Saturday 10 May 2008

A Short History of Mild

May is Mild month. At least that's what CAMRA says and I'm a loyal member. Time to write something about Mild.

You'll often see mention of Mild as one of the oldest beer styles. That's sort of true. Only sort of. Mild Ale was around at least as long ago as 1700. But what was it like and how does it compare with modern Mild?

The 18th century

First a crash course in old British beer terminology. In the 18th century there were two quite distinct types of malt liquor: Beer and Ale. Beer had first been brewed in the 1500's when hops began to be imported. Ale had been around since Saxon times. Originally, Ale had been unhopped, but by 1700 did contain small quantities of hops. Simple isn't it: Ale lightly hopped, Beer heavily hopped.

Both Beer and Ale were brewed to a variety of strengths from a variety of base malts. So you had Pale Ale, Amber Ale and Brown Ale; Pale Beer, Amber Beer and Brown Beer. These could be made to many strengths, Common being standard strength, Stout the strongest. Only Beer was usually made at the weakest strengths: Table Beer or Small Beer.

A further method of classifying malt liquors was their age. Ones sold young were described as Mild. Ones that had been aged were called Keeping or Stale. Most (but not all Ales) were sold "mild", but some beers were, too. Porter is a good example of a Brown Beer that was often sold "mild" from the 1700's right up until its demise in the 1940's. The big London brewers all made Mild Porter and Keeping Porter, which were often mixed before sale.

You can see that in the 1700's Mild Ale was a very vague term. It covered Ales of all colours and all strengths. It wasn't as much as style as a description of the level of conditioning. None of the beers described as Mild Ale at this time has any but the slightest similarity with modern Mild. Even the weakest would have had an OG of at least 1050º. Mild Brown Ale, brewed from 100% brown malt must have had the roasty flavour of London Porter, just with a much lower level of hopping.

The confusion starts with the introduction of new-style, heavily-hopped Pale Ales at the end of the 1700's. Lets make one thing clear: Pale Ale does not belong to the Ale family. It's a Beer. It should really be called Pale Beer, but I guess that doesn't quite sound as good. Pale Ales mentioned in early 18th century brewing texts are completely different, hopped at less than a quarter of the rate of later Pale Ales. Don't believe me? Take a look at 19th century brewery price lists. Pale Ale is never listed with the other Ales. One of the synonyms for Pale Ale - Bitter Beer - is far more accurate.


There was another big change around 1800: the base malts used. A big increase in the malt tax to finance the Napoleonic Wars made brewers look for ways of cutting costs. Coincidentally, this was also the period when the hydrometer was coming into common use in British breweries. Brewers soon noticed that the better yield from pale malt more than outweighed the lower price of darker malts. Soon all British malt liquors, even very dark beers like Porter and Stout, were being brewed from a base of pale malt.

We're now at the early years of the 19th century. The start of the period for which I've seen brewing records. This is also the period when the X system of classifying Ales came into use. The base level Mild Ale, X Ale, had an OG of around 1070º in the 1830's. That's stronger than Pale Ale, which was 1060-1065º. It was usually brewed from 100% pale malt, though I've seen a couple that use a tiny amount of black malt - about 0.5%. It's bigger brothers, XX and XXX Ale were respectively 1085º and 1100º. They were 100% pale malt.

Let's look at some examples from London's Griffin brewery:

X 1073 2.08 lbs hops per barrel
XX 1089 3.12 lbs hops per barrel
XXX 1105 3.75 lbs hops per barrel
IPA 1057 5.88 lbs hops per barrel


Over the course of the 19th century Ale gravities dropped. By 1900, X Ale had an OG of about 1055º. It was still brewed from a base of pale malt, though some brewers had taken advantage of the 1880 Free Mash Tun Act to use sugar and adjuncts like maize or rice. No modern Mild bears much resemblance to such Ales. What differentiated them from Pale Ale wasn't colour or gravity, but a lower hopping rate and higher FG which made them maltier, sweeter and fuller-bodied.

Here are some examples from Whitbread in 1901:

X OG 1052.6, FG 1011, 90% pale malt, 10% sugar, 1.34 lbs of hops per barrel
PA OG 1060.9, FG 1017, 79.76% pale malt, 20.24% sugar, 2.77 lbs of hops per barrel
IPA OG 1051.3. FG 1013, 78.74% pale malt, 21.26% sugar, 2.65 lbs of hops per barrel

Only after 1900 did X Ale start becoming darker. At first it was the use of crystal and amber malts. Such beers would have been dark amber, noticeably darker than Pale Ales of the period but not as dark as modern Dark Mild. Pales were about 28º Lovibond (on the 1 inch scale), X Ale 42º. A modern Dark Mild would be 80-120º.


By the time WW I broke out, Mild had an OG of around 1050º. Some were starting to become the dark colour we would expect, but many were still a dark amber. Dark brewing sugar (Garton's N0. 3) added in the kettle or caramel added later were used to obtain these darker shades. More rarely, chocolate or brown malt were used.

Grain shortages towards the end of WW I had a dramatic impact on British brewing. Gravities were limited by law - at one point the average OG of all the beer produced by a brewery could be no higher than 1030º. As brewers made most money on stronger beers outside government price controls, there was a big incentive to drop the gravities of the cheapest and biggest selling beer - X Ale - well below 1030º. Some were barely over 1020º.

Yet oddly enough, some of the Government Ale (price-restricted Ale) doesn't look that awful. There's a Barclay Perkins version that is only 1027 but uses an interesting mix of pale, amber and brown malt.

1920's and 1930's

After the end of brewing restrictions in the early 1920's, Mild gravities bounced back to around 1043º. Still significantly stronger than just about all modern Milds. This is where they stayed for the next decade. Barclay Perking brewed an X Ale that was dark amber in a natural state, but of which some was darkened with caramel.

The next big change came in 1931, when the tax on beer was massively increased. The effect was almost as dramatic as that of WW I. Beer production slumped and breweries slashed the gravities of their Milds down to 1035-1036º. Though some, like Barclay Perkins, introduced a "new" XX Ale that was basically just their pre-budget X Ale. At this period they were producing no fewer than five variations of their basic X and XX Ales: straight X Ale (amber in colour), X Ale darkened with caramel, X Ale darkened with caramel and sweetened; straight XX Ale (amber in colour) and XX Ale darkened with caramel.


Standard Mild remained in the mid 1030's until 1940, when new wartime shortages and restrictions gradually began to chip away at gravities. By 1945 it was in the range 1027-1032º.

By the 1950's, most Milds were either dark or pale, with only the odd amber version surviving. Gravities crept back up a little, to their modern level of 1030-1035º.

So there you have it: a short history of Mild Ale. The Dark Mild that we know today only really dates back to the 1930's. I bet you thought it was older than that, didn't you?


Rayray said...

Cor. Thanks, Ron. Now I get it.

Andy Holmes said...

What I notice as interesting Ron, actually relates to the IPA. Although heavily hopped the OG you quote in the first example was 1057. That's not going to give alcohol levels of 7% and higher that recent press had led me to believe!

Ron Pattinson said...

The OG is a bit lower that Burton IPA, but not that much. A typical IPA gravity was 1065. 7% is about the maximum strength I've seen for a Victorian IPA.

As I've tried to say before, IPA wasn't a strong beer in Victorian times.