Embrace your mild side
Katie Mather on the discovery that, as a mild drinker, she did not really exist...
Monday 25 May 2020
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People Like Us; beer for good
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You don’t get many milds nowadays, do you?” says a fellow drinker, after I tell him I’m drinking a mild. “Never see them around anymore.” I found the comment curious, because there was one in my hand, and I was drinking it. A strange sensation crept over me, as though he had looked at me, and at my beer, and found us both transparent; as though despite appearances, we did not really exist.
The mild I was drinking, Stoker’s Slake from Three B’s Brewery in Darwen, is one I know well. It’s always on at The Drummer’s Arms in Blackburn where you can get it as a pint of mix with any bitter on the bar, if you like. I didn’t choose it because of its rarity — the pub down the road from my house has Coach House Brewing’s Gunpowder Mild on permanently — but because I like it. That’s why most people around my way drink a mild. I had no idea it was an endangered species until I spent more time drinking outside of the boundaries of East Lancashire.
In recent years, as cask has once again gained a more correct level of evangelism among beer lovers (according to me), drinkers have started to realise or remember the beauty of a great pint of mild. There are regular outpourings of love for the style, and anecdotally, whenever I post a photo of a pint of mild on my twitter account (@shinybiscuit — don’t follow me, you’ll regret it), for every like or emoji smileyface there is always a response lamenting the demise of mild.
Perhaps mild is such a popular style because of the branding projected onto it. It’s a little bit more retro-sounding than a bitter. It’s a bit more mines-and-mills. Or, maybe it’s because of its indefinable nature. It’s a beer that has to pass a test before it can be enjoyed. There’s a sense of superiority brewed into the enjoyment of it; a little extra know-it-all flavour in every pint. Is it a mild? Is it your version of a mild? I mean, we all know what one is don’t we? But for the sake of argument, remind me again?
What is mild?
Beer historian Ron Pattinson knows milds better than most, and even he can’t give me an elevator pitch.
He begins: “Mild has been perceived to have many different meanings over the years.” An intimidating start.
“But what it really means is this: an ale that is consumed unaged. The name “mild” covers quite a broad spectrum today in terms of colour. I suppose nowadays Mild implies something with a modest gravity and a low level of hopping. It's quite vague, really.”
Alice Batham, of Batham’s, Brewster’s and now Thornbridge, has a much more dogmatic approach to pinning down the wiggly specifics.
“I’m a brewer trained to believe that certain styles should possess certain characteristics,” she says, “otherwise the very idea of a style is futile. A traditional mild has been lightly hopped, usually dark brown in colour and full of nutty, malty flavour despite ABV’s rounding in at about 3.0%.”
“I grew up going to pubs where the only beers on tap were bitter or mild. There is something so pleasant in the simplicity of that choice; and incidentally that’s probably why I like milds, because on the surface they seem simple [low ABV, traditional ale, etc.] but can be so complex and rich. You might expect them to be thin because of the low alcohol content but the different malts work to pull a fuller flavour through.”
Where is all the mild?
It would seem that my plentiful mild-bubble is exceptional. Mild is leaving us.
Beer writer Roger Protz has already raised a hue and cry about the style’s ever-declining sales, showing Batham’s and Holdens and perfect examples of how this style is seemingly beloved, but still failing to make even a fraction of the sales as its bitter, pale or even porter counterparts (I would highly recommend Roger’s piece on the subject if you want to know more — you can find it on his website: www.Protzonbeer.co.uk).
Speaking to Claire Batham, former manager of the Batham’s Plough and Harrow pub in Kinver, it seems these sad figures are a reality rather than a pessimistic forecast.
“People really do come to drink our mild, it happens all the time,” she says, of the Batham’s Mild that has such a high reputation among beer fans everywhere. “But people aren’t drinking much of it — they’re mostly drinking bitter.”
“Drinkers love Batham’s Mild, but I was selling around 2,300 gallons of bitter, compared to around 9 gallons of mild!”
Keeping mild alive
If you thought a branding overhaul might boost sales of mild, you’re not the only one. Recently, Timothy Taylor’s chose to change the name of their dark mild Ram Tam to Landlord Dark. Andy Leman, Timothy Taylor’s head brewer, explained why:
“We are boosting drinkers’ interest in the beer,” he said. “It’s a lovely local name but further afield it means nothing. Landlord, on the other hand, means a lot to some people.”
He adds, “Ram Tam actually used to be called Old Ale, and only started being called Ram Tam in the 1950s… and nobody knows why!”
I asked Andy why, when sales of mild are so low, his brewery are putting so much effort into keeping their mild afloat.
“We do believe there is more interest in dark beers than there has been in the past 20-30 years,” he says. “But, people always say they want a dark beer but when it comes to it, they don’t drink much of them.”
It’s a disconnect that a lot of brewers and publicans are experiencing. The demand for mild, if you only looked online and captured pub conversations for your data, would show a thriving world of mild devotees. Somehow, it doesn’t quite transpose into the real world.
Ron Pattinson isn’t sure mild has the strength to fight on for much longer.
“I don't know if Mild can ever make a serious comeback,” he says. “It doesn't really tick the boxes that excite modern drinkers.”
“Then again, 10 years ago I'd have said you were insane if you'd suggested Milk Stout could make a comeback.”
Alice, rather pragmatically, sees an opportunity to bring mild back by giving drinkers what they really want, rather than what they say they do. As long as whatever that is, it’s still a mild.
“Bathams has seen a decline in mild sales; my Dad has said quite simply (and rather brutally) that ‘mild is dying because the people that drink it are.’”
“It’s exciting that there is somewhat of a renaissance for the style but I do wonder how many recipes come out as one-offs. I feel like certain beers exist dynamically in two worlds — the traditional and the craft. I do think variations on a style may aid a wider range of people enjoying beer and being led to try new things. It is interesting to see variations on the style [from other brewers], but I think these kinds of recipe decisions need to be thought about carefully.”
It doesn't really tick the boxes that excite modern drinkers
The new old mild
Despite the downturn in mild’s fortunes, modern breweries aren’t leaving it for dead. One such brewery is Sheffield-based St. Mars Of The Desert. Martha and Dann Pacquette’s choice to create a SMOD mild comes from a different place. For a start, they aren’t bound by tradition.
“I didn’t grow up here so I don’t have any associations with grandpas or anything,” says Dann.
“About 10 years I used to work at Daleside [Brewery, in Harrogate] and one day they told me I could formulate a beer, and I said ‘I might try a mild’. They told me, basically, brew anything but a mild because they are impossible to sell.”
“Their opinion was it was the worst of all worlds — it was dark, it was weak, and people didn’t want it.”
So, why on earth did they want to go for it with SMOD?
“I was talking to a US importer about what we could send to him, and he said mild. In my experience I’ve sold mild at three breweries In the US; people don’t know what it means and they don’t know what to do with it, but they want it because it’s not very prevalent.”
Even so, it’s not an easy sell.
“Milds are notoriously difficult to sell - ours included. People aren’t really doing tradition at the moment, they’re into novelty, which is fine, I lived through that in the 90s in the US. The problem is compounded by the fact that there’s no relation really between 19th century Mild and what we drink today.”
To create their mild, SMOD worked with aforementioned beer historian Ron Pattinson to create 1832 XXXX Ron — a suitably historic and hefty beer, first brewed at the Black Eagle Brewery on Brick Lane in London, Feb 27th 1832. Unlike the milds you may already know and love, this true-to-history beer wobbles on its stool at 8.1% ABV.
Ron explains the recipe he chose for their collaboration:
“One of the reasons I originally chose that recipe is because it's so unlike what people expect of mild. Plus I wanted to taste a full-strength mild for myself.”
“It's a very simple recipe,” he says. “Mild malt and a shitload of Goldings.”
Put your mild where your mouth-hole is
If you say something enough, you will begin to believe it. Like the gentleman who couldn’t see my pint resting on the bar in front of him, if you tell yourself enough times that you miss seeing mild around, eventually you will never see it again. The author Phillip K. Dick said “reality is that which refuses to go away when I stop believing in it.” Here’s a mad idea. Mild is that reality. It refuses to go away, even after 30 years of being bumped off order forms and shunned by drinkers in favour of lager and bitters and IPAs. But in these treacherous times, reality is shifting. For how much longer will the stable vision of a pint of mild remain something we can rely on?
My bigger question is this: why is a style of beer that seems to be so universally adored not being drunk? Alice has an idea:
““There is something so great about a beer that traverses time and generations; maybe that is what excites people the most. I think perhaps it is something to do with the romanticism in “rediscovering” the style, although it never really went anywhere.” So, essentially, and I don’t want to put words in Alice’s mouth here: we’re buying the lore, not the brew.
When you drink mild, you’re not just enjoying the beer, you’re allowing yourself to soak in the heritage beyond it too. You’re sipping the melancholy feeling that you are drinking a part of history that might not last much longer. It’s a liquid reminder of the passage of time — something to think about while you drink. When you next find yourself lamenting that you wish more breweries made milds, perhaps you might want to tell them directly. Let them know it’s a style you think is worth saving. Promise you’ll buy the beer they make. Then, when they brew it, actually see it. Drink it. Enjoy it.
Milds To Look Out For
Sarah Hughes — Ruby Mild
Batham’s — Dark Mild
SMOD — 1832 XXXX Ron
Harvey’s — Best Mild
Kissingate — Black Cherry Mild
Moorhouse’s — Black Cat
Brass Castle — Hazelnut Mild
Twisted Barrel — Beast of a Midlands Mild
Yorkshire Heart — Darkheart
Bank Top — Dark Mild
JW Lees — Dark
Boxcar — Dark Mild
Rudgate — Ruby Mild
Hobson’s — Mild
Teignworthy’s — Martha’s Mild
Bateman’s — Dark Mild
Timothy Taylor’s — Landlord Dark / Dark Mild
Brain’s — Dark
Grainstore Brewery — Rutland Beast
Ashover — Victorian Ruby Mild
Muirhouse — Magnum Mild
Kirkby Lonsdale — Crafty Mild
Breweries Known To Make Delicious Milds, On Occasion
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