Leah’s Beer School: Lesson 49

Can of Joan's Dark SecretWhat is a Mild?

A mild is typically a malty brew, copper to dark brown in colour, with a sessionable gravity between 3.1-3.8%. A mild may showcase a wide range of malt and yeast-related flavours, including caramel, toffee, toast, nutty, chocolate, coffee, roast, vinous, fruit, licorice, molasses, plum and raisin. By current standards, mild generally refers to a lack of hop bitterness, as well as a lower-gravity session beer.

Historical “Mild”

Born in the 1700s, mild is often considered one of the oldest beer styles, though its historical iterations hardly resemble the modern mild. Originally, the term “mild” did not imply low gravity or low bitterness. In 18th century Britain there were two quite distinct types of malt liquor: ale and beer. Ale had been locally brewed since the 5th century without the addition of hops, though was lightly hopped by 1700. Domestic beer production began in the 15th century and was, by contrast, heavily hopped.

Malt liquor was also classified by age, where young brews were described as “mild” regardless of style, i.e. mild ale, mild porter or mild bitter. Most ales were sold fresh, or “mild”, before bacterial growth made it tart and acidic. Aged brews, by contrast, were called “keeping” or “stale,” with hops acting as a natural preservative.

A Darker Mild

Around 1800, there was a dramatic increase in malt tax, and brewers found they could get a better yield from pale base malts. The 1880 Free Mash Tun Act subsequently lowered the tax on malt, as well as easing restrictions on other ingredients. This had a profound impact on the beer industry, but particularly for the development of the mild.

Brewers began to move away from brewing an all-malt beer, replacing some of the malt with adjuncts such as maize, rice and sugar, favouring a lighter-bodied brew. The use of dark sugars gave brewers further control over the colour and flavour of the beer, resulting in the gradual darkening of the mild. By the end of the 19th century, most mild beer was dark amber in colour.

Gravity Matters

As a direct result of grain shortages during World War I, beer gravities in Britain were limited by law. Restrictions eased off in the early 1920s and beer gravities started to bounce back to pre-war levels. In 1931, the beer industry was dealt another major blow by the British government’s effort to stimulate the economic growth through increased beer taxes. As tax was based on a beer’s gravity, many brewers simply lowered the alcoholic strength of beer while charging the same price to customers. By the 1950s, dark mild began declining in popularity, in large part due to changing tastes in Britain, though the widely circulating rumors of barkeepers reintegrating spilled beer back into the mild barrel didn’t help.

Although mild beer is nowhere near a ubiquitous style, it has seen a resurgence in the craft beer industry. The dark mild that resembles our modern version really only dates back to the 1930s, when it became a more malt-forward, sessionable brew. Most modern milds are dark with flavours of caramel, chocolate, coffee and dark fruit, pale versions tend to emphasize the biscuit and toast of English malts.

Craving a mild? Come by C’est What for a fresh pint of Dark Secret.

(Leah is a Toronto based freelance writer as well as Head Beer Weenie and a server at C’est What)