The Best Bottled Milds Are…

After five elimination rounds we ended up with eight bottled milds to compare against each other in the big final.

  1. Banks’s (can)
  2. Elgo­od’s
  3. Hold­en’s
  4. Ilk­ley
  5. Moor­house­’s
  6. Nor­folk Brew­house
  7. St Peter’s
  8. Thwait­es’s (can)

We fol­lowed what has become our usu­al pro­ce­dure: Bai­ley num­bered eight plas­tic beakers and poured sam­ples, as above; Boak then tast­ed them blind, pro­mot­ing and demot­ing until we were left with a rough peck­ing order. Bai­ley (who sort of knew which beer was which) then reviewed her rank­ings.

In this case, we were in broad agree­ment, with only a lit­tle debate over third and fourth place: one beer was rel­a­tive­ly bland but clean, the oth­er more flavour­ful but with a nag­ging off-note. In the end, we went with clean, but there was­n’t much in it.

First place badge.First place: Hold­en’s Black Coun­try. A notice­ably ‘big­ger’ flavour with­out resort­ing to stout-like roasti­ness or flow­ery hop­pi­ness. It seemed some­how more dense and con­cen­trat­ed than its rivals, despite its restrained ABV of 3.7%. It isn’t quite like drink­ing cask mild but nor is it over­ly car­bon­at­ed or crys­talline as some bot­tled ales can be. Worth buy­ing by the case with a ses­sion or two in mind. It is avail­able for £2.09 a bot­tle at Beers of Europe.

Sec­ond: Moor­house­’s Black Cat. The smoky note we detect­ed first time round was even more pro­nounced in this com­pa­ny – verg­ing on cig­a­rette ash at times. Nonethe­less, it seemed quin­tes­sen­tial­ly mild-like, and inter­est­ing to boot. Beers of Europe have it at £2.05 a bot­tle; if you live in the North West, you should be able to find it in shops fair­ly eas­i­ly, and prob­a­bly cheap­er.

Best value badge.Third: Thwait­es’s. This one slight­ly sur­prised us as, at a mere 3.2%, we thought it might get washed away along­side stronger, more char­ac­ter­ful com­peti­tors. Though almost bland, it isn’t quite, and a tongue-coat­ing body makes for a very con­vinc­ing pub-style beer. It’s cer­tain­ly top in terms of val­ue sell­ing for around a quid a can in super­mar­kets.

Fourth: Ilk­ley Black. We still like this beer a lot but it seemed marred by a faint slick of but­ter this time round. We bought ours from Beer Ritz at £2.96 but we are told it can be found in Asda stores in the North at less than £2 a bot­tle.

As for the oth­ers, we found St Peter’s much less enjoy­able than on our first encounter, with an unbear­able stale card­boar­d­i­ness; Banks’s seemed all but flavour­less in this com­pa­ny; Elgo­od’s was rather fizzy and Cola-like; and Nor­folk Brew­house­’s effort was excel­lent but (per­haps this bot­tle was fresh­er) had grassy, flow­ery hop notes that seemed quite out place. (Links are to our orig­i­nal tast­ing notes.)

At the end of all that, we’ve got a much clear­er idea of what we think mild is about. First, it has to put sweet malt and flavours from sug­ar at the fore­front, but that does­n’t have to mean that it has to be sick­ly or lack­ing in char­ac­ter. Bit­ter­ness can work, but exces­sive per­fume just seems wrong. Roasti­ness also jars, sug­gest­ing that some brew­ers remain in thrall to out-of-date his­to­ry that declares mild to be a degen­er­a­tion of porter, which it isn’t. (Though baby stout is quite a nice thing in their own right.)

Most impor­tant­ly, though, we’re now con­vinced that bot­tled mild can work after all – great news for those of us who live in regions where it is rarely seen in the pub, and also for those of you abroad who want to get to under­stand the style with­out hav­ing to book a flight to Britain.

Bottled Milds 5: The North Country

This final batch of bottled milds are all from the North – a term which, of course, covers a great deal of territory.

Though the Mid­lands has a strong claim to mild it is The North with which it is most asso­ci­at­ed in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion – part of the stereo­typ­i­cal image of a north­ern­er along with flat caps and whip­pets, as in this arti­cle on the crowd-sourced com­e­dy web­site News­Bis­cuit:

In a move which is sure to be wel­comed by ‘hard work­ing fam­i­lies’ and ‘lov­able north­ern­ers’, the Gov­ern­ment has announced that whip­pets, pipes, pints of mild and dol­ly tubs are all to be zero-rat­ed for VAT.

As with CAMRA and beards there is some truth in the asso­ci­a­tion: we found a rel­a­tive abun­dance of mild on our last trip to Man­ches­ter, albeit most­ly kegged; and yet as ear­ly as the 1970s CAMRA was declar­ing it all but extinct in Lon­don and the Home Coun­ties.

Apart from the ques­tion of whether they’re any good – the main point of these posts – there’s a sec­ondary line of enquiry: do they have any­thing in com­mon with each oth­er? And, if so, can we say north­ern mild is any way dis­tinct from Mid­lands mild?

  • Brass Cas­tle Hazel­nut Mild (Beers of Europe, £2.89 500ml)
  • Ilk­ley Black (Beer Ritz, £2.96 500ml)
  • Moor­house Black Cat (Beers of Europe, £2.05 500ml)
  • Rudgate Ruby Mild (Beer Ritz, £3.00 500ml)
  • Thwait­es Dark Mild (Mor­risons, £3.96 4 × 440ml)

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Bot­tled Milds 5: The North Coun­try”

Bottle Milds 4: Old & Dark

This time, we’re tasting two beers that weren’t on our original list, one from Glamorganshire, the other from Sussex.

There was a bit of angst on Twit­ter and else­where when we said we had­n’t been able to get Brain’s Dark for this tast­ing. We real­ly did try, check­ing six or sev­en dif­fer­ent super­mar­kets, and online. We’d giv­en up and moved on when, sud­den­ly, it appeared in our local Tesco. It was­n’t on dis­play prop­er but hid­den in a plas­tic-wrapped slab on top of the shelv­ing from where a chap with a lad­der had to retrieve two bot­tles. We paid £1.50 per 500ml in a four-for-six deal.

Despite the cryp­tic name the label trum­pets a ‘best mild ale’ award from the World Beer Awards. The ABV is 4.1%, nudg­ing above where most milds sit. It’s not bot­tle-con­di­tioned or self-con­scious­ly arti­sanal so there were no gush­es or quirks on pour­ing and it pro­duced a glass of black topped with a thick wedge of beige with­out fuss. This is the black­est mild we’ve tast­ed so far – a real light-stop­per.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Bot­tle Milds 4: Old & Dark”

Bottled Milds 3: Fenland &c.

The third batch of milds in our taste-off are from Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Lincolnshire and we bought all three from Beers of Europe.

All three are tra­di­tion­al dark milds with­out twists or spe­cial ingre­di­ents:

  • 8 Sail Brew­ery Mill­wright Mild (3.5%, 500ml, £2.29)
  • Elgo­od’s Black Dog (3.6%, 500ml, £1.99)
  • St Peter’s Mild (3.7%, 500ml, £1.99)

8 Sail Brewery Millwright's Mild.

The label for 8 Sail’s Mill­wright Mild (Lincs) isn’t slick­ly designed and has the look about it of what we call ‘gift shop beer’. Pop­ping the cap released a fierce hiss and we braced for a gush­er but, for­tu­nate­ly, it behaved. The car­bon­a­tion was notably high pro­duc­ing a tall, foamy head of tight bub­bles. (It had dropped back a bit by the time we took the pho­to above.) It had what we’re begin­ning to think of as the clas­sic look for dark mild: red against the light, almost black in the glass.

That high car­bon­a­tion and fizz was a har­bin­ger, though: some­thing in this bot­tle had eat­en through every last bit of sug­ar and turned the beer sour. Once we’d got over its fail­ure as easy-drink­ing mild this pre­sum­ably acci­den­tal result made for a beer that was inter­est­ing in its own right. It was a kind of dark gueuze – a Black For­est gateaux of cher­ry and cocoa flavours, with a dab of tar-like trea­cle. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, all that was too much com­plex­i­ty for the rel­a­tive­ly light body to bear. This isn’t a con­tender but we might try blend­ing the sec­ond bot­tle with, say, Man­n’s Brown, to mel­low it out.

Elgood's Black Dog.

Elgo­od’s Black Dog (Cambs) gave off a sur­pris­ing­ly intense aro­ma on open­ing – a puff of green­house straw­ber­ries, or of Nesquik milk­shake pow­der. It occu­pies the red-black bor­der­lands and is topped with a tan head.

It has a rel­a­tive­ly pow­er­ful flavour, too – tra­di­tion­al, yes, but with every­thing turned up a notch. Roasti­ness, a touch of plum­my red wine and rich, dark choco­late bit­ter­ness bring to mind a gen­er­al impres­sion of the porters we tast­ed last year. Dark mild may not his­tor­i­cal­ly be ‘baby porter’ but that is clear­ly how some mod­ern brew­ers approach it.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, we could not agree on this beer. The stick­ing point was an over­ripe fruit aro­ma that Bai­ley could bare­ly detect but which Boak found dis­tract­ing and off-putting: ‘Like cheap foam banana sweets.’ Though we are try­ing to nar­row the field, we think it deserves a sec­ond chance and so (only just) it’s a con­tender.

St Peter's Brewery Mild.
Anoth­er brew­ery which has always divid­ed us is St Peter’s (Suf­folk). In the ear­ly days of our inter­est in beer, their dis­tinc­tive oval green bot­tles were easy to find in super­mar­kets and cor­ner shops and gave us access to a wide range of his­toric and quirky styles such as porter and fruit beer. Boak has always been a fan, Bai­ley has not.

Once again, we found our­selves with glass­es of red-brown-black, topped with well-behaved, just-off-white foam.

The aro­ma was restrained – just a touch of charred malt – and it tast­ed like anoth­er ses­sion stout with severe bit­ter­ness and a sug­ges­tion of burnt-toast. There was a bal­anc­ing sweet­ness, though, enhanced by a sort of almond essence nut­ti­ness. That might, we though, become cloy­ing over a ses­sion, but we both enjoyed it a lot (lots of ‘Mmm­m­m­mm!’ and ‘Ooh!’) so it’s a def­i­nite con­tender.

UPDATE: We post­ed this in a rush while head­ing off to work and got the geog­ra­phy wrong. Apolo­gies.

Bottled Milds 2: The Midlands

This time, we tasted three bottled milds from Dudley, Nottingham and Wolverhampton, the latter from both can and bottle.

The Mid­lands is a part of the UK where (in our admit­ted­ly lim­it­ed expe­ri­ence) mild still feels alive – where ‘pub­by’ pubs seem to have one on draught and might even offer a choice of dif­fer­ent brands, or dif­fer­ent types of mild. (See Bar­m’s 2014 account of explor­ing ‘Eng­land’s Fran­co­nia’ for more on this.)

Unfor­tu­nate­ly – or, actu­al­ly, maybe we mean for­tu­nate­ly? – lots of Mid­lands milds are cask beers by def­i­n­i­tion and either don’t seem to make it into bot­tles, or the bot­tles are hard to come by. The selec­tion we man­aged to scrape togeth­er includes some­thing from the super­mar­ket main­stream, a mild with some­thing of a cult rep­u­ta­tion, and an out­ly­ing ‘crafty’-looking beer that isn’t sure exact­ly what it is.

We pur­chased all of these from Beers of Europe online:

  • Banks’s Mild (can, 3.5%, £1.49, 500ml)
  • Bank’s Mild (bot­tle, 3.5%, £1.69, 500ml)
  • Hold­en’s Black Coun­try Mild (£2.09, 3.7%, £2.09, 500ml)
  • Blue Mon­key 99 Red Baboons (£2.99, 4.2%, 500ml)

Tak­ing them in order of ABV, we start­ed with Banks’s (part of the Marston’s empire but still brewed in Wolver­hamp­ton, as far as we can tell) and decid­ed to drink the can and bot­tle side by side in pint glass­es.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Bot­tled Milds 2: The Mid­lands”