Style Guide: Mild

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has designated May as Mild Month, so without further ado, let’s introduce this wonderful beer style!

A brief history of Mild

The roots of mild ale are shrouded in ambiguity, though it is likely that the style stretches back to earlier than the 17th century. Whereas in more recent times the term ‘mild’ has denoted a ‘mildly hopped’ beer, it originally meant young beer or ale, as opposed to ‘stale’ aged beer or ale with its resulting tanginess. Thus there was Mild Ale, but also Mild Porter, Mild Pale Ale and even Mild Bitter Beer. These young beers were generally weak in taste and were often blended with aged ‘stale’ beer to improve their flavour. From the mid-19th century public taste moved away from the aged taste, and unblended young beer, mostly in the form of Mild Ale or Light Bitter Beer, began to dominate the market.

In the 19th century a typical brewery would have produced three or four mild ales, usually designated by a number of Xs denoting their strength, hence the weakest being X, the strongest XXXX. They were considerably stronger than the milds of today, with the original gravity (OG) ranging from around 1.055 to 1.072 (about 5.5% to 7% ABV). Gravities dropped throughout the late 19th century, and by the outbreak of WWI the weakest milds were down to about OG 1.045 (4.5% ABV), still considerably stronger than modern versions.

The temperance measures applied to the brewing industry during WWI, including higher taxation and a striving for lower ABVs, had a considerable effect upon mild. As the biggest-selling beer style, it suffered the largest cut in gravity when breweries had to limit the OG of their beer to 1.030 (about 2.8-3.0% ABV). In order to be able to produce some stronger beer – which was exempt from price controls and thus more profitable – mild was reduced to 1.025 or lower. These measures were all repealed in the coming decades.

Once sold in every pub, mild experienced a catastrophic fall in popularity after the 1960s. Up until the mid-1960s, mild was the most popular beer style in England, and enjoyed similar popularity in Wales and Scotland. However, this popularity was swamped by bitter and lager in almost all of Britain, except a few pockets of the West Midlands, Wales and North West England. Some British brewers continue to produce mild, but many have found it sells better under a different name. For instance, Banks’s mild was renamed Original. Outside the United Kingdom, Mild is virtually unknown, with the exception of Old in New South Wales and some microbrewery recreations in North America and Scandinavia. In 2002, only 1.3% of beer sold in British pubs was Mild, though this is a marked increase from the figure of 0.8% during the early nineties.

Some regional brewers still produce mild including Hook Norton brewery

Styles of Mild

Nowadays milds enjoy a range of ABVs and styles – though most are in the range 1.030–1.036 (3–3.6% abv) and can vary from dark amber to near-black in colour. Nearly all modern milds are very light-bodied.

Dark Mild

As the name suggests, these milds are darker in colour, from hazel brown to almost black, and come in a variety of ABVs (most are 3.0-3.6%, though some such as Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild weigh in at much stronger gravities). They are generally low in body, with a predominantly malty palate, very low hops and usually a very short to no finish or backtaste. Good examples of Dark Mild include Bateman’s Dark Mild, Bank Top Dark Mild, Dark Star Over The Moon, Thwaites Dark Mild, Banks’ Original and Cains’ Dark Mild.

Light Mild

Light mild is much less common than its darker counterpart, with paler malts being used in the brewing process. These milds tend to be much lighter in colour, with less smoky, roasted, coffee and chocolate malt notes. There is some overlap between the weakest styles of bitter and light mild, with the term AK being used to refer to both. A good example is McMullen’s AK, which was re-badged as a bitter after decades as a light mild. Examples include Boggart’s Light Mild, Elland First Light, Hardy and Hanson’s Mild and Jennings’ Tom Fool.

Brown and Mild

Though technically not a style of Mild in itself, a popular drink in the West Midlands, ‘Brown and Mild’, is a mix of half a pint of mild and a bottle of Brown Ale in a pint glass. Similarly in the North West of England a mixture of half a pint of mild and half a pint of bitter is known as a ‘mixed’.

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