Thursday 7 January 2016

Going mild

Perhaps unconsciously inspired by Boak and Bailey’s recent bottled mild taste-off, I seem to have amassed a small collection of these myself. Mild has always been a curiosity to me, fuelled by the fact that it’s rarely seen at all in this part of the country. Bottled mild also seems to be uncommon – as I learnt recently, this probably dates back to the time when breweries primed their mild for bottling and labelled it brown ale – though brown ale was not necessarily always the same as mild, bottled mild was nevertheless rare. And anyway, mild in its modern form (low ABV and easy drinking) is strongly associated with sessions in the pub rather than supping on the sofa. That’s not to say it doesn't work in bottled form, as proven by the following thoughts on four beers, none of which were less than decent.

In 2012, Pretty Things brewed two milds in collaboration with Ron Pattinson. Both were based on archival Barclay Perkins recipes; the first, from 1838, was strong (7.4%) and highly hopped, whilst the post-Second World War beer demonstrates the effect of the war on brewing, having dropped to just 2.8% and using only a fifth of the hops of the previous incarnation. “This is mild as we know it today”, read Ron’s notes on the label, “a low-gravity, lightly hopped, dark beer.”

Having read about the beer on Ron’s blog, I was excited to find it for sale at Beers of Europe. I had assumed that a second batch had been brewed since then, and might not have taken the punt had I known the bottle was almost four years old. Mild – especially a low-alcohol one with light hopping – isn’t a style for the cellar, and I was a little worried about how it might have held up.

As it turns out, all was well. An initial musty flavour had me fearing the worst but, if I'm not mistaken, this is a characteristic of the hops. I found a similar flavour recently in a pint of Kent’s KGB bitter, an East Kent Goldings-heavy brew. It’s earthy, a little like tobacco with an edge of Shredded Wheat, and it’s not unpleasant. The pour isn't as dark as I expected – a dark amber rather than brown or black, with a fluffy with head. Golden syrup aromas burst from the glass, along with some marmalade. A thirsty first chug is dominated by that earthiness, accompanied by slightly sweet and nutty malty flavours which suggest toffee and marzipan, and the finish is dry and bitter with a slightly chalky, mineral aftertaste.

There’s a tingle of carbonation on the roof of the mouth, but too much – it remains soft and smooth, closer to a cask pint than your usual effervescent bottle, and if the body is a little thin, that smoothness more than makes up for it. I know poncing around with tasting notes, which isn't really appropriate for a mild from 1945 even if I think the beer is interesting enough to justify doing so. But, drinking this, it’s easy to see why modern milds were so popular – it’s tasty, but easy to drink and moreish with it.

Sadly I don’t have a bottle of Pretty Things’ 1838 mild to compare, but I do have this, a 9.5% monster based on an 1839 recipe from an unnamed London brewery. This may be pretty far removed from what we recognise as mild today, but the fact that this beer is billed as an ‘imperial mild’ still raises a smile. Even if we accept the word ‘imperial’ as simply a synonym for ‘strong’, doesn't using an archival recipe suggest that this is just what mild was like at that time? Perhaps with two hip breweries involved, they felt they needed to give the beer a craft makeover.

The pour is a slightly hazy burnt orange, and spicy citrus fruit (more marmalade) and Cointreau aromas rise from the glass. Take a sip and the beer seems to slip around in your mouth, the alcohol revealing itself in a slick, viscous mouthfeel, and orange peel spiciness fizzes on the tongue. There are zesty, bitter grapefruit flavours too which suggest vigorous hopping, alongside savoury bread-like malt notes before a hot, boozy finish that recalls desert wine.

The alcohol is a little harsh for my tastes, and whilst I understand that milds aren't necessarily mild in strength, it’s a bit odd to place a beer that tastes like Fuller’s Golden Pride in amongst beers a third of its ABV. I enjoyed it well enough, but I think its best approached as a curiosity.

On an unrelated note, when I saw that gypsy brewer Evil Twin had collaborated with Beavertown, I assumed the beer was brewed at the London brewery. According to the bottle, though, it was brewed at Westbrook “for Evil Twin”. And, since the recipe wasn't original, I can’t help but wonder what either of the breweries who put their name on this beer actually did towards making it.

I think of mild as primarily a dark beer, though it needn't necessarily be so, and so Thwaites Champion is much more what I expect from a mild than either of the previous beers. It pours a deep brown with deep red edges and beautiful, creamy off-white head which lasts throughout the glass. There’s very little on the nose save for a slightly unpleasant metallic note (I’m not drinking straight from the can, before you ask). Some berry sweetness makes itself apparent immediately, followed by malty caramel. There are some slightly vegetal hops in there, too, and a dry, quenching finish. The body is thin as you’d expect at 3.2% ABV, but that doesn't slip away in an unsatisfying away, instead demanding another thirsty glug. It’s not really a beer to think too hard about, designed as it is to be unchallenging but flavoursome, and it’s doing a good job in that respect. Probably tastes best on the fourth pint.

Another dark-ish offering here, with a little red-brown hue. As I poured it into the glass, an intense fruit ‘n’ nut aroma wafted towards me, recalling Chimay Bleue. As I poked my nose in proper, all I got was caramel, and lots of it. Stout-like roast malt flavour jumps out on the first sip, suggesting liquorice or very dark roasted coffee. Again, there’s some dank, slightly vegetal hops which, even if it doesn’t sound it, is pleasant and adds depth of flavour, and the finish is dry and hugely burnt-tasting and bitter. It’s basically a variation on a stout – an astringent, roasty stout rather than a smooth chocolatey stout, and you certainly can’t accuse the brewery of failing to pack sufficient flavour into a low ABV beer. Given the choice, I’d take the subtlety of Thwaites’ version over this, which is maybe a bit too much of a bitter smack in the mouth to be really sessionable.


  1. Pretty sure the the 1839 XXX is also Barclay Perkins. Assuming they knicked one of my recipes:

  2. Newcastle Brown Ale is not, in any meaningful sense, a brown ale: it was originally made by blending a strong 7.5% or so abv Scotch Ale/Burton Ale beer, which I believe was sold in its own right as Newcastle Star, with a much weaker 3% or so beer, Newcastle Amber, to try to make a mid-strength beer with the fruity aromas of a stronger one. It bears no resemblance in taste or colour to anything ever called "brown ale" anywhere else.

  3. Thanks for your comment Martyn, though I assume it was meant to relate to this post -

    I'd not come across that information. It does make sense since, as you say, it isn't anything like any other brown ale. I'll include a link to your comment in the brown ale post.