Mild ale is one of the most endangered styles in commercial production. It is mainly brewed in the U.K., and appeared to be in jeopardy of vanishing even there until small craft breweries began offering more examples over the last decade or two. Mild will be an interesting style to watch as a bellwether for the direction of British brewing. Part of the market is headed in the American direction, with stronger, far more hoppy beers. In contrast, milds represent a return to an older tradition of British brewing.Reprinted with permission from The Beer Bible, by Jeff Alworth. Copyright © 2015, published by Workman Publishing. You can purchase The Beer Bible at your local bookshop or through our affiliate links with IndieBound or Amazon.Once craft breweries dusted off the old style and gave it a look, they saw rather impressive technique underneath its aged patina, and they’ve begun to make slightly bolder, more interesting milds in their slow rediscovery of the style. Where milds were once the afterwork tipple of the factory worker, now they’re becoming more and more the purview of the beer geek, someone predisposed to describe their beer in terms like “dark cherry” or “suggestion of forest fruits” (two adjectives used to laud recent award-winning milds, Moorhouse’s Black Cat and Mighty Oak Oscar Wilde).
Milds are extremely rare in the U.S.; just a few breweries make one in their regular line. They’re brewed occasionally by brewpubs interested in the odd revival, but rarely more than that. One champion is Dave McLean of the Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery in San Francisco. He acknowledges that it’s “a little like swimming upstream against a massive current of hops and high ABVs,” but he has nurtured a robust fan base. “I think we make it such a focal point of what we do and train our staff to spread the good word about them, too.” It takes this kind of commitment to foster mild drinkers, and so far, McLean travels a lonely road.
Champion Beers of Britain
Given that these days milds are quite rare in British pubs, it’s hard to speak of a renaissance just yet—but “rehabilitation” is certainly justified. One marker of mild’s new reputation is how well the style has performed in the annual judging held at the Great British Beer Festival. The contest involves several rounds of blind tasting that result in winners in ten categories; the winners are then judged against one another and one beer is crowned Champion Beer of Britain.
Bitters dominate the competition for Champion—it is Britain, after all. But in the last fifteen years or so, milds have made quite a showing. Moorhouse’s Black Cat scored the win in 2000, Hobsons’s Mild came along in 2007, Rudgate Ruby Mild followed two years later, and two years after that, Mighty Oak Oscar Wilde took the laurel. Once a scorned beer with a reputation just north of dishwater, milds are well on the way to a more august status.
The Beers to Know
If you live on the East Coast or in the Midwest of the United States, you might find a mild ale in a cask-friendly pub or brewery; West Coasters are often out of luck. The best place to find the beer is in its native environment: a British pub. There it will almost certainly be on cask, which is the way the style was meant to be served. Beware the bottled mild, though; these ales do not survive long or ship well, and any bottle you find may be substantially worse for the wear.
MOORHOUSE’S BLACK CAT
Location: Burnley, England
Malt: Maris Otter
Other: Brewing sugar
The black of this mild is actually, upon inspection, deep red. That’s a nice metaphor for this beer: rewarding upon close inspection. Sweet malts evolve into licorice and dates if you give them a swish, and there is a slight earthiness underneath it all. Fair from the bottle, excellent on cask.
Location: Philadelphia, PA
This is the closest most Americans will get to an English mild. It rides the line between dark and light—a dark amber. It’s got quite a bit of complexity, with brown sugar and dates up front, and I detect both a hint of smoke and a lactose-like creaminess. The brewery’s yeast adds a rich
MAGNOLIA SARA’S RUBY MILD
Location: San Francisco, CA
Malt: Maris Otter, specialty malts
3.9% ABV, 1.042 sp. gr., 15 IBU
Magnolia’s defense of small cask ales is so robust that they brew two milds (the other, nodding to the ghost of Jerry Garcia, is Dark Star Mild). Sara’s Ruby is the standard, a lush little number with notes of caramel and figs, light and sweet. Sara’s is ruddy and attractive, and those Fuggle hops give it the perfect pepper spiciness to balance the sweet English malts.
Location: Brooklyn Center, MN
Malt: Pale, Golden Promise, brown, caramel, roast
3.8% ABV, 1.040 sp. gr., 21 IBU
A seasonal the brewery uses to welcome the depths of winter, Surly Mild has just a tiny bit of American heft to boost it up. The malts are toffee to cocoa, pleasantly dry—many milds are quite sweet—with a hint of roast. It’s a richly thick beer for a mild; an excellent example that’s worth seeking out if you happen to be in Minnesota in February.
JESTER KING COMMERCIAL SUICIDE
Location: Austin, TX
Malt: Organic Munich, organic caramel, abbey, chocolate, wheat
Hops: East Kent Golding
3.5% ABV, 1.028 sp. gr.
You won’t find beers like this in England—it’s not exactly a mild—but it’s worth trying in order to get a sense of the power of small beers. Jester King specializes in using a Belgian yeast to make non-Belgian styles. Commercial Suicide, therefore, in addition to its dark, malty base malts, has a bit of phenolic character that gives it a smoky note.Jeff Alworth began writing professionally over fifteen years ago and has published articles about beer, politics, and religion. In 2013 he completed the manuscript for The Beer Bible (via Amazon or Indiebound) an extensive guide to the world of beer released in August 2015. In September 2015, Chronicle Books will publish Cider Made Simple (via Amazon or Indiebound), an introduction to the world of cider that takes readers on a tour through England’s West Country, Normandy, France, Spain’s Basque Country, Quebec and New England, and the American West Coast.
His current project, Brewing the World’s Classic Styles: Advice from the Pros, is an outgrowth of discoveries made while researching The Beer Bible. The book is a guide to homebrewers in which famous professional brewers will describe their methods and offer instructions on techniques unique to Belgian, Czech, German, and British brewing traditions.
He lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.