Sunday, 4 April 2021

Flogging a dead horse?

Although CAMRA has run plenty of successful campaigns in its 50-year span, it has also run the odd spectacular flop. The thing about a flop is to recognise when you’ve got it wrong, but one long running campaign the organisation continued to run was a dud, right from the start. “Flogging a dead horse,” is perhaps the best description.

"Make May a Mild Month" ran, in various guises, for what must have been several decades. The idea was to save the forgotten and some might say neglected, style of beer, known as Mild Ale. There are plenty of online sources should you wish to know more about mild, and also plenty of definitions of what the beer actually is.

Some of these are far geekier than others, but as history plays a part, with the definition becoming distorted over time, I will leave readers to conduct their own research, should they wish. For the purposes of this article, all you really need to know is that, up to and including World War II, mild was the staple drink in Britain’s pubs.

More than that, mild was THE drink of the working man, outselling more expensive draught beers such as bitter by some and more. A decade or so later, its fortunes entered a long slow and ultimately, quite painful decline. When CAMRA was founded, mild was still the logical companion to bitter on pub bar counters up and down the country, with most brewers offering both styles in their tied houses.

This could be why CAMRA set out to save it, but had the campaign spent more time bothering about the quality of the beer, rather than remaining fixated on the style, they might have arrested its decline. Instead, they concentrated solely on saving mild ale as a style and ended up on a hiding to nothing.

At its best mild could be enjoyable and satisfying, but at its worst it was thin, insipid, and totally devoid of character. Worse are the horror stories, from the “old days” of unscrupulous landlords, adding all the “slops” from a night’s drinking, back into the cask – yuck!

So, despite dozens of CAMRA members being “persuaded” into professing their support for mild, and going out of their way to drink it, the style was already in terminal decline. CAMRA’s efforts, however well-intentioned, couldn’t hide the fact that apart from a few honourable exceptions, the mild brewed by most breweries – certainly those that continued to produce it in cask form, was in the main inferior to the bitter(s) or draught pale ale they offered.

I became caught up in this hype back in the early 1980’s, when I became an active member of Maidstone & Mid Kent (MMK) CAMRA. This was the first CAMRA branch I identified with, even though I’d been a member since the mid 1970’s.

A bit of history first, to get us up to speed, I joined the Campaign in 1974, during the summer vacation from Salford University.  The first branch meeting I attended was one held by Canterbury branch, at the City Arms, close to the world-famous cathedral. Hand-pumped Whitbread Trophy, brewed at the former Fremlin’s plant at Faversham, was the cask ale on offer, and jolly good it was too. 

I later attended what was probably the inaugural meeting of Ashford CAMRA; Ashford being my hometown. My attendance at these meetings was confined to university vacations, and during term time I made no effort to go along to any events that must have been held by branches in the Greater Manchester region.

I saw no real need to attend local CAMRA events, as decent and cheap cask ale was available in most of the region’s pubs. Whitbread and John Smiths were the odd ones out, as they only supplied keg beer. I also had a busy social life – those were the days, and evenings when I didn’t go to the pub were few and far between. It wasn’t until I moved back to Kent in 1979, after buying my first house in Maidstone, that I decided to bite the bullet and become involved with the local and, it has to be said, highly successful MMK CAMRA branch.

Faversham brewers, Shepherd Neame, were the main provider of real ale in the county town, with all nine of their pubs stocking the real thing. This was in sharp contrast to Courage and Whitbread, who owned the bulk of Maidstone’s pubs, but sold mainly bright, processed beer, served by top-pressure dispense.

After showing more than a passing interest in the branch, and volunteering to deliver its newsletter – Draught Copy, to local pubs, I was asked to join the committee, which I considered quite an honour. The branch chairman and secretary at the time, were keen supporters of CAMRA’s fledgling mild campaign – the bit about drinking it during May came along later, and encouraged other committee members to do the same. Cask (real) mild was only available in Shepherd Neame houses, as whilst a handful of Courage and Whitbread pubs served real ale, it was bitter only that was stocked, the mild being keg only.

This meant making a point of being seen to be ordering, and of course drinking mild. Shep’s mild was pleasant enough, but it wasn’t a patch on their excellent bitter – something went wrong with that later. The mild also suffered from low turnover, so many pints whilst still drinkable, were not exactly served at their best. Small matter, we all thought we were doing the right thing to save this dying stye of beer and were even proud of our efforts.   

In our naivety we thought that our combined efforts would be sufficient to turn the tide and rescue cask mild from oblivion. How wrong could we be, as during the mid-1980’s, Shep’s announced that, due to falling sales and low turnover, they would be dropping mild in cask form and their pubs would now stock it only as a brewery-conditioned keg beer.

Talk about a kick in the teeth, all that posing with a pint of mild, all those excellent pints of bitter ignored in favour of a lackluster and inferior pint of mild. A lesson well learned, go with your heart rather than your head, don’t be guided by what others think and slavishly follow them.

CAMRA continued their increasingly forlorn, mild Campaign well into the 21st Century, encouraging branches and breweries to run special promotions of this style every May, but all to no avail. Looking back, I wrote an extensive article, five years ago, titled “Why I Won't Be Supporting CAMRA's Mild in May Campaign,” and an even longer one, the year before. Both questioned the reasoning behind CAMRA’s increasingly embarrassing Mild Campaign, but do make quite interesting reading, if you are at all interested in mild.

Six years on, my attitude hasn’t changed. If people are shunning a particular style of beer because its lacks character and appeal, then no amount of campaigning, arm-twisting or obsession by CAMRA, or any other group of people, is going to change things.

It seems I am not alone, because on Pub Curmudgeon’s blog, there’s a post from 20th February, written largely in celebration of CAMRA’s 50th anniversary. In the comments section, there’s a lengthy, and rather tongue in cheek contribution from a correspondent called “Mild Drinker Matt.”

It summed up neatly and succinctly, the points I’ve been making about the absurdity of these campaigns, and it also made me laugh. Here's a taster, so you can see what I mean, but it's also a good way of wrapping up this article.

"My journey with CAMRA began when I saw an advertisement in Opening Times magazine for a ‘mild challenge’. Visit pubs, drink mild, collect tokens, claim a t shirt and most important of all, SAVE MILD. It didn’t work but that is not the point. Something needed to be done and they were doing something.”

“Mild’s decline continued. Year on year mild slumped in volume. It disappeared from pubs, it suffered quality issues of low turnover but every year I knew something must be done, so I did it and so did CAMRA. No one wanted to drink mild anymore as it was a bland wishy-washy sort of beer, but it needed saving and nobody else was trying to save it.”

I rest my case!


Curmudgeon said...

Agreed, apart from one or two pockets, mild has lost its original constituency and become no more than a historical curiosity.

And, if people are going to drink "less but better", they won't tend to plump for something that is intentionally "mild" and undemanding.

The role in the beer market that it occupied a couple of generations ago has now been taken over by cooking lager. Bud Light is the new Mild.

Curmudgeon said...

And I was saying much the same 22 years ago :-)

electricpics said...

Low alcohol, low hop rates so less antiseptic properties, often low flavour and low turnover when high turnover is essential. A perfect formula for extinction.

In fairness the only milds I’ve really liked are pennine light milds like Taylor’s Golden Best and dare I say even a well kept pint of Wilson’s Green Label back in the day.

All that said, Mild is increasing in popularity amongst US craft brewers so it might start becoming more popular in the UK craft market if someone bites the bullet and does it in keg, unpasteurised of course. It’s probably the only way it’ll be saved here.

Footnote. Coors are still knocking out M&B Mild! Who’d have thought it?

Paul Bailey said...

electricpics, many of the new "craft" milds, from both sides of the Atlantic, are considerably stronger than what is traditionally regarded as mild ale in the UK.

Being stronger, normally means they are fuller in body than UK milds have been since the restrictions of the First World War. Tastier too, of course. Beers, such as Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild, are proof of this, and demonstrate that mild doesn't necessarily have to be low in flavour.

I agree that US brewers are showing that mild can be a tasty and enjoyable drink. RateBeer lists some good examples, with a few British milds from the likes of Kernel, Partizan, Kissingate and, of course, Sarah Hughes, thrown in for good measure.

Keg dispense for draught, or bottled (even though UK mild was traditionally a cask beer), appears to be the way forward.

retiredmartin said...

Good read, Paul.

Always seemed to me to be counter-productive to promote a beer style via alliteration, relegating it to the status of a Christmas beer.

Curmudgeon, as usual, nails it; "mild has lost its original constituency", the heavy industry that needed a low ABV thirst quencher.

I never really rated the paler Manchester milds or Tetley mild, though I do rate Greene King and Bateman and Elgood's darker 3% milds.

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks, Martin. Like you I prefer the darker milds, as the paler versions are more like watered down bitters, without the thirst-quenching properties of the hops.

If CAMRA wants to stick with the alliteration, March would be a more appropriate month, but then what happens during the other eleven?

Mudge is certainly correct that the demise of mild, mirrored the decline of heavy industry.

John Lamb said...

I disagree that the CAMRA mild campaign has been pointless. If the long running campaign had not happened then mild's fate would have been similar to that of porter in Great Britain in the 1940's,it would have become extinct. The campaign has been successful in preserving the style as a niche product.

electricpics said...

Perhaps Paul, CAMRA might be better off with a year round initiative called Make Mine Mild? Trouble is of course that most of the remaining volume brewers of mild have renamed their beers to Dark or similar. And the campaign might have to acknowledge that unpasteurised keg is the only way to really preserve the style in the long term.

Paul Bailey said...

John, why porter did become extinct in Britain? And why did it make a resounding comeback? Could it be that porter's fortunes were eclipsed by stout - a similar beer, and one which kept it in the public eye.

CAMRA's long-running mild campaign may have had a lot more impact in the beer's traditional northern and midland heartlands, but here in the south, it was a damp squib, as I witnessed, at first hand.

I agree that mild has become a niche product, rather than the mass-market one it once was, and as electricpics points out, brewers are naming it anything but mild. Perhaps they are ashamed of the "Clarke Kent" connotations associated with the term mild, in which case the drink has an image problem, which no amount of campaigning is going to put right.

Mild Drinker Matt said...

Saving mild is the best thing CAMRA do even thought they have failed miserably at it.
You can't measure the success of whether a campaign to save mild actually saves mild, you measure success by how many people take part in it and whether they enjoy it.

More people take part in the mild magic than ever traipsing around pubs collecting stickers and it is even better now the local brewery have stopped making mild and the local CAMRA pubs give you a mild magic sticker for pretty much anything.

It needs to start up again, I've missed the T-shirts. I'll be voting for a beer that's the least like mild to win the best mild award and I encourage you to do the same.

RedNev said...

I have to disagree with the suggestion that, because a campaign didn't achieve what it set out to, it was a waste of time trying. That kind of thinking sets you on the path of a 'safety first' approach to campaigning, which would result in few, if any, campaigns at all.

Mild was always had a regional presence, primarily the North and the Midlands, rather than an even, nationwide spread. There are probably more milds still available here in the North West than in your part of the country, the South East, although I'd agree the amount sold is a fraction of what it used to be.

The 'horror stories' that you refer to about slops being poured into the mild were absolutely true, confirmed to me by licensees and bar staff from that time. Indeed, one licensee told me that on brewery training courses, it was officially recommended to 'recycle' beer this way, along with fishing out undamaged lemon slices from customers' empty drinks glasses for reuse. I have little doubt that pouring stale beer that had been sitting for hours exposed to the atmosphere in open containers back into the casks was a significant factor in the decline of the style. Such recycling of stale beer and used lemon slices would doubtless be in breach of health & safety regulations nowadays, and rightly so.

I was never a massive fan of Tetley's beers, but some beer drinkers used to say that the beer from the Leeds brewery was superior to the output from Warrington. When the latter closed down, all production moved to Leeds and, to my mind, the Leeds bitter went downhill immediately. Thereafter, if I found my self in a Tetley house, and even though I was a confirmed bitter drinker, I actually preferred the mild. All in the past now anyway with the Leeds brewery long gone.

Mild may remain as a niche product rather than the best-selling beer that it once was - that status has gone for good. I can't see any harm in the Make May Mild Month campaign - although I'd have thought March would have been better, but it's easy to be wise after the event - and our CAMRA branch organised a successful Mild Ale Trail in Southport 2 or 3 years ago. I would suggest, without CAMRA campaigning to save mild, it probably wouldn't exist at all today.

John Lamb said...

By the beginning of the 20th century porter had the reputation of being a down market drink which was consumed by poorer older people. Its strength steadily declined and levels of production fell. Its public perception was probably similar to that of mild by the third quarter of the 20th century. It disappeared because it was unfashionable and no one campaigned to save it.

Etu said...

Pale mild? Oh, Timothy Taylor's Golden Best, you mean...

Yes, I know...

Paul Bailey said...

"Porter had the reputation of being a down market drink which was consumed by poorer older people. It disappeared because it was unfashionable and no one campaigned to save it."

Thanks John, but I'm interested to know how that reputation came about. I gather that porter was often referred to as "Plain" in Ireland - the country where the style hung on the longest. Presumably companies such as Guinness brewed it to a strength that was deliberately below that of their "Extra Stout," even though porter historically, had been considerably stronger than modern day Guinness.

Perhaps the same was true with mild, as the term was originally used to describe beers that hadn't been aged, in contrast to beers for "keeping," such as stock ales. The latter would have had the characteristic earthy, and slightly sour tastes, associated with wild yeasts, such as Brettanomyces.

So up until WWI, when the gravities of all beers dramatically declined, mild would also have been brewed at a reasonable strength. Could this drop in ABV be the common factor behind the decline of both porter and mild?

I agree that no-one in the 1940's & 50's campaigned to save porter, but it did make an eventual comeback, primarily because those brewers with the courage and conviction to restructure it, determined that it was a beer well worth preserving.

Porter's re-appearance happened without any dedicated campaigning from the likes of CAMRA, and is remarkable seeing the style was virtually extinct when the organisation was founded.

Paul Bailey said...

Etu, Taylor's Golden Best, McMullen's AK, Sam Smiths Light Mild (keg only) plus the light milds brewed, until fairly recent times, by some of the North West brewers - Boddingtons, Burtonwood, Greenalls, Hydes, Robinsons etc.

All pleasant enough but, at the same time, nothing much to write home about either.

RedNev, those true "horror stories" we have both hear of, about "slops" being added back into the mild ale cask, make me really glad not to have been a drinker, when such practices were commonplace. In fact one of the arguments originally put forward in favour of keg beer, was it was virtually impossible to tamper with.

Not the best of arguments, when all the negative attributes associated with keg are taken into account, but still quite convincing when unscrupulous licensees were adding all sorts of left-over/unwanted drinks back into the mild barrel.

John Lamb said...

Porter's reputation began to suffer in the 19th century following the introduction of clearer pale ales which could be sold at a premium price. In the first quarter of the 20th century its strength was reduced and it survived as a bargain basement drink. As its drinkers died off demand collapsed and as a draught product it was extinct in Great Britain by the mid 1940's. Porter survived in Northern Ireland until 1973 the only brewer was Guinness in Belfast who brewed tiny volumes of it. The revived porters brewed initially by Penrhos,Taylors and the Goose and Firkin in London from the misd 1970's onwards were considerably stronger than those discontinued some 30 years before.

Paul Bailey said...

Thank-you for that insight, John. I remember both Penrhos and Timothy Taylor’s revived porters, and being somewhat underwhelmed by the latter.

It was the versions that appeared slightly later from the like of Fuller’s, Harvey’s plus the one from our own local brewer, Larkin’s that really got me hooked.

Incidentally, Harvey’s 1859 Porter, is a recreation of the beer they were brewing back in the mid-19th Century, and Fuller’s version might also be a recreation. Larkin’s Porter is definitely a modern recipe, although it does contain stacks of chocolate malt.

electricpics said...

It’s interesting you say ‘stacks of chocolate malt’ as it demonstrates just how much a small amount of ingredient can contribute to the overall recipe. I’d bet that the grain bill contains no more than 3% of it. It’s one of the best porters I’ve ever tasted - must be because I can remember it.