by David Sutula (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 5, No.6)
Mild ale endures as one of the most elusive styles of beer in the world. Ubiquitous in the history of British brewing yet rarely present in the portfolios of modern craft breweries, mild ale quietly holds its place among classic styles.
Mild ale links us to the earliest roots of British brewing. It has existed in one form or another for at least 300 years, its roots inexorably entwined with those of porter, stout, brown ale, and almost every other English ale. It is a beer that embodies the genteel spirit and hearty culture of the people who brew it and drink it. It is a restorative, an aperitif, and a session beer. Mild assumes every role that a beer can, somehow transforming itself to fit the moment and the occasion.
Mild ale today, however, occupies the same position as its cousin porter did in the early 1970s, standing at the threshold of extinction. Only a handful of breweries still make it, and its locus of production and distribution is shrinking, especially in its native English Midlands, where the sons and daughters of the aging working class are increasingly adopting lagers as their beverage of choice.
Mild ale today is one of the least understood and least appreciated styles. How can the significance — even the identity — of such a historically important beer be lost to modern minds? The question defies easy answers. The outline of its historical development, past forms, and modern-day identity presented in this article shows the complexity and richness of the mild ale style.
It is unlikely that mild ale will disappear entirely from the craft brewing repertoire of styles, considering the revivalist success of porter and stout today. An increasing number of American craft brewers are making milds, and indications abound that traditional mild is making something of a comeback on its native soil as well. With its flexibility and its potential for varied interpretation, it seems likely that mild ale will continue to enjoy a proud position in the line-up of classic styles for years to come.
History and the Evolution of Mild Ale
Back in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when beers were conditioned for a long time (up to a year) in oak vats, mild was the term used to designate a young, green beer that had yet to exhibit the well-rounded and slightly acidic character of the older “stale” or “stock” beers (1). These young beers had not undergone the lactic acid bacteria infection and Brettanomyces secondary fermentation that were the hallmarks of English ale brewing before the 19th century. These early milds were no doubt harsh with the flavor of green apples due to incomplete fermentation and smokiness from the malt of the era, which was kilned over a wood fire (2). Smoky character was of course common in all beers before the advent of coal fires. (The smokiness may even have become a somewhat prized attribute after more brewers began to switch to smoother blends of pale and dark malts.)
The term mild, then, was initially used to denote a whole class of beers rather than a distinct style. The original mild ales were often made late in the summer as the beers produced in the early spring were running out (milds were therefore often termed “running” or “present use” beers). A brewer could churn out a batch of beer, ferment it, and serve it before it had time to spoil. This cycle would go on until the next season’s beers were available for consumption (3). It is likely that because of this practice, most beers existed both in their stock form and their mild form and that both stock and mild ales could be found in the full range of gravities. Beers of that era were therefore not classified by their flavor, color, or other attributes as much as they were by their age or brewing or conditioning method.
Brown ales and porter: The terms mild and brown are two of the very oldest words used to describe beer, and it’s impossible to discuss the history of mild without considering the history of browns and porters. Originally, “brown ale” referred to any beer produced with brown malt — a wide range of beers, indeed — but in the first half of the 18th century, when English country brewers began to produce and sell pale beers, the term came to describe any beer that was not pale, including, apparently, stout, brown, and all types of darker beers in both their stock and mild forms (4).
One of the earliest references to a product called brown ale dates back to The London and Country Brewer of 1750, which offers insight into the complicated brown ale family tree. The book describes a procedure for drawing successively weaker worts from one mash largely consisting of “brown malt.” The beers yielded from this procedure were called stout, stich (or strong brown ale), and common brown ale (5).
Cousin porter: These three gyles were often mixed again in the publican’s house after fermentation to produce a fourth “new” product. According to The Private Brewer’s Guide of 1822, the countryfolk were increasingly turning to the lighter pale ales and “the consumption of Brown Beer became confined to London,” where “a mixture of stale, mild, and pale … was called three threads.” Then, in an effort to minimize the effort needed to draw the customer a pint of beer, publicans began brewing a single-gyle beer that exhibited all the qualities of the three threads. The Private Brewer’s Guide goes on to comment, “Being the beverage of laboring men, it obtained the name Porter and was called Intire Butt Beer [sic]” (6).
This publican practice marks the point at which all of the traditional English styles of beer become intertwined and the point at which they all diverge. Certainly it was as difficult to draw a distinct line between the various styles offered by brewers of 18th century London as it is to define the differences between many stouts and porters today. The popularity of the three threads inspired further commercial production of porter in its own right in the 1720s.
Though the three threads ceased to be used as components of a mixture, they survived as distinct styles with a following of their own. The weaker thread may once have been referred to as a mild, in the sense that it was a brown beer that did not undergo a long secondary fermentation (the low alcohol level would not have allowed it to stand long in the wood), a small beer, or even a lesser porter.
And so the mild “style” has had quite an identity crisis over the years, but it’s apparent that its roots are inexorably bound to the long history of browns and porters.
Mild was to take another turn in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the practice of aging ales for a long period of time fell from popular use,* so the term “brown ale” gradually fell from use and the term “mild ale” broadened to refer to an entire set of beers that were malty and brown in color (7). References to mild ale are numerous between 1850 and 1900, and the products sold under that name fit into a wide spectrum of beers with gravities ranging from 1.055–1.080. In The Art of Brewing (published in 1871), the typical gravity of a mild is listed as 1.070, higher than the average gravity of a porter (3)!
The gravities continued to drop, as evidenced by a passage in The Handy-Book of Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades, published in 1908, which describes milds as having a “more sweetish (mild) taste, containing more unfermented malto-dextrines and less acid [than stock beers].” The text goes on to list “London four ale (mild)” at 13–14 °Balling (1.053–1.057 S.G.) (8).
*With the possible exception of a few Belgian styles that are aged in wood and that undergo secondary bacterial fermentation, the only remaining true “stale” beer is Strong Suffolk Ale, produced by Greene King. This beer is the closest thing contemporary drinkers have to an authentic 18th century stock ale in that it is a blend of a weaker (5% alcohol [v/v]) pale ale and an old ale (12% alcohol [v/v]). The old ale component, called Old 5X, is aged in two untreated, unlined 120-bbl oak vats. The vats stand in a remote corner of the brewery and are covered with the local chalky soil, which acts as a natural antifungal/antibacterial agent during the two-year aging process (8).
Whether these beers gradually became lighter in body and alcohol because brewers sought to reduce their costs or because consumers genuinely preferred them to higher gravity beers is subject to debate, but what is certain is that by the 1920s, the brown beers known as mild were so different from what they were only decades before that Newcastle revived the term “brown ale” to distinguish their higher gravity ale from the lower gravity products then being marketed under the name “mild.” The popular English treatise Brewing Science and Practice, published in 1938, lists grist bills for two mild ales, one at 1.040 and one at 1.045 (9). (See box, “Recipes for Mild Ales,” for more information.)
The average mild now has a lower original gravity, with most falling around 1.033. Of the 70 or so examples available in the United Kingdom, roughly 40% are considered pale or light milds; that is, they contain little or no dark specialty malts (10). Both pales and darks are typically within the 1.030–1.036 range, though a couple of notable exceptions have gravities as high as 1.050. Hop character is minimal; malty notes prevail, with chocolate malt the most common flavor signature.*
*Some beer enthusiasts maintain that modern milds are a draught version of brown ales, but I find this statement difficult to support. I suspect that the statement may reflect the opinions of a small group of people, and that the belief has its root in the early 20th century, when several Northern English breweries revived the old term “brown ale” to describe their products. But whatever the origin, a survey of mild ales as they are available today clearly shows that this is not a stylistic rule to live by. For one thing, that simple classification neglects the whole class of pale milds, which bear little resemblance to brown ales in character and color. Furthermore, I can find no reference to any brewery bottling a product called a brown ale and serving it on draught under the name of mild. I have found, however, several examples of beers that are both bottled and on draught under the name brown ale (Sam Smith’s and Newcastle among them), and on the flip side, there’s at least one commercial example, Cain’s Dark Mild, of a mild that is bottled, canned, and on draught under the same name.
Thus, though the style has often come to represent the lowest gravity beer produced by a given brewery, we would do well to remember that the term “mild” has meant different things at different times in the style’s development, changing considerably over time since its original use as a designation for young beer. Contemporary beer culture no longer needs a distinction between stale and mild beer, so the term has evolved to refer to new interpretations. Further, modern, less astringent hop varieties such as East Kent Golding and Fuggle have replaced the now-obsolete varieties used in early milds, offering modern milds a mellower character than their harsh ancestors. Lower gravities may be a nod to their roots as the weaker threads in what came to be called porter. The style’s many moods allow modern brewers some latitude in their interpretations.
Mild ale today is not only a different beer than the milds of bygone days, it has also lost market share. In the 1940s, mild accounted for almost 50% of the beer produced and drank in England. But despite the term’s longevity and adaptability, by 1980 that number had fallen to less than 10% and has declined even further since (3).
Though mild has fallen victim to the same general trends that befell porter and stout, it is likewise in a position to reap the benefits of the revivalist trends in the United States and on its native soil. Mild ale today is confined to pockets of England, Wales (where the style is known simply as “dark”), and the craft brewing circles of the United States.
The UK’s West Midlands: Whereas the consumption of brown beer once centered in London, the only remaining hotbed of mild ale consumption is in the West Midlands area around Wolverhampton, known as the Black Country. No fewer than eight breweries produce mild ale in that region (11).
Mild owes its foothold in the West Midlands to the high percentage of the population who were and still are tied to the industries around Birmingham and Wolverhampton — coal mines, steel factories, and textile mills. Indeed, the moniker “Black Country” is a holdover from a time when that part of England was the center of the Industrial Revolution and innumerable factories and mills pumped huge quantities of smoke and soot into the air and the surrounding countryside. Workers, faces black with soot and feet tired from long days standing at their posts, needed instant restoratives — sweetish milds with plenty of unfermented sugars hit the spot.
The largest producer of mild in the Black Country today (and indeed in all of England) is Wolverhampton and Dudley. The brewery’s two milds, Banks’ and Hanson’s, make up the majority of the company’s production. Both are brewed at the Banks’ plant in Wolverhampton, but to very different specifications.*
The West Midlands is also home to Walsall’s Highgate Brewery, which, until ownership changed in 1995, was the smallest brewery in the Bass group. For many years Highgate produced only mild; in 1990, it revived its seasonal Old Ale, a strong version of its Highgate Dark Mild (12), and has also added a bitter to its line-up. Known as Highgate Mild until a recent name change, High-gate Dark is mahogany-colored (63 °EBC, or about 31 °SRM) with trademark vanilla notes and subtle dark fruit, caramel, and licorice flavors. It has a specific gravity of 1.055 at knock out, and is watered down to its declared original gravity of 1.035 before fermentation. The undiluted version is sold as High-gate Old Ale, a delicious winter warmer that is incredibly smooth, complex, and deep-flavored (13).
*Hanson’s, the darker of the two, was formerly brewed in Dudley, but the brewery was acquired by Wolverhampton in 1995. Production is being phased out.
UK country milds: Though the modern interpretation of the style is perhaps defined by the products available in the Black Country, several breweries as far removed from the Midlands as McMullen & Sons in Hertfordshire (just north of London), and Bateman’s in Lincolnshire (to the northeast of London) are doing their part to keep the style alive. McMuIlen has been producing its flagship product, a mild ale known simply as AK, since 1832. It is the most widely known example of light mild in the world, although the name “pale mild” was dropped in the early 1990s, it is made with pale and chocolate malts to a gravity of 1.034 and alcohol content of 3.7% (v/v). AK starts with a dry maltiness and rounds out with a nice tealike finish imparted by Golding hops.
Though McMuIlen is the only surviving example, Michael Jackson notes that the “AK” moniker was not unique to McMuIlen; at least a dozen other beers shared the name at the time. AK typically indicated ale of modest strength, but the acronym’s origin is not known with any certainty. One historian suggested the “A” stood for ale and the “K” for kyte, which meant a small beer in Old Flemish (11).
Bateman’s Brewery, recognizable by a trademark windmill that dominates the Wainfleet skyline, produces a variety of products including Bateman’s DM, one of the premier beers of the UK. This time, the acronym is more obvious. The beer is a dark mild with more ruby red tones than brown, is made with pale and crystal malts, and features Challenger and Golding hops. It was determined the CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) Champion mild of Britain in 1988 and 1997 and was runner-up in 1990 and 1996.
DM is brewed using a single-step infusion mash at 152 °F (67 °C) and whole flowers of Golding hops are added to the hopback before the wort is strained through. The beer starts with an O.G. of just 1.033 and finishes around 1.010, yielding an alcohol content of about 3.0% (v/v) and IBUs around 22. Typical of most milds, the DM is relatively dry. Most of its body comes from the addition of crystal and caramel malts. The beer has a very soft, malty palate with some roasted flavors in the background and a pleasantly hoppy, citrusy finish.
The famed Burton-on-Trent brewery Marston Thompson and Evershed, Ltd. also makes two products billed as milds. Marston’s mild, Metrie Monk, is chocolatey and sweer wirh a rare hint of oak undoubtedly attributable to the Burton Union system still in use at the brewery.* John Cheetham, Marston’s deputy head brewer, calls this beer a dark mild; it is, however, fuller in body and flavor and certainly higher in gravity than other examples (it weighs in at 1.043–1.045). Its description is reminiscent of the milds of the mid-1900s and may shed some light on how milds used to be. Marston brews Merrie Monk only occasionally.
*It is worth noting that the Head Brewer’s Choice line of specialty beers — of which Merrie Monk and Walnut Mild are examples — are the only beers in the world produced entirely in the Burton Union system (other Marston’s products, such as the famous Pedigree bitter, contain only a small portion of beer fermented in the Unions; that beer is then blended with a larger portion of beer fermented in large, stainless vessels) (14).
Marston’s other mild, Walnut Mild, has an original gravity of 1.036 and 3.6% alcohol (v/v). Walnut Mild is a thin beer with a very deep red hue and a sweet, malty aroma. The predominant flavor is chocolate malt that, as with the classic Black Country milds, lingers through to a bittersweet finish (14).
Another throwback mild with a much higher gravity and alcohol content than is typically found in the United Kingdom today is the Dark Ruby Mild at Sarah Hughes Brewery (located in Dudley, just south of Wolverhampton). This beer’s 1.058 (or higher) gravity harkens back even farther into mild’s potent past than does the Merrie Monk (12). Though very malty and refreshing, the Dark Ruby Mild is most akin to some of the old ales produced by Northeastern breweries such as Greene King and Nethergate.
Northwest England: England’s smaller holdout of mild production is centered in Manchester in the Northwest. Breweries in the counties of Greater Manchester, Lancashire, and Cheshire all produce milds — and in a greater range than those being produced in the West Midlands. Robinson’s Brewery in the town of Stockport just southeast of Manchester makes both a light mild and a dark mild. Both weigh in at 1.033. The light mild, called Hatter’s Mild, is unusually dry and well-attenuated.
The United States: While milds are not exactly abundant in the United Kingdom, far more can be found there than in the United States. The only American example in wide circulation is Grant’s Celtic Ale, which the company describes as a well-hopped light mild ale (Michael Jackson, in his Beer Companion, calls it a dark — evidence of the style’s loose definition outside of its stronghold in the West Midlands). Grant’s beer aside (which company spokespersons say has an uncertain future due to lagging sales and competition from other products), one must comb the taps at hundreds of brewpubs to find another good example of the style.
They can be found, however; my own personal searches have unearthed very good milds at John Harvard’s Brew House in Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Harvard Square (where they brew a pale mild known as Manchester Mild) and at the Sweetwater Tavern in Centerville, Virginia (both pale and dark milds are available).
Goose Island in Chicago makes an interesting and inviting dark mild called PMD Mild. PMD is an abbreviation for Protected Manufacturing District, an area near the Goose Island brewpub where the steel mills and manufacturing facilities fittingly resemble those found in the Black Country. PMD made Michael Jackson’s top 24 list on his Beer Hunter CD-ROM (The Discovery Channel Multimedia, Bethesda, Maryland) and is the only mild ale to have ever won a medal at the Great American Beer Festival (Denver, Colorado) by taking home the Gold in the English Brown Ale category in 1992. With a deep russet color, delicate caramel and roasted notes, low hop bitterness and low level carbonation, PMD is a very drinkable session beer.
Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, makes a hoppier and fuller bodied interpretation of the style. High Desert Mild weighs in at 1.038 and carries a hefty 40 IBUs of hopping. Owner Gary Fish says that the grist bill consists of pale malt and several degrees of crystal malt. Golding hops provide plenty of bitterness to offset the residual sugar from the crystal yet allow the hop character to remain in balance.
Craft brewing comeback: In recent years, mild has ridden the wave of revivalist beers and enjoyed a marginal comeback, largely due to the efforts of American home brewers and to the style’s vigorous promotion by CAMRA. (CAMRA’s 1997 Good Beer Guide lists about 65 milds produced in England; an increase from 57 in the 1996 Guide .) Despite the apparent increase, however, Roger Protz warns that the real indicator lies not in the success of the microbreweries and brewpubs but in the decisions made by the larger independent breweries (16).
Banks in Wolverhamption is slowly phasing out the Hanson’s product in favor of the Banks product. They have also abandoned the “mild” moniker and now call their beer simply “Banks’s.”
Adnam’s in Suffolk has announced that they will discontinue their mild and concentrate their production on the bitter and brown ales. Neil Dain, head brewer at Highgate, says that his brewery is proud to market under the name “mild” — although he acknowledges that the style’s popularity is at an all-time low and seems to be dwindling. “People talk about saving mild, but at the end of the day those same people order a pint of lager or bitter,” he says. Dain also says that Highgate is thinking about picking up at least two other mild brands that they will brew under contract and market under the original brewer’s name.
While the total number of milds available and barrels produced is decidedly less in the United States than in its native Britain, the immediate future of mild seems bright. Given the scores of dedicated, passionate craft brewers working to revitalize old styles and to conjure new ones, it is almost certain that mild will grow in popularity and that commercial examples will become more abundant in the future.
Several things must be considered before formulating a recipe for a batch of mild. Do you want to brew mild as it exists today or as it existed 50 years ago, 100 years ago, or even 200 years ago? Do you want to brew a dark mild or a light mild? Will yours be a mild such as might be found in the Black Country, or will you pattern your batch after one of the other often heavier examples available in other parts of England?
Once these questions have been answered, others arise: What quantity will you brew? Will you use domestic or imported hops? What about malt? Should you treat your water? Should it be soft or hard?
Contemporary mild: The fact is that brewing modern interpretations of the style is much easier than attempting to replicate the milds of old — if for no other reason than that it is possible to compare your batch to commercial examples (or at least find someone who can offer an opinion as to the similarity of your concoction to the milds he or she enjoyed in the United Kingdom). Also, accurate information on brewing techniques and raw materials is more likely to be available for contemporary milds than for obsolete ones. You may be able to use the brewers who are brewing them as a resource, as well as home brewing texts written by authors familiar with the style (reference 17, for example).
Target gravity. Modern milds are typically very light compared with most American home and microbrewed beers. Apart from the occasional throwback milds such as the Sarah Hughes and Marston’s examples, gravity is usually in the 1.030–1.040 (7.6–10 °P) range, with the average being about 1.035 (8.8 °P).
Water. London’s is the classic water for brewing dark ales of all sorts. It is high in carbonate, sodium, and chloride. If you wish to replicate this water, start with a water analysis from your municipal water company or pay to have an analysis performed on your well or spring water. Typically, you should be able to get close to the mark with a very minute addition of calcium chloride instead of straight gypsum (so you do not inadvertently boost the sulfate levels along with the calcium levels) and a small addition (¼ teaspoon) of regular table salt (sodium chloride) per five gallons.
The grist. The malt portion of a mild ale recipe rarely dips below 80% of the total fermentable sugars. Most dark milds use pale or mild ale malt as the base with additional color and flavor supplied by crystal malt (7–12%) and one dark malt (usually chocolate or black). Specialty malts typically constitute no more than 5% of the total bill (and probably more like 3%). The grist bill for light milds typically includes a pale or mild base with some light crystal; darker malts are generally excluded (17). A good rule of thumb is that the grist bills for both light and dark milds are typically made up of four or fewer malts to achieve a focused and distinct flavor profile (17). GABF color guidelines are 8–17 ° SRM for dark milds and 17–34 °SRM for light milds.
While most home brewers and microbrewers look upon the use of sugars, adjuncts, and coloring agents with disdain, the practice is very common among producers of mild. Of the two classes of mild — light and dark — light milds are more likely to contain caramel coloring or another coloring agent, while the addition of an alternate source of sugar is common to at least half of all milds commercially available. Commonly used adjuncts include brown sugar and corn sugar as well as cereal grains such as corn, wheat, flaked barley, and oats (17).
Though all-grain milds do exist, their numbers are dwindling. The grist bills for these examples follow the same general pattern as their adjunct cousins with the exception that a very pale base malt is substituted for the sugar adjuncts.
Hops and hopping. Low bitterness and minimal hop character are the essence of mild ales. Bitterness should be 25 IBUs or less; commercial examples often contain less than 20 IBUs. These numbers may seem low, but the finished beer maintains a nice balance because the gravity is equally low.
In most commercial examples, all hop bitterness and character are products of a single hop addition at the beginning of the boil. Fuggle is the dominant hop used in commercial mild ale. Golding and its derivatives make up a portion as do Challenger and Northdown, but the latter two are seldom used. Willamette has been an acceptable replacement hop for Fuggle in England as well as in the United States, where UK Fuggle is expensive and domestic Fuggle fails to deliver the same qualities as the original (10).
The few breweries that do add a small amount of hops late in the boil for aroma or to the fermentor as dry hops typically use Golding hops, but such aromatic milds represent the minority.
Yeast and fermentation. Mild is a uniquely English style, so it makes sense to use an English yeast. The London, Irish, and Scotch Ale strains available from Wyeast Laboratories (Hood River, Oregon) work well, tending to leave the finished beer with a full body with a full body and full flavor. Fermentation should occur at typical ale temperature (60–68 °F [16–20 °C]). As with most ale yeast strains, lower temperatures will cause the yeast to metabolize sluggishly and attenuate poorly. Remember that the higher the fermentation temperature, the more esters the yeast will produce, and while a rounded fruitiness is nice in milds, too much can be cloying. Also, high fermentation temperatures (above 75 °F [24 °C]) can have an adverse effect on hop utilization and diacetyl production, among other things (18).
It’s also worth noting that nearly every British mild brewer uses the open square (their fermentors are literally square-shaped) method of fermentation. These brewers swear that the open primary fermentation gives their beers certain character that cannot be achieved using any other method. Indeed, even though empirical tests performed with beers produced from the same wort but fermented in different vessels (closed vessel, open vessel, and unitank) yielded no quantifiable difference in gravity, pH, or flavor component levels, blind taste tests revealed a preference for open fermentation over closed fermentation as well as for beer produced in closed fermentors over beer fermented in unitanks (19).
Vintage mild: Brewing antique beers is a greater challenge. It requires a working knowledge of the history of brewing and long hours of research in old brewing texts, brewery logs, and trade journals. Fortunately, a good number of these sources are available to tell us how the brewers of old made mild (see the books in the reference list at the end of this article, particularly reference 20). The hard part is accurately substituting the raw materials available today for those that were used 100, 200, or 300 years ago.
The grist. When interpreting old recipes, it is important to consider the timeline of technological development. For instance, it would be inauthentic to use any malts darker than brown malt when attempting to recreate a mild as it may have been brewed before 1817. Before that date, any attempts to kiln malt darker than brown malt would have turned the malt to charcoal because the cylindrical drum roaster had not yet been invented.
Unfortunately, brown malt as it was back then is not available today. The best we can do is assume that brown malts in the early 19th century had some diastatic power because they made up a large portion of some grist bills (modern brown malt has very little enzymatic power and is therefore useless as a base malt). We can use mild ale malt as the most authentic base malt available and substitute some middle-range crystal malts for brown malts. Although this approach will result in a grist bill that is probably very different from that of the original recipe, we can feel reasonably comfortable that the substitution manifests itself with reasonable authenticity in the final product (20).
Hops and hopping. Hops are another problem. Who can be certain what the alpha-acid content of hops was a couple hundred years ago? The best guess is that since Golding and Fuggle (introduced in 1850 and 1875, respectively) have virtually replaced all other hop varieties (such as the old Farnham Pale and Long Square Garlic) in the United Kingdom, they were deemed better in terms of alpha-acid levels than the other varieties without compromising flavor and aroma. Indeed, many of the now-defunct varieties were local favorites, cultivated for their resistance to disease and high yield per acre rather than for their flavor, which was likely harsh (20). In addition, today’s mild ale producers trust their beers to Fuggle and Golding, leaving little doubt that these hops are the way to go when brewing an antique mild.
One other note on antique hops: Judging from the quantities called for in antique mild recipes and the bittering levels of the wild hops from which they were bred, it is almost certain that they were lower in alpha-acids than most modern varieties.
Yeast. It is impossible to know what kind of yeast the brewers of old used in their beers. Indeed, they themselves had no idea what they were using until Pasteur first identified yeasts as organisms in 1876. The best we can do is use a modern yeast that seems to fit the prescription in terms of attenuation. For instance, if a recipe calls for a relatively large quantity of hops, we can assume that the yeast was not very attenuative and that the extra bitterness was needed to counter the sweetness left in the beer.
Conditioning and Serving Mild
The brewing experience culminates in the enjoyment of finished beer. If that beer is a mild ale, it should be relatively low in carbonation (0.75–1.0 volumes of CO2). The best way to get the perfect conditioning — and thus, the perfect pint of mild — is to condition the beer either naturally in the keg (add a bit of priming sugar and some finings and draw the beer off as one would from a cask) or by priming and bottling (21).*
If you are not equipped to cask- or bottle-condition your beer, you can force carbonate, but remember that beer that has been force-carbonated and served under pressure typically has between 2 and 3 volumes of CO2 dissolved in it. You must reduce that amount by as much as 75% to simulate true cask-conditioned character.
Mild for the New Millennium
The beauty of mild as it exists today is its simplicity. Mild represents the lighter side of dark beers. It is a light-bodied, low-alcohol beer that is nonetheless full of flavor and complexity — a simple beer to make and an extremely difficult style to pin down. In this era of revivalist brewing, it would be a shame if mild ale — the style from which all other English beers sprang — should disappear. It stands at a crossroad, momentarily paused at the end of a long road pitted with lagers and marketing departments. Will mild take the road less traveled and begin an upswing back to its former popularity — or will it slowly fade into history?
Fortunately, the future seems bright for mild ale. More brewers entered mild ales at the GABF and the Craft Beer Institute’s Real Ale Festival (Chicago, Illinois) this year than ever before; this year’s CAMRA Good Beer Guide lists more milds than ever in the United Kingdom; and legions of dedicated craft and home brewers are making more milds than ever. And while it’s not likely that mild will soon be the top-selling beer in every brewery’s portfolio, its survival is ensured by the dedication of a few brewers as passionate about the style as they are about the craft itself.
*Traditional mild is typically served on draft in pubs as real ale; serving mild from pressurized kegs is virtually unheard of in the UK. Bottle-conditioned versions are sometimes available, but rarely.
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