brewer at the newly opened Holler microbrewery in Brighton, the bohemian English south coast city that defeated Portland and Seattle to win the world's “most hipster city” accolade on a range of hipster metrics (from vinyl shops to vegan diners) in a 2018 survey. “Creating a mild takes a lot of care,” he says. “It needs to be really well-balanced, working the different malts and yeast as the leading part of the orchestra with the hops as much more of the triangle section.”

Holler's Dad Dancing Mild was created for 2018's Mild May but will become a permanent fixture on the brewery taps for 2019. “We really think we can bring this style to the younger generation of drinkers,” says Keegan. “It has been long off most bars—but beer adventurers will discover this beer again.”

So whatever side of the Atlantic you're on, raise a glass to a historic British brew and go wild for mild.

Photo by Michael Kiser for Good Beer Hunting

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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