Thursday, 7 May 2015

Mild Matters

In my last post about CAMRA’s  “Mild in May” campaign I stated that I was not a huge fan of the style, even though I have probably drunk quite a bit of mild over the course of my drinking career. So in order to set the record straight I thought I’d take a nostalgic look back through the years at some of my experiences of mild ale.

I’m not certain as to quite when mild ale slipped into my consciousness, but then when I started my drinking career I wasn’t that aware of the term “bitter” as a name for a pale and well-hopped beer either. I discovered quite a few years later that the Courage beer brand, known as PBA (Pale Bitter Ale) which my friends and I had enjoyed drinking during the early 1970’s, was in fact a light mild, rather than a bitter.
We weren’t legally old enough to drink, but that didn’t seem to matter back then, as long as you behaved yourself. It also helped that the pub we frequented in Ashford, was where one of our friend’s parents drank.

I think the first time I saw dark mild being drunk, and indeed tried it myself, was a mix, in the from of brown and mild (a half of dark mild, topped up with a bottle of brown ale). The reasons for the popularity of this mix were twofold; first it was common practice for bar staff to give a “long pull”, dispensing slightly more than half a pint of the draught component.  Secondly, the bottled brown ale had the effect of livening up what was often a flat or sometimes even stale glass of mild. As draught beer was considerably cheaper than bottled, diluting a bottle of brown with draught mild had the effect of eking out an expensive drink, whilst making an acceptable alternative. Light and bitter, based on exactly the same principle, was an even more popular and alternative choice, during this time.

CAMRA Publicity Figure
I do recall, again back in my Sixth Form days, that if one was out of pocket, it was possible to purchase a half of mild for one shilling (5p in today’s money!), but you had to be really skint to stoop that low! This though, was probably when I tried dark mild, on its own, for the first time.

Moving forward a few years, to my student days in Greater Manchester, where I discovered mild was a popular drink. By this time I had begun to take more than a passing interest in the brands and styles of beer I was drinking. There were so many different breweries, whose names I’d never heard of, in the Manchester area that it was a real voyage of discovery going to various pubs, just to try a different beer. I still look back on those times with fond memories; talk about a kid in a sweetshop.

The publication of CAMRA’s first Good Beer Guide in 1974, changed all that, as the back of the guide provided a handy reference in the form of a list of all the breweries in England and Wales, (Scotland didn’t get a look in until the following year!). The guide did help to clarify where these various breweries were based, and gave a rough (very rough), idea of what to expect in their pubs.

A student friend and I took it on ourselves to try as many of these beers as possible, and I remember cycling from Salford, practically all the way to Oldham just to sample the mild and bitter from the local Oldham Brewery. We discovered that Robinson’s Mild was a light mild; as was the mild from Hydes. We also learned that Boddingtons and Thwaites both brewed two milds apiece; an ordinary and a best mild.

Throughout this time I still much preferred bitter, as there was something very satisfying about the thirst-quenching “bite” of a well-hopped pint of this beer style. With brewers, such as Boddingtons and Holts adding considerable quantities of hops to their respective bitters, the Manchester area really was a bitter-lover’s paradise.
 After four and a half years in Greater Manchester, I moved to London, where I lived and worked for a couple of years. There was precious little mild available in the capital, not that this bothered me much, but when my then wife and I moved out to Kent; Maidstone to be precise, we found that most Shepherd Neame pubs stocked a quite palatable cask mild.

I mentioned in my previous article about the local CAMRA branch doing its best to keep this beer going in cask form, but despite members doing their best to drink Shep’s Mild, wherever possible, the brewery switched it to a keg only product during the mis-1980’s.

I now live 17 miles from Maidstone, in the pleasant market town of Tonbridge. I have lived here for over 30 years, and again we see very little mild. There are a handful of Harvey’s tied pubs in the area, and some of them make an effort to sell their quite pleasant dark mild. Apart from that, mild might make a very rare appearance at the odd Greene King pub, or sometimes as an occasional guest ale in a local free-house.

When my wife and I ran our Real Ale Off-Licence, we weren’t brave enough to even contemplate selling the odd cask of mild, despite the fact that porters and old ales always proved popular with customers. And here’s the strange thing, some old ales are very similar in taste and style to dark mild; the only difference being they are quite a bit stronger. Harvey’s seasonal XXXX Old Ale is reputed to be based on a Victorian dark mild recipe.

The low strength of mild is for me, the main reason I am not keen on the style. Their low strength might make them ideal for quaffing, but so far as I am concerned they are insipid and lacking in body. The fact that I enjoy the higher strength Old Ales, such as Harvey’s, King’s, Long Man, Hepworths etc, and also strong milds, such as the 6.0% ABV Dark Ruby Mild from Sarah Hughes, proves there is nothing wrong with the basic formulation of mild; just its strength.

Perhaps that is the answer to mild making something of a comeback!


Barm said...

You may be right — I have noticed the newer milds from microbreweries are very rarely as weak as 3.0%, and often as strong as 4.0% or even 4.5%.

Paul Bailey said...

Barm, that extra 1 – 1.5% ABV seems to make all the difference in terms of flavour, which begs the question, were milds always that weak, or was it just a hangover from war-time restrictions on strength?

Stono said...

two points to make

1) this weekend in just 4 pubs Ive seen 15 different milds from 15 different breweries being sold,the idea that mild is beer thats not being just fiction

2) in beery drinking circles we spend alot of time telling people the strength of beer isnt important, its taste that trumps everything, backed up by how many times people will drink a really strong ABV beer and comment on how great the taste is and it doesnt taste of the alcohol content, so to dismiss mild because its just not strong ABV enough is wrong IMO, its taste that counts, and all the milds Ive had this weekend have tasted far better at a lower ABV than plenty of the lauded stronger ales, and it meant I was able to sample far more of them.

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