The winter sun in Hertfordshire makes the clouds blush pink but now they’re pregnant and brilliant white. The low light that elongated our shadows into black contrails across the frosty ground has now climbed. The shadows are stouter – more fluid from the gathering warmth. The trees are taking on body, reviving from their monochrome naked stasis. Folk from Falmouth to Inverness are stripping down to just three layers of clothing. The swifts have returned, accelerating through the sky with rollercoaster shrieks. The weather is now quite – what’s the word..…
Mild is a good title – it’s polite, unassuming and self-effacing. Mild comes in May. This is a recent fact. I believe my first mild was Mighty Oak Brewery’s Oscar Wild Mild in the Cask and Kitchen in Pimlico. I’ve perhaps had a hundred milds from breweries across Britain since then and have experienced chocolate, leather, fruit lockets, liquorice, malt loaf, raisins, blackcurrant, smoked meat, peat, blackjacks and coffee on the palate. For what’s often such a low ABV beer this isn’t a bad back catalogue. On the eye, the beers have ranged from russet, light caramel and chestnut to black though I’ve yet to have a mild that remains impregnable to the light when held aloft.
In beer books fifty years from now, mild will have been traditionally only drank in May. What we do in the present is the tradition of tomorrow – especially with other countries getting on board with the May theme.
If it wasn’t for CAMRA I wouldn’t know what mild is. Making mild synonymous with May, this beer style has become a kind of seasonal in Britain. Breweries crank up Mild production for May. Pubs display the range across the beer engines. Mild crawls begin among CAMRA groups. But is this a kind of CPR? Is it an acknowledgment that without this lifeline, it wouldn’t survive? In some respects it has come to resemble a charitable case – the Mild May crawl feels a bit like sponsorship. I expect a collection tin at the end to be shook for Friends of Mild.
What is it traditionally? The problem with tradition is that what we assume is a constant is actually a continual evolution – sometimes planned (CAMRA Make May a Mild Month), sometimes expedient (excise duty on barley or ABV), but often just subject to the caprice of fashion. To answer “what’s it like traditionally?” you’d have to answer “In what decade of which century in which city?” and that doesn’t even include handling & storing practices from inn to inn. In some pubs the beer may have been served with pride, in another, continually topped up with any beer from the drip tray. Its reputation would have varied coloquially.
Mild was often the beer that was fresh (no more than a fortnight old) and took less of the acidic tastes of aged beer. Fewer hops were used because their disinfectant quality wasn’t as required – the beer wasn’t aged long enough for bugs or microflora to gain a clawhold. Another common feature – one that we generally emulate with modern milds – is the sweetness and low ABV. It remained sweet as young ale because it takes time for yeast to convert wort sugar into alcohol.
Over the past 200 years mild has been pale. It’s been the lighter hue in black & tan. It’s been the gentle strand in three threads. It’s also been acidic. It’s been the ancestor of both milk stout and Kiwi Brown. I was amazed at how diverse it has been when I looked through Martyn Cornell’s brilliant book Amber, Gold & Black.
Leading up to our own times, mild was the economical choice in Britain’s pubs. It was to be sessioned to remove the dust of industry from workers’ throats. In the 1930s, Mild accounted for 75% of all beer brewed in the UK. Before the first world war, they averaged out at 6% ABV. The 3% Milds only became ubiquitous after the second world war. It enabled economies to be made by the brewery on time and ingredients. It also lessened alcohol-related debility in the workplace.
When the current May mild trail comes back though I find that all the examples on offer seem to fall into the dark, sweet and malty. It seldom comes across in the craft beer scene but when it does, it’s often as the earlier heavier versions and I have difficulty in telling them from porters or stouts.
I enjoy Mild but when it returns, I find the corset is too tight as a style. The stitches need to rupture. Obviously my taste is subjective but I’ve always thought “that’s nice” but never “that’s amazing”. Mild’s potential has not been properly explored.
Some other ingredients are well wed with mild – nuts, raisins and maple have all been complimentary. However, those ingredients are just as polite and risk averse as the style they’ve been matched with.
One encouraging sign is that the US has started to take an interest in it. They have started to push it as a May drink too following the UK example. It has started to find a new lease of life with a cleaner yeast style that can let hop flavour shine through more clearly.
As a style, IPA has accrued millions of air miles. In the past twenty years it has been resurrected from an old and neglected drink from the age of empire, and been given steroids by America. It’s become shorthand for craft beer – a neon sign showcasing the hops that go into it. It’s been an education and now America, New Zealand, Australia, Scandinavia, Britain and Holland have fallen on it in a feeding frenzy. The ingredients and colour have been warped in the orgy of innovation. Our boy mild needs a piece of that action.
I see equivalence running between milds and sours. As beers, they’re about as different as you can get on the palate. But they have developed similarities insofar as they’re both generally low ABV beers. The genius behind sours is they act as a palate cleanser to tastes as diverse as cucumber, beetroot, cherry, raspberry, mint or damsons and that’s just scratching the surface. With sours, the hosted fruit can be like primary flashes on a watercolour – Sunset Over A Lake by William Turner. Mild is more like an earthy pastel work – Starry Night by Vincent Van Gough. Sours – unlike mild – have little malt depth but big initial taste. Milds might have their own unique selling point – they turn away from loud hop profiles and it’s in that space the innovation needs to take place.
As beer is taking a hold in the historically more wine-dominated parts of Europe, mild should be jumped on. Italy likes to use almonds in innumerable drinks and dishes. A Milanese almond mild might fire the starting pistol on the style being copied and elaborated internationally.
Personally I think the challenge should be to keep the style as a low ABV beer. Even though the low booze threshold is comparatively recent as a mild association, it makes it a bigger challenge.
Mild needs to be seeded with wild airborne yeasts, brettanomyces or champagne yeast. It needs to be built on a body of wheat or rye. Bring in the liquorice and brambles, the smoked peat and cider apples. Let it be pummelled, kneaded and moulded by the mad hands of international craft brewing.
Mild has had bouts of exploration when duty on beer has been cut. After these earlier breaks for freedom – as a toddler running before its inevitable pratfall, mild has been held back in infancy for a hundred years. Expediency (in this case sticking to what was available and what was legislated to spare supplies, make economies and save labourers from themselves) may foster a warm familiarity and nostalgia, but it can hamper potential. Mild needs to grow again. It needs to evolve anew.
We need to send our fruit out into the wider world to experience the flavours, cultures and knowledge absent from the cosiness of its safe terraced homeland. Our polite adolescent needs to be tested, to be influenced and to sate its own carnal hunger by lying down with exotic others. Then it can come back fresh faced, self-confident and with a knowing gleam in its eye. Gone would be the days of the wall flower. Mild would finally be ready to break some hearts.