Sunday, 3 May 2015

Mild in May?

Mild in May from CAMRA

We’re in the month of May now, and as many CAMRA members will know “May is a Mild Month”. Well it’s not particularly mild at the moment; in fact there’s been a biting cold north-easterly wind blowing for the past ten days or so! Leaving bad puns on the British weather aside for a moment, why exactly does the Campaign for Real Ale choose May as a month to campaign for mild ale?

“Mild in May” must be CAMRA’s longest running campaign. I remember it being around during the 1980’s when CAMRA first set up its Mild Marketing Board; a concept which was unashamedly based on the long defunct Milk Marketing Board. A handful of prominent South-East based CAMRA activists were behind this idea; one is sadly no longer with us, and I’m not certain what has happened with some of the others.

The Mild Marketing Board was all slightly tongue-in-cheek, but there was a serious purpose behind it.  There was also, for the time, some quite amusing publicity material designed to draw people’s attention to this almost forgotten drink. However, one has to ask why did CAMRA put its weight behind a campaign to try and save a style of beer which was dying on its feet? I suppose the answer was that thirty years ago, there just wasn’t the enormous range of different beer styles available to the average pub-goer; certainly not in cask-conditioned form. Your typical English or Welsh pub (Scotland was slightly different), and your typical English or Welsh brewer offered a choice of either bitter or mild. Some offered two bitters (Ordinary or Best), and perhaps during the winter months, an Old or Strong Ale might also have been available, but when mild started declining in popularity and, in many cases, even disappearing completely, the choice for ale lovers was cut in half and CAMRA felt obliged  to do something about it.

It all seemed pretty noble at the time, and I admit that I was sucked into the campaign. The problem was I wasn’t over-keen on mild and thirty years later I am still not over-enamoured with the style. I am not a beer historian, so I’d better tread carefully here as I don’t want to incur the wrath of those who are. I believe though that the term “mild” originally applied to beers that had not been aged, and which therefore had not developed the lactic sourness associated with “vatted beers” which had been matured for lengthy periods, often in oak vats.

Later the term was applied to malt-driven beers which were only lightly hopped. Such beers were often fairly sweet in taste and were brewed to be consumed in large quantities, often by agricultural labourers or those working in heavy industries, such as mining or metal-working, where there was a need to replace fluids lost over the course of a hard working day.

Because these beers were designed to be drunk in copious amounts, they were of necessity quite low in strength; typically coming in at just over the 3.0% ABV level. Prior to World War II mild was the most popular style of beer consumed in Britain’s pubs, but with increasing prosperity during the post-war years, bitter began to first catch up and then overtake mild as the nation’s most popular beer. Mild even developed an image problem, in so much that it was viewed as an “old man’s drink”, drunk solely by old codgers, wearing cloth caps, tucked away in a dark corner of the Public Bar.

An obvious cliché, but not without a grain of truth during the Britain of the “Swinging Sixties”, so much so that by the time CAMRA came on the scene mild was in terminal decline and was disappearing at an increasing rate from the nation’s bars, and from many brewers’ portfolios. With hindsight, was CAMRA right in trying to reverse this trend and attempting to restore mild to its rightful place in Britain’s pubs?

As a thing of its time, I would say yes, even though, with one or two notable exceptions, I was never that keen on the stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I did my fair share of trying to save this once popular drink. For example, during my early days with CAMRA, when I was a member of Maidstone & Mid-Kent branch, it was policy to support the only cask mild available in mid-Kent; namely Shepherd Neame Mild. Members were encouraged to drink it, wherever possible, in order to help the turnover of the beer in Shepherd Neame pubs, thereby encouraging the brewery to keep it available as a cask-conditioned (Real) ale. Being young and naive, and also somewhat idealistic, I went along with this policy, often putting up with mediocre pints of a not particularly good beer. This was at a time before Shepherd Neame started messing with their yeast and brewing techniques and when their bitter ranked amongst some of the finest in the country. I wince now when I look back at all the superb pints of bitter I must have denied myself just to support a style of beer which was dying on its feet.

Bavarian Weissbier
This is not to say that dying, or even completely lost beer styles cannot be revived. The example of Bavarian Wheat or Weissbier is a case in point where a once popular beer, which had almost died out earlier in the 20th Century, became the fastest growing beer style in Bavaria during the 1980’s. If mild was seen in Britain as an “old man’s drink”, Wheat Beers were looked upon, in Bavaria, as the province of "maiden aunts" and other ladies of advanced years. The beer though went on to capture around 30% of the local market, proving particularly popular with young people; demonstrating that, in certain cases, once dying beers can be revived.

The proviso here though is they can be revived IF they are good. Bavarian and other German wheat beers are generally very good, even though I am not a huge fan. The same applies to other once extinct or virtually extinct beers; the most obvious example being Porter. Once a massively popular beer in the UK, as well as other parts of the world, the style had virtually died out until a handful of brave pioneers resurrected it. Today, many brewers both here and abroad and especially in the USA, include a porter in their range and very good they are too.

The fact that styles such as wheat beer and porter, and also other beers such as Saisons and even Gose have been revived is largely down to them being good beers, with fine pedigrees and long-standing heritages to start with. Whilst not denying that some UK milds can be good, many were not and this is undoubtedly the reason for their decline. Back in the 1970’s some independent family brewers openly admitted that their mild was little more than their ordinary bitter with added caramel. These were the beers which CAMRA was rushing to defend and indeed promote!

One of the better milds
Fortunately such sharp practices have ceased and the majority of the surviving milds are brewed to carefully-crafted individual recipes designed to showcase the best aspects of the style. So really these beers should be standing on their own merits and not needing a special campaign to promote them. My argument is that “Mild in May” is now a totally superfluous campaign which continues more due to habit than anything else. However noble local campaigns by individual CAMRA branches might be in raising the profile of mild ale, they are only having a temporary effect, and as soon as the promotion ends, sales slump back down to their previous levels. In the same way as Maidstone CAMRA did thirty years ago, these sorts of campaign distort the market and only have a temporary effect on the sales of mild and its overall perception by the general public.
Time now to drop it; after all why should a style of beer where the public has voted with its feet and deserted in its droves, be worthy of special promotion? Also, if a campaign of this nature IS going to be run, why confine it to a specific month? If it wasn’t for the alliteration of “Make May a Mild Month”, then it could be run at other times. March has the same alliteration, of course, but perhaps not the mild weather.

To me “Mild in May” is nothing more than a habitual and irritating campaign, attempting to revive a style of beer which the drinking public have lost interest in. But then CAMRA loves these sorts of campaigns with Community Pubs Month, National Cask Ale Week and of course Cider Month, all designed to focus drinkers’ attention on particular aspects of the licensed trade. The latter campaign is now being run in March as well as the traditional month of October, proving there is no need to confine these types of campaign to specific months.

Needless to say, I shan’t be going out of my way to neck much mild this May, or indeed any other month. Not that there’s much chance of stumbling upon the drink in these parts. Local revered independent Harvey’s do produce small volumes of their Dark Mild throughout the year, and also brew a seasonal 3.0% ABV Light Mild, called Knots of May during this month. One of two smaller independents produce the odd drop of mild, but that’s about it, as this part of the country has never been mild territory; at least not since the Second World War.

Doomed to failure an ad from 2006
On form, Harvey’s Dark Mild can be quite quaffable, but I find Knots of May distinctly lacking in both the flavour and enjoyment departments. Part of the problem, of course, is the poor keeping qualities of mild which, given its low ABV and equally low hopping rates, is not really surprising. A cask of the stuff really needs to be shifted in around three days; otherwise the quality starts to really suffer. This isn’t a problem where a pub puts a cask on specifically for a CAMRA event, but at other times of the year the interest in mild ale just isn’t there.

This is why campaigns such as “Mild in May” are, in the end, doomed to failure. It is not possible to create a demand for a product if the demand isn’t there all year round. CAMRA really would be better off dropping this long-running, out-dated campaign and concentrating its efforts elsewhere.


Neville Grundy said...

I'm not a mild drinker either, but can occasionally enjoy one; Moorhouses Black Cat mild is a good example of a decent mild. If I were in a Tetley house, I'd drink the mild as it tasted considerably better than Tetley bitter, which I slagged off at CAMRA AGM several years ago and for which I was roundly booed by some members from Yorkshire.

You've missed out an important reason for the decline in mild: namely that the slops from other beers were routinely poured into the mild. A few years ago, a CAMRA member angrily denied this and accused me of peddling urban myths, but he was wrong: I know for a fact that this was a widespread practice, and beer that may have been hanging around in a steel bucket for hours was poured into the mild, with all the risks of infection that would ensue. Even if it weren't infected, it certainly would be flat and stale, which wouldn't improve the mild in the cask.

I may be wrong but I'm under the impression that where you live was never a heartland of mild drinking, which was in the Midlands and North, so possibly it was even more endangered your way.

Curmudgeon said...

As I'm sure you know, Robinson's brewery in Stockport have recently axed their 1892 mild, saying sales had declined to unsustainable volumes.

In a few parts of the country, "ordinary" drinkers (albeit generally of the older generation) do still sup a fair bit of mild. However, it has to be admitted that it has always been typically a fairly weak, bland beer, that was brewed for a particular market that has pretty much entirely disappeared.

It's just never going to seem cool to drink mild.

Paul Bailey said...

You are right Nev, about the south-east never really being a stronghold of mild drinking, although light milds were still quite common in East Kent a generation or so ago.

I had, of course, heard the tales about slops being poured back into the mild barrel, and I even remember one old drinker describing the mild sold in a particular pub as being all the better for this practice. The whole thing sounded so revolting that I didn’t think it could possibly be true, until I saw it described, in black and white, in a book on “Bar Service”, published in 1965. “You will receive your instructions as to the disposal of the overspill. Often it is removed to the cellar, filtered and worked back into the cask for re-service”. Ugh! No wonder keg beer became so popular in the 1960’s

I was mindful of Robinson’s decision to discontinue their mild Mudge, when I started writing this post. I must admit to being surprised, as I thought the north-west was still a bastion of mild drinking. I remember my student days during the mid-1970’s, in Greater Manchester when breweries such as Boddingtons, Greenall Whitley, Hydes, Lees and Thwaites all brewed two milds; such was the popularity of the style.

Times change, and so do peoples’ tastes. Like you say “it's just never going to seem cool to drink mild.” It might be better if mild was treated as a seasonal, rather than an all year round beer. Perhaps CAMRA could lend its weight to it being promoted and sold in May??

Neville Grundy said...

I think it would be more logical to promote mild as a winter beer. From May, bright, sunny-looking, golden, seasonal ales are taking over.

DaveS said...

It's kind of a running joke that craft-nerds would be all over mild if someone rebranded it as "session stout", but it's also sort of true.

I doubt we'll get back to the point where there's a mild on every bar, but I can see it (or something like it in all but name) ending up as a well established thing in the micro / craft / specialist beer pub sort of world - particularly as we get a younger generation who haven't grown up with it as something that old men drink. "Dark and roasty but sessionable" seems like a fundamentally reasonable offer.

py said...

Trying to "save" mild, one of the most popular and fashionable styles of beer in normal pubs?

What next, trying to save lager?