“I think that lighter beers… people used to drink with their eyes — if one person lifted a pint and looked through it, everybody did. Another stepping stone was the introduction of lager. When we talk about mild drinkers, they’re probably the lager drinkers now. Didn’t like bitter beer, enjoyed the mild beer, and now gone on to lager.”
Don Nixon, pub landlord 1960-1989, in Public Houses, Private Lives: an oral history of Life in York pubs in the mid-20th century. (With some corrections to punctuation.)
As pointed out by one commenter on our post about beer clarity from last week, that can give us an insight into whether hazy beer necessarily tasted better, or was thought to taste better, in the past.
We put Ron’s figures into a spreadsheet (from 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11) and cut them various ways. Here’s what we found:
Beers being rated on a scale of -3 to 2, of the 84 beers rated 1 and 2, some 22 were described as hazy, cloudy or variants thereon.
Of the 60 beers scoring between -1 and -3, some 23 were described as bright or brilliant.
Some beers described as hazy or cloudy were recorded as having ‘poor’ flavour, while others tasted ‘very fair’ or ‘good’.
Beers described as brilliant were generally also found to taste good, though one was ‘poor’ and quite a few others were ‘fair’ (acceptable, with an overall score of 1).
UPDATE 13/2/2014: Ron has clarified in a comment below that the numerical scores are his addition, based on Whitbread’s more-or-less standardised flavour descriptors.
In other words, Whitbread’s tasters didn’t find any particular connection between clarity and flavour. Hazy beer wasn’t somehow better or more virtuous, but nor was it necessarily bad.
What we’d really like to know is whether customers in the pub would have shown a preference for the beer that looked ‘bright’ but had ‘unpleasant flavour, going off’.
We’ve been meaning for some time to formulate a recipe for mild based on the 1938 Starkey, Knight & Ford brewing log we photographed at the Somerset local history archive.
The recipe is below, but getting there proved rather frustrating.
1. Which one was the mild?
We spent a little while working on something we thought was logged as ‘M3’ only to realise, with help from a few people on Twitter, that it was actually ‘MS’ — Milk Stout. (The inclusion of lactose ought to have been a give away. D’oh!)
Based on the ingredients, another called something like ‘JA’ looked more likely. That some of each batch was also bottled as ‘brown ale’ made us feel more certain.
Proprietary brewing sugars — grrr! How are we supposed to know what ‘MC’ is? Our best guess is that it’s some kind of caramel… or is it ‘maltose caramel’? Or ‘mild caramel’? Or something completely different? For the purpose of our recipe, we assumed it was a dark sugar with some fermentability, which got us to the correct original gravity (1036). We’ll probably use something similar to Invert No. 4.
The original recipe used some ‘Oregon’ hops: we’ll try to get hold of Cluster, but, for the small amount used, Cascade will probably do the job.
3. Too bitter?
With around 1lb of hops per barrel, this beer seemed to be too hoppy ‘for the style’, but there are milds in Ron and Kristen’s 1909 Style Guide (notably Fuller’s X ale)which appear similarly heavily hopped.
* * *
So, with those caveats, and with questions and corrections very much welcome, here’s what we’ll be brewing next time we fire up the kettle.
We can go months without seeing a draught mild on sale in Penzance and so, at the sight of a pump clip for St Austell’s ‘The Queen’s Mild’, felt the same kind of excitement a city-based beer geek might at the sight of, say, a limited edition farmhouse porter.
We’ve been sorely disappointed by mild in the past: too often, they turn out to be watery and murky — like something from the U-bend under the kitchen sink. But from the moment this landed on the bar, we knew we were on to a winner.
It glowed in the glass, almost black but not opaque. The use of a sparkler (in the West Country, they are sometimes employed, sometimes not — there is no dogma) gave it a smooth, slightly-off-white head. A sparkling clean glass didn’t hurt, either. It looked, in short, like a photo opportunity for the Mild Marketing Board.
A relatively high strength for a mild (4.5%) seemed to nudge it into Old Ale territory (think Adnams). We’d like to have tried it side-by-side with Black Prince, St Austell’s regular but rarely-seen ‘dark ale’, but our impression was that Queen’s was milkier, stouter, and more bitter. A sort of ‘best mild’, perhaps.
It was extremely moreish and satisfying but didn’t demand our complete attention: it made us say ‘Aaah….’ rather than ‘Wow!’
We meant to have one but couldn’t resist a second. Then, seizing the moment, pushed on to a third. We might have made a fourth if the pub hadn’t been closing around us.
For the last thirty-six years (with gaps) May has been the Campaign for Real Ale’s ‘Mild Month‘. This sub-campaign began life as an attempt to change CAMRA’s image, as much as to save and celebrate an endangered type of beer.
It began in December 1974 when a letter from Tim Beswick appeared in What’s Brewing making the point that mild wasn’t getting the attention it deserved. This prompted a thoughtful article by David Hall, of CAMRA’s South Manchester branch, in the January 1975 edition, in which he considered why this might be the case and what should be done about it. Members were blinkered, he said, and, in London especially, should stop demanding new and interesting beers while overlooking what was on their doorstep. ‘To those trying an unfamiliar brew,’ he went on, ‘and to those organising future beer exhibitions… the message must be don’t neglect the mild.’
It can’t have helped, he also pointed out, that CAMRA had tended to obsess over the decreasing original gravities (OG) of beer. Celebrating the relative potency of, say, Fuller’s ESB, and using the ever-dwindling alcohol content of keg bitter as a stick with which to beat the Big Six, sent the message that only strong beer was good beer.
Gears ground and the conversation continued until, in January 1977, this announcement appeared in What’s Brewing, echoing the point above.
CAMRA is to launch a determined effort to promote mild ale… Joe Goodwin, the NE [National Executive] member responsible for organising the venture, told What’s Brewing: ‘CAMRA exists to preserve choice. Since mild ales represent a significant portion of the range of real ales available in this country and since several milds are under threat of extinction, this has become a vital national campaign… As a campaign, we’re in danger of becoming too frequently associated with the promotion of over-priced, high-gravity beers. It’s about time we did something positive to change that image.’
That’s interesting for a couple of reasons. First, that ‘over-priced, high-gravity’ accusation is something now applied to ‘craft beer’; and, secondly, because it also represents a sign of CAMRA’s often-criticised drift into the ‘responsible drinking’ camp.
Has Mild Month been effective? Perhaps in preserving mild as a seasonal special, but there are relatively few that are brewed year-round, and those that are can be hard to find. As one veteran brewer said to us: ‘Breweries aren’t museums, but all good products ought to have a place.’
Over-thinking beer, pubs and the meaning of craft since 2007