Regional brewer Robinson’s has called time on production of this unfashionable beer style. With artisan brews booming, have easy-drinking milds had their day?The timing is unfortunate. But if the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) ever needed a reminder of the task it faces – saving traditional beer from extinction – it got it when Manchester brewery Robinson’s announced, on 30 April, that it was ending production of its 1892 mild – just as Camra kicks off May’s Mild Month, its annual rearguard action in defence of this most meek of beer styles.
“Eh? Mild what?” you may ask, bewildered. And this is Camra’s problem. Once Britain’s most popular beer style, mild ale, as it developed in the 20th century, was a low-strength (around 3%), very-lightly hopped beer, that became a staple thirst-quencher for miners, factory workers and anyone keen to sink eight pints and still get up for their shift the next morning. Available in light and dark versions – alternatives to best bitter and stout – milds were sweeter, maltier beers. Flavours – such as the chocolate or liquorice notes from roasted grains in a dark mild, or the bittering hops in a light – were deliberately dialled-down to an innocuous level. Even its most misty-eyed fans admit that this was a beer designed to be undemanding, easy drinking.
While mild has retained a cult following in its heartland of the West Midlands, Wales and the north (most traditional Manchester breweries still produce a mild beer), it has been in decline for decades. By the 1980s, even compared to bitter, mild was what old blokes drank, and not the colourful quick-witted characters in your local, but those three miserable fellas sat at the same table every night, muttering and tutting. Curiously, back in my misspent lager-sinking youth, I did occasionally drink a mild called Toby Light. It was what I ordered if I was too hungover to contemplate a Stella. It was one step up from water: flat, weak, barely there.
Likewise, when I started drinking real ale, I quickly graduated from Taylor’s Golden Best (“last of the true Pennine light milds”), to pale and golden ales that actually tasted of something. Now, of course, craft beer has happened and many of us crave boatloads of hops and big flavours in our beer. Who in their right mind would trade the relative thrills of Marble’s Pint or Kernel’s Table Beer (both below 4%) for a light mild? Meanwhile, modern stout drinkers are only just rediscovering the thick mouthfeel and smoke, espresso and blackberry flavours that the lingering dry drink can deliver. They are not going to trade all that for a 2% drop in ABV.
This calls into question the whole premise of Mild Month. Much as I love to see beery idealism trump hard-headed business realism (at its best, that is what craft beer is all about), Robinson’s decision to discontinue its mild is writing on the wall. Tastes have changed. People have moved on. Mild looks destined to wither away. And does that matter? Traditionalists will argue that it is, well, traditional: a part of Britain’s beer heritage that we cannot allow to die. But there is no external logic to that argument. More persuasively, brewers may insist that producing mild is a skilful business and that those skills should be preserved. That may be true. But mild recipes will not disappear and any microbrewery can brew mild if it wishes to – some do. That does not mean, however, that mild has a future as a self-sustaining commercial product, on a par with other cask ale styles. During Mild Month, Camra encourages pubs to carry at least one mild, but the idea it will ever return as a regular feature feels farcical. Tastes are heading in the opposite direction. Modern beer drinkers crave flavour – trying to hold back that tide back seems pointless, retrograde even.
Which is not to say mild is dead quite yet. As Camra knows, mild lives on as a specialist drink, as many beer styles do, such as gose or gruit. Given the craft beer scene’s endless curiosity, it is no surprise that some new-wave brewers are tinkering with mild, too. Manchester’s Cloudwater brewery has described its Pennine Light as a Yorkshire mild (although, I think most would view it as an unusually malty – though, still hoppy – golden pale ale); while, in America, Mild Month is, as its organisers concede, an “almost oxymoronic” project that encourages US brewers to create clean, elegantly hopped beers rather than their usual huge hop-bombs.
Given that US mild enthusiasts emphasise the broad range of flavours this style can encompass, you can bet their brews will bear little resemblance to our own historic, shy milds. Which is a great thing. This beer designed to minimise flavour seems like a relic from another era. Would anyone really mourn its demise?