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What colour was mild?

In the mid-1970s I had a girlfriend who was a student at Liverpool University. The campus pub-of-choice was (and still is, I believe) the Cambridge on the corner of Mulberry Street, which was, back then, a Burtonwood Brewery outlet.

Its popularity was partly down to its closeness to the university, of course, but also for the excellent, well-priced food – ham and cheese cobs – and the more than acceptable beer. The Burtonwood dark mild, although top-pressure, was always good, and cheap, and it sometimes looked like most of the pub was drinking Guinness: tables loaded with inky-black pints.

Burtonwood also brewed a light mild, but that was a rarity for the time, both as a beer in its own right and as a style. An analysis of the 1976 Camra Good Beer Guide shows that of 130 milds being brewed by 106 brewers, 101 – 77.7 per cent – were coloured dark through to black, while just 29, or 22.3 per cent, were pale or light. Even some of those, like McMullen’s AK, were actually misunderstood low-gravity bitters, not really pale milds at all.

Mild was a style that came into its ascendancy from the 1830s onwards, pushing out the previously dominant English beer style, porter, until itself being replaced after 1960 as the best-selling style by bitter. You’d assume, I think, that dark mild, easily the leading variety, nationally, in the lifetime of any drinker alive today, must be the ancient, original version. Most commentators certainly believe this was the case: the Handbook of Brewing, by Priest and Stewart, published in 2006, for example, says:

Victorian mild was … a strong dark brown beer …

Ron Pattinson of Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, however, seems to have demonstrated convincingly that dark mild is actually a 20th-century phenomenon. Looking through the records of brewers such as Barclay Perkins, Whitbread and Truman, Hanbury & Buxton at the London Metropolitan Archives, and analysing the grains they used, Ron found that

… all these beers use only pale malt. They weren’t dark as we would expect milds to be.

Further investigation has led him to say more recently, looking at the standard X mild ale of the last half of Victoria’s reign, that

In the 19th century X Ales were usually pale in colour, but with fewer hops and a lesser degree of attenuation than pale ale. At the end of the 19th century, fashion turned back to darker beers and ales became darker again … Mild [moved] from pale to amber to dark in the period 1890 to 1940.

You can’t dispute the facts as recorded in the contemporary brewing books, and you can’t brew a dark beer from just pale malt (or, not unless you run the wort off at a very high OG and boil it long enough to induce caramelisation, and as these were cheap “running beers”, that wasn’t happening). But it all seems counterintuitive: the general trend over the past century and a half is for the popular drinks to move from dark to pale, so red wine was replaced in popularity by white wine, whisky and (dark) rum by gin, vodka and white rum, bitter by pale lager. Why did mild apparently go the other way?

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