Friday, 13 July 2007

Mild grists

Mild, Mild, Mild
You didn't think I would forget my promise to discuss Mild grists, did you? A fascinating subject, I'm sure you'll agree.

Let's start by talking about what Mild is. Fairly simple, really. Mild Ale is a (usually) dark beer, low in gravity and lightly hopped. We can all agree on that. But how long has this definition been true? Not very long, as it turns out. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

I was a committed Mild drinker when I lived in the UK. Not committed enough to keep sales up. By the time I left - 1985 - it was getting pretty difficult to find across wide swathes of the country. As usual, I have figures to hand to document its rapid decline.

Source: The Statistical Handbook of the British Peer and Pub Association 2003, p. 21

The history of Mild
Mild is the oldest British style still brewed. That's true. Sort of. Something called Mild has been around since at least the 1700s. But then it wasn't so much a question of a well-defined "style" as of a method of conditioning.

Any style could be sold "Mild" - all the term meant was unmatured beer. Even in the 1860s, William Loftus was still talking of "Mild Porter". Which is probably why some beer writers have come up with the idiotic assertion that dark Mild is a development of Porter. Total crap. The two styles have always been totally distinct. Another demonstration of the care needs to be taken in reading old documents.

Getting back to the term "Mild", I've even seen AK described as "mild Bitter Beer" in one 19th century advert. (Digressing slightly, here's something else that annoys me: using AK as a synonym for Light Mild, presumably based McMullen's AK. Well, I've seen dozens of beers called AK on Victorian price lists and every single one has been called Bitter, Luncheon Ale, Light Bitter Beer, or something similar - not a single Mild. The closest was the aforementioned "mild Bitter Beer". My guess is that McMullen rebadged their AK sometime in the past as Mild, when the style was still extremely popular. When its popularity had plummeted, they switched back to calling it Bitter.)

Barclay Perkins Mild grists
Let's have a look at some specific examples. Barclay Perkins is a good place to start, don't you think?

From the middle of the 19th century, Barclay Perkins had two breweries: the Porter side and the Ale side. There were two main groups of Ales brewed: Mild Ales and Stock Ales. The Milds were distinguished by a number of Xs - X, XX, XXX; the Stock Ales by Ks - KK, KKK, KKKK. The XX and KK and XXX and KKK were the same OG, but the Stock versions had 60-80% more hops.

Here are some more details:

I'm sure you've already noticed, but in case you haven't I'll point it out: all these beers use only pale malt. They weren't dark as we would expect Milds to be. I haven't found any dark malts in Barclay Perkins Mild before . . . . but that would be telling. I'm going to stretch this out for at least two days. I've got so much material (translation: I can't be arsed to go through all my material today).

Check out the gravities, too. The weakest Mild is 1060 (around 6% ABV). Stronger than the standard Porter, which was 1056. And not much less than Pale Ale, which was around 1065 at the time. The XX Mild is, at 1080 consderably stronger.

Where are we then? Pale, quite strong, . . . what about hopping levels? Certainly they were lower than for Pale Ale (that had about 4 pounds per barrel, about the same as the stronger XX). So Mild was realtively lightly-hopped. By the standards of the day. But the British were noted for using loads of hops in the 19th century. Hoppiness was one of the defining features of British beer.

My repetition is deliberate. I wanted to make sure that what I said sank in. Some claim that no-one used more than teaspoonful of hops before American microbrewers began their alchemic experiments. Just observing that the truth is more complex.

Pale, quite strong, relatively lightly-hopped. That's one out of three. Doesn't really sound much like modern Mild, does it? There's a reason for that: Mild has been completely transformed in the last 150 years.

Styles across time
Breweries - especially the ones who can trace their origins back before Methuselah's stag night - love to give the impression that they've been brewing "XXXXX Pils" for centuries. We (beer fans) know this isn't true. Michael Jackson told us that the first pale lager was brewed in 1842, so their claims must be bollocks.

But when it comes to beers with reassuringly similar names - Pale Ale, Bitter, Stout - the assumption that a century and a half ago such beers were roughly similar to their contemporary namesakes is a natural one to make.

I've collected information on many beers, some still brewed today. There are only two that have the same specs (in terms of OG and ABV) now as in 1880. Any ideas what those two beers are? I thought not. Have a think and we'll come back to it later.

Should time machines become available in Tesco, beer tourists popping back to 1880 wouldn't find much they recognised. Guinness drinkers would find Stout a bit of a shock. Not just by a serving temperature above freezing. The brettanomyces character of Old Ale and Stout would be a challenge to everyone except the Belgians. Could modern Bitter drinkers manage the strength and hoppiness of an IPA?

All modern British beer is radically different from its Victorian ancestors. (That's not quite totally true. There are a couple of throwbacks. But we're talking a very small number of beers. Harvey's Imperial Stout is probably the closest.) No surprise, then, that Mild has changed a lot, too. Though the others have mostly stayed the same colour.

Beer colour
Not that long ago, I believed that most British beer had been dark until 1956. In fact, I still believed that an embarrassingly short time ago. Couldn't be further from the truth.

The hydrometer and Napoleon. They are the ones to blame.

In the 18th century, everything was so simple. You had three main types of malt: pale, amber and brown. Usually, just one was used for any particular beer. That's one of the main ways styles were distiguished: by the type of malt used. Hence the terms Pale Ale, Brown Ale and Amber Ale. Pale malt was the most expensive and usually saved for the most expensive beers. Cheap brown malt was used in mass-market beers like Porter.

Then brewers discovered the hydrometer, long used by distillers. For the first time they began measuring the gravity of their worts and calculating the yield from the malt. They noticed something very strange. Despite being considerably more expensive, pale malt was cheaper to brew with, because the yield was so much better.

The effect was dramatic. When Richardson's conducted his first experiments with the hydrometer were in the 1770s, Porter was 100% brown malt. By 1805 (unfortunately the first year I have real information for) it was down to 45% and in 1850 a mere 15%. Even a beer as dark as Porter was brewed principally from pale malt.

Where does Napoleon fit in? British governments always do one thing when they go to war: raise the tax on beer. The Napoleonic wars were very expensive. There were two types of tax on beer: on the raw materials and on the finished product. When the malt tax rocketed, brewers had a big incentive to drive down the quantity of malt they used.

It's been remarked that the term Brown Ale disappeared around 1800 and only reappeared about a century later. This is a clue to what happened. They stopped brewing ales from amber and brown malt. With Porter, as the dark colour was one of the distiguishing features of the style, it was a bit tricky to suddenly make it a pale beer. But why bother brewing Brown Ale when it was cheaper to brew Pale Ale that sold for a higher price and that the customers thought was posher?

For most of the 19th century, with the exception of Porter and Stout, very few dark beers were brewed. At least from what I've seen so far. I could suddenly stumble on thousands of dark ales and look a right twat. I'm not claiming this is absolute truth. Just that I've seen evidence from several breweries, all saying the same thing.

Pilsner Urquell and Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. I hadn't forgotten. The two beers with unchanged specs.

I didn't say that much about Mild grists, did I? I got distracted again. More Mild tomorrow. Unless the weather's good. Then I might have to skip a day.


Alan said...

In my past life as a rabid homebrewer and otherwise crofting lad, I had access to amber and brown malts and used to make beer laden with theme. Lovely ingredients in an ale.


Ron Pattinson said...

I agree. My KK (should be bottled next week) has a good dose of amber malt.

In my own pathetic homebrewing career, my best effort was a Mild brewed, accidentally, with amber malt instead of pale malt as a base. It came out almost perfect for a Porter. I later learned it was a classic Porter grist: 19 parts amber, 1 part black malt:

GenX at 40 said...

I've have a hefewiezen all-grain that I bottled ten days ago that has blown me away when I sipped a bit at transfer. I am not going to open any until August. I have taken the pledge. I was into the brewing before I realized I was facing a multi-phased decoction brew.

The amber brew was also a pumpkin porter with about 5 lbs of roasted gourd in the mash as well. Ringwood yeast. I will likely make a batch again in the fall after a 5 year break.


Anonymous said...

We also tried brewing with amber malt as a base but didn't get any fermentable sugars at all. Different types of "amber"?

GenX at 40 said...

Well, I now think I am in no place to answer that as I seem to have botched my hefeweizen through using DME to prime it. Too much DME flavour now introduced to the otherwise all-graininess. And I broke my personal pledge to find that out.


Terry said...

There's a pump clip from the 1950s for McMullen's AK which specifically describes it as a "mild bitter", presumably at the midway point of its journey from being known as a bitter to being known as a light mild and back again ... it's a surprisingly little-noted fact that AK is one of the few beers to actually rise in OG in recent years, climbing from 1032 or so to, if I remember correctly, 1037, presumably as McMullen's has repositioned it as a session bitter rather than a mild. AK beers were generally described as "delicately hopped" (haven't seen any recipes, Ron, but I'd guess hopping rates were low), which is presumably why, together with their low alcohol rates, they became regarded as falling in the "pale mild" category ...

Ron Pattinson said...

Unfortunately I've yet to find a brewing log for an AK.

I grew up in Newark-upon-Trent, once a real brewing town. Holes - the last of the old breweries to close - had a beer called AK. It was their Best Bitter. Well, it was until Courage bought them in the late 1960's and dropped the gravity from 1042 to 1037. It was brewed until at least the 1980's.

AK was an incredibly common beer name in the second half of the 20th century. You'll find many here:

Ron Pattinson said...

The Hole's AK gravities should be 1038 before the courage takeover and 1035 after. My apologies.