Why We’re Wild for Mild

Mild wasn’t always dark, smooth, and low in strength, but that modern incarnation is one well worth brewing and appreciating. Rich in flavor yet drinkable in quantity, mild is a tradition waiting for its next evolution.

Josh Weikert May 6, 2024 - 15 min read

Why We’re Wild for Mild Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/

Can something be a classic if it’s constantly evolving?

That was a thought that ran through my head repeatedly as I spoke with beer historians and brewers about British mild.

On the one hand, we have a style that many—rightly, in my view—see as a benchmark style. If I want to know whether a brewer knows what they’re doing, I’ll taste their mild. Like the perfect freehand circle drawn by the Renaissance artist who is asked to demonstrate their skill, mild is an acid test of recipe design, process control, and ingredient selection.

On the other hand, if you try to pigeonhole mild, you’re fighting a losing battle. The style has been in a state of near-constant flux since the term “mild” came into popular usage in the early 18th century. It’s been on the move since its inception, subject to nudges from history and market pressures.


Whatever the case, I’m wild for mild—I love to brew it, and I love to drink it. So, here we’re going to do a little digging into its history, looking for inspiration for our contemporary brewing decisions. Hopefully, we’re all inspired to keep brewing this classic showcase of malt and drinkability—one of the great traditions from the global canon.

Mild Wasn’t Always So … Mild

“I was disappointed when I realized that 19th-century milds weren’t dark,” says Ron Pattinson, the beer writer and historian who’s been blogging his archival finds and opinions at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins since 2007. He has also self-published several books compiling his findings, including a recent two-volume behemoth on brewing in World War II—titled Blitzkrieg!—as well as another named, simply, Mild!

One fact that Pattinson has worked to lodge into the public consciousness is that the dark, low-ABV version of mild has only been around since the 1950s. “If you go any further back than that,” he says, “mild becomes something quite different.”

Today, we associate mild with low strength, but that wasn’t always the case. Originally, the designation distinguished young, fresh beers from “kept” or “staled” ones that had some age on them, according to Martyn Cornell, author of Amber, Gold & Black: The History of Britain’s Great Beers.


The flavor, color, and strength of the beer in the cask wasn’t relevant to the mild appellation. Thus, you can find a wide range in old recipes—many of which can be found in Pattinson’s blog posts and books—some ranging as high as an estimated 8 percent ABV.

At times, milds were also heavily hopped. Yet as bitters became more popular, “mild” also became a way to differentiate between “bitter” bitters and “mild” bitters. In fact, if you want to try a modern version of what a historic mild may have tasted like, Cornell recommends Fuller’s Chiswick Bitter, with its 3.5 percent ABV and fresh floral-hop flavors.

So, how did mild come to coalesce around a darker, lower-alcohol profile? Interestingly, the darker trait may stem from the weaker trait. Two periods of world-war austerity and changes in how beers were taxed put British brewers under pressure to reduce starting gravities. Pattinson speculates that brewers may have been trying to fake out consumers: “A darker color might be perceived as a stronger beer,” he says.

By adding darker sugars and caramels, brewers could consistently produce a brown ale, but coloring it to amber was “a lot more tricky,” Cornell says. Brewers also layered in more crystal and roasted malts to add flavor that would compensate for the lower strength. However, there is no single, documented explanation for why mild went dark. “It is quite odd,” Pattinson says. “It’s not entirely clear why.”


Cornell, however, notes an unintended consequence: Because mild was darker, some unscrupulous publicans would add the bar’s “slop” into them—drip trays, old casks, maybe even unfinished pints—counting on the color to help hide it. Even if such practice was rare, it was enough to hurt mild’s reputation.

Meanwhile, mild was facing competition from other styles. Cornell laughs as he shares a snippet from The Times of London: “Traditionally, bitter is looked on as the bosses’ drink,” the newspaper mused in 1958. “Any man reckons today he’s as good as his boss. So, he chooses bitter.”

Even in the England’s north and the Midlands, where mild long had held out as a mainstay, it was becoming endangered by 1960. By 1980, pale lagers were ubiquitous on taps, cask was predominantly bitter, and mild was even rarer than before. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and burgeoning craft-beer movement helped keep mild from going extinct, but it was a shadow of its former self.

A handful of revivalist British and American breweries keep mild going—often as a one-off but occasionally as a year-round core beer—so there’s no reason you shouldn’t do your part to keep mild alive and well.


Drink it, obviously—even if you need to brew it yourself. Let’s talk about how to approach that.

Producing a Mild

If you’d like to brew something more like the mild of yore—possibly pale, strong, and well-hopped—we’ve got the recipe for you, along with a few tips (at left). Here, however, we’re going to focus on the modern classic form: darkish, malt-forward, and drinkable in large quantity.

That’s our target. “Not something you’re going to sip,” Pattinson says, “so you want something that isn’t too intense but has enough flavor to keep you interested.”

So, we’re talking low ABV—between 3 and 4 percent, usually—with just enough bittering to balance the malts. (An IBU:GU ratio of 0.75 is about right, for starters. So, if your OG is 1.036, you could aim for about 27 IBUs.)


Malts and Sugars

The malt character is where things get interesting and where the brewer can get creative. A wide range of malt and dark-sugar expressions are possible—but add ingredients with restraint and care, or you could quickly end up out of balance on such a light frame.

“Balance makes a great mild,” says John Keeling, the retired head brewer of Fuller’s Brewery in London. For years, the brewery produced a dark mild called Hock—most recently at 3.5 percent ABV, though it hasn’t been seen since 2010—and it was a favorite of Keeling’s. He also cautions against bulking up the beer to make your life easier: “Bitter becomes an ESB when it becomes too strong,” he says, “and mild becomes a strong brown ale or a strong old ale.” Maintaining that light-on-its-feet post-war quality is now a key component of the style, and it’s one well worth embracing in the pursuit of drinkability.

Among the brewers and historians I consulted, there were some broad areas of agreement. First, the recipe should be relatively simple; overcomplicating it only results in flavors that are too faint to properly express themselves. The framework is a base of simple pale ale or Maris Otter malt, classic English hops such as Fuggles or East Kent Goldings, and just about any fruity English ale yeast.

“Use U.K. ingredients,” says Robert Bell, brewer and co-owner at Hogshead Brewery in Denver, one of the best-regarded cask ale breweries in the United States. “Exercise restraint when developing a grain bill. Keep your IBUs low.”


When it comes to developing the color and flavor, however, there is some interesting divergence. It reflects a gap between the contemporary “craft” embrace of malt and the established 20th-century embrace of dark sugars.

For his part, Pattinson is an evangelist for the use of sugars—especially No. 3 invert sugar—as well as caramel to achieve mild’s characteristic flavors. While No. 1 is the lightest invert sugar, No. 3 is medium-dark with some molasses-like flavors. “U.S. versions [of mild] are too harsh because they’re using black malt and roasted barley,” he says. “It’s easier to get dark fruit flavors from sugars than it is from malts. Just look at Timothy Taylor Golden [Best] and Dark [Mild]—the only difference is caramel!” Notably, Timothy Taylor—the English brewery best known for its award-winning flagship pale ale, Landlord—markets its Golden Best as a “golden mild ale.”

Pattinson recommends a grist of about 80 percent simple base malt, some crystal malts and “flaked maize or something like it” for body, plus 10 to 15 percent of the gravity coming from sugars. Cornell, on the other hand, suggests a similar base but leaves out the sugars in favor of a bit more crystal malt for the darker flavors.

At Fuller’s, they “mostly used crystal malts to achieve the desired sweetness and malt character, and a little brown malt, too,” Keeling says. “We used dark candi sugar as a priming and No. 3 invert in the copper. No. 3 invert was originally used to provide a good start to the fermentation rather than for flavor. Sugar is fine to use but does depend on what you want to achieve regarding flavor.”


For the Barge’s Mild at Denver’s Hogshead, Bell says, they “keep the black and chocolate malts to a minimum—about 2 percent of the grain bill for each, while crystal malts come in around 9 percent.” That keeps the beer’s grist rich and toasty without getting too roasty.

Planning Your Process

In terms of how to make the beer, there are two areas of special focus: mash temperature and yeast.

First, we need to be cognizant of the fact that we’re working with minimal gravity. If the beer is too fermentable, we’ll end up with a beer that’s too thin and tastes drier and stronger than we’d like. So, nudging the mash temperature up to 152°F (67°C) or higher will help guard against that. “A higher mash temp and a lower-attenuating yeast will leave some polysaccharides and dextrins to aid in mouthfeel,” says Julian Shrago, co-owner and brewmaster at Beachwood Brewing in Los Angeles.

Second, do what you must do to promote a healthy fermentation. “Fermentation is key,” Keeling says. “Good, clean fermentation gives a good, clean beer, which makes a drinkable beer.”


Low gravity and subtle ingredients won’t cover up any sins. “Therefore, use a yeast you are familiar with,” Keeling says. “Experience is key in fermentation.” That jibes with my own practice of choosing from a relatively small selection of yeast strains, which has helped me to develop a deeper knowledge of how they operate in my system, boosting control and reliability.

Go with the freshest yeast you can get—making a healthy starter is a good way to go. And give those yeast plenty of oxygen to consume. “Paramount … is yeast and yeast health,” says Bell at Hogshead. “To achieve maximum health of the yeast, we oxygenate during the knockout.”


Finally, when all is said and done and it’s time to pour this beer, don’t betray all your hard work by serving up a spritzy, highly carbonated beer. I know it’s tempting—after all, a common approach to increase the perception of body in the mouthfeel is to add more bubbles—but this should be coming in lower than two volumes of CO2. Too much carbonation will dull the malt richness while hindering the easy drinkability.

I’ve yet to invest in a hand pump for my own home brewery, but if any style could convince me to do so, it’s mild. You could also try serving this on nitro, if you have the means (see “How to Serve Beer on Nitro,” However, the moment that CO2 is contributing significantly to the beer’s flavor, you’re in danger of overwhelming the clean, delicate flavors you’ve worked so hard to create.


A Generational Affair

Pattinson sums up the British milds perfectly: “They’re always changing.”

While the name “mild” isn’t exactly common on shelves or taps on either side of the Atlantic—let’s be honest, that name might not sell a lot of beer—milds are still all around us. Brawler, from Yards Brewing in my hometown of Philadelphia, is as good a mild as you’ll find anywhere. Ruby-colored and 4.2 percent ABV, it’s a stealth mild marketed as a “pugilist-style ale” or “champion ale.” Whatever works.

Quite a few breweries produce a dark ale that is suspiciously mild-like in profile. They’re out there—they’re just fugitives, incognito. Maybe the term “mild” just doesn’t work with modern consumers—when I ask Cornell about his favorite milds, he names a few, but adds that they cater to “a beer drinker of a certain age.”

However, Cornell also mentions a beer that he co-produced with his brother Dave at Poppyland Brewery and Distillery in Norfolk, in the East of England. Named Bert’s Dark Ale, the mild is a tribute to their late Uncle Bert. “We still make it,” Cornell says, “and it actually sells quite well.”

Whatever we call it, I’m confident that mild will find a new generation of palates to appreciate its drinkability and flavor. And the next time that palate is mine, I’ll hoist one to Bert.