Why mild ale is enjoying a revival

As another famous mild ale goes out of production, Mark Andrews asks what it means for the future of the beer-style traditionally associated with the Midlands.

As another famous mild ale goes out of production, Mark Andrews asks what it means for the future of the beer-styletraditionally associated with the Midlands.

It is the beer the Black Country was built on. Amid the searing heat of the steel works, foundries and chain shops of the Victorian Black Country, there was one thing that everyone agreed was essential to making life more bearable. The steady flow of mild ale.

Click on the image to the right for more photos

Men like John Clarke, an archetypal Black Country man, were employed to keep the workers in beer. For 40 years John made the twice daily trip to his local pub to ensure the men who worked the Round Oak steel works in Brierley Hill didn’t go thirsty.

But as the huge steel plants such as Round Oak have disappeared, what is the future of the beer which lubricated the human machinery that kept these places running?

John Clarke, beer carrier for Round Oak steelworks, 1959
John Clarke, beer carrier for Round Oak steelworks, 1959

This month Ansell’s announced the end of mass production of its cask mild after more than a century, although it will still be produced in small quantities in keg form. The news comes five years after Hanson’s, one of the Black Country’s most famous milds went out of production after a similar length of time.

'Sales are definitely down'

Des Gallagher, head of brands marketing at Wolverhampton-based Marston’s – probably the world’s biggest producer of mild ales – says sales of Banks’s Bitter have now overtaken Mild, although Mild is still the biggest seller in the West Midlands.

“Nationally, our bitter outsells mild 60-40, whereas 12 years ago it would have been 50-50,” he says.

It is a similar story at Batham’s brewery in Brierley Hill.

“Our mild sales are definitely down year on year,” says production director Tim Batham. “Today it accounts for just three per cent of our sales, whereas in 2000 it was eight to 10 per cent.”

Mr Gallagher says in recent years the fashion has been towards lighter beers, but the decline of the traditional community pub in favour of larger pub chains is another reason why sales are not what they were.

“The sort of pubs that sold mild have disappeared,” he says.

Burgeoning number of microbreweries

Yet if all this sounds, like the beer itself, to all be a little dark, there is some bright news. While mild may no longer sell in the vast quantities it once did, there is a new generation of beer drinkers who appreciate the sweet, malty taste of mild.

But today’s mild drinkers are unlikely to be foundrymen who quaff the beer throughout the working day. They are more likely to be young professionals, beer connoisseurs seeking to educate the palate. And the new milds are likely to be brewed in small quantities by the burgeoning number of “microbreweries.

John Howard of the Campaign for Real Ale says there has been a huge growth in the number of milds being produced compared to a decade ago.

“Today, in the UK, there are over 230 milds being brewed,” he says. “At the start of the 21st century there were less than half that number, and it was considered to be an endangered beer. I think part of that is because people don’t go out now for a standard beer, they want a variety.”

Bob Jones, of Camra’s Wolverhampton branch, agrees.

“There are probably more milds around than there have ever been before,” he says.

Mr Jones says the end of Ansell’s Mild mass production was little surprise after the company had been absorbed into the Carlsberg-Tetley group.

“I think part of the reason it has gone,” he says, “is because there are so many new milds all around the country.”

Assistant head brewer at Banks’s Park Brewery Simon Yates believes mild will come back into fashion.

“It is a good beer to drink at lunchtime,” he says. “I think the mild beers will be rediscovered.”

Paradoxically, Des Gallagher says the trend towards light beers could actually work in mild’s favour. As people seek a wider variety of flavours, new, younger ale buffs might also wish to explore the darker, nutty varieties.

One thing everyone agrees on is that the traditional Black Country mild is not likely to disappear any time soon.

To emphasise Banks’s confidence in the continued popularity of the beer, the company recently decided to return to the Banks’s Mild branding.

“Mild has been around for around 400 years, so I think it will outlive us,” says Des Gallagher.

What is mild? -

While most people have a good idea what they mean by mild, Simon Yates of Banks’s says it is hard to pin a firm definition.

Historically “mild” referred to young beer, as opposed to aged “stale” beer, which had a sharper tang. In modern times it has been used to describe beer which is mildly hopped.

“It’s a fuller flavoured, easy drink, and generally not too alcoholic,” says Mr Yates.

The classic definition is that while bitters have extra “aromatic” hops added afterwards to add to the flavour, hops are only added to milds when the wort is heated up. In other words, milds take their flavours predominantly from the malt, whereas bitters tend to take them from the hops.

“Milds have a distinct malty flavour, they generally have a lower alcohol content than bitter, and have a much darker colour,” says Mr Yates.

But there are exceptions to these rules.

Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild, at six per cent, is considerably stronger than the average bitter, and Pardoe’s Old Swan Original is a light beer, but with definite mild characteristics.

“Banks’s Mild is not a particularly dark beer, it’s one of the lighter milds,” says Mr Yates.

  • Are you a fan of mild? What makes it your perfect tipple?
  • Have your say in the Comment box below.

Comments for: "Why mild ale is enjoying a revival"

Stato's Boring Brother

Mild is the perfect beer for an evening out as it generally has less alcohol meaning that you can sup away for hours whereas the high strength lagers and special ales would have you falling off your seat after a few pints.

Its a pity that a whole generation of people have been brought up to think that beer has to be ice cold, fizzy and have at least 6% abv.

There are many reasons for the decline in traditional mild including the marketing of lager as "sexy" and "fashionable" and a misconception that proper beer is for the working classes and sandal wearing wierdo's.

When I was younger the average Banks's pub would have a mild tap, a bitter tap and a lager tap. Now you are presented with one or two guest bitters, maybe banks's bitter, half a dozen lagers, a couple of ciders and sometimes mild which is marketed as "banks's original". I was in Birmingham one day when a barman tried to convince me that banks's original was a pint of bitter. Its no wonder that mild sales are falling.

Another reason is that a 6%+ abv lager is sold at just a few pence more than a 3.5% abv mild meaning that the person out to consume as much alcohol as cheaply and quickly as possible will always opt for the lager.

Bromham Baggie

Heady days of the 70s. As a treat I'd have a brown 'n mild. Mann's Brown with M&B, and Nut Brown with Ansells

Swanleywolf

Having emigrated to the uneducated south many moons ago I have recently been able to purchase Banks's Bitter by the bottle in Aldi.....you used to be able to buy it in Asda to Tesco on rare occasions in the past.

Ship the mild down here as well and get the major retailers to stock it and we will all be laughing...and drinking

The memories of the smells of the M&B Smithfield and Banks's West Park Breweries enter my head every time I take a mouthful.

John BURFORD

Been down under for 43 years after growing up in Oldbury. Adelaide brewery "Coopers" have just released a bottled "Mild Ale," pretty good but I would still prefer a pint of "REAL" black country mild.

Peter

Damn you Carlsberg-Tetley. No more cask Ansells Mild, a sad day indeed.

Same thing happened to a beer i used to enjoy, Springfield, i tghink it was called. I just got into the stuff and they stopped it.

Micro breweries rule! The one at Chasewater park seems to produce good ales, including one with a train on the bottle. Bottle conditioned too if i remember right.

KEVIN

does anyone remember the old Highgate Brewery

in Walsall.They did a great Mild Ale those were the days.

Ken Hawthorn

Still do, I've just had two pints.

dave hargreaves

i live in calgary alta canada, and i can only dream of a banks mild

kev in mallorca

One reason amongst many others why drinking mild declined was that W'ton and Dudley breweries closed Hanson's in Dudley, I've spoken to various brewery representatives and they all say it didn't change the taste but I know from years drinking Hanson's mild in the Sow and Pigs West Brom that it definitely did, everybody swears it was the change in water.

It was always a good pint but when the barrel was changed we waited in anticipation to see if it was a perfect brew that tasted like a fruity nectar,the pulls were the glass one's that you could see the beer going from side to side.

Many a blokes dinner was in the dog cause we just had to have "one last one" and I've never drunk a pint of mild since.

Adéu

Ian Devine

Hook Norton mild is a quality drink, in fact was drinking it at the Trumpet in Evesham this weekend

Long live mild!

Rob willenhall

When i was younger it was always Bankks pubs we went looking for as it was nearly always a beautiful drink with a nice head on but i dont know what happened to it as in the years around 2001 it went rubbish it went flat before you got back too your seat the taste was differant and many people switched over too bitter but again i was realy not a bitter drinker so i went over too lagers i wont drink mild now as i think its rubbish

Dave Moule

Don't forget Holden's mild, it was spotted as a guest ale in Oxford last weekend. Banks' , Hansons and Highgate mild all had their own distinctive taste. At the end of Banks Mild session it was always half a mild with a Bamks' Old Ale top. Bring it back now!

Nick Drew

Had a lovely couple of pints of Holden's Mild at the Coach and Horses in Weatheroak Hill last weekend - a fantastic drink for a Saturday afternoon recovering from taking the kids out :-)

stuey

I think when banks's mild is good it compares with any other mild ale, but just recently the standard has got worse maybe it's me but it is very rare that you get a good pint of mild.

Colin.Dodd.

I don't know what Bob Jones is looking at, but it's not Mild as I knew it.

When Wem brewery was producing, their Mild was black, and creamy, very smooth. Then Greenhall Whitley took it over and decided that Mild should look the same as Bitter, and while they were at it, they made it taste the same too. Foul stuff.

Some of these self proclaimed "experts" from CAMRA were in my local for the launch. One of them asked me what I thought of it, so I told him it tasted like an out of date "specimen". He was drinking the new Mild and thought it was wonderful. He put his pint down and went to the toilet, so I took the opportunity to swap it for a pint of the PA. Mr. know it all came back and drank his pint with relish. Some expert, he never even noticed.

Tronifer

Best pint of mild i ever had was in 'The Stump' in Bilston many years ago, it's good to see it returning although in Holdens 'flagship' pub 'The Fellows' in Dudley you can only get it in bottles which is just not the same and in 'Bathams' Lamp Tavern you can't get it at all!