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?

Let’s take a closer look at the history of mild as a beer style. In London, at least, it springs from the malt liquor called simply “ale” which was a speciality of the ale brewers, who included names such as Goding of Knightsbridge (and, later, Lambeth), Stretton of Golden Square, Charrington and Mann of Mile End, Courage of Horsleydown, and Wyatt of Portpool Lane, Clerkenwell. Their operations were all, in the early years of the 19th century, much smaller than the London porter brewers, Whitbread, Barclay Perkins, Truman, and so on. In 1814 even the 12th largest London porter brewer made 50 per cent more beer in a year than the largest London ale brewer.

What was this “ale” like? The Cyclopaedia of Several Thousand Practical Receipts, and Collateral Information in the Arts, Manufactures and Trades by Arnold James Cooley, published in 1846, gives a recipe for “Ale, London” that uses all pale malt, at just under two and a half barrels of ale to the quarter of malt, which would give an OG of around 1070 or 1080 – ale was stronger than porter –  and 3lb 5oz of hops to the barrel, 8lb to the quarter of malt (6lb to the quarter if the ale was “for immediate use”). This would be a lot of hops today, for a standard beer, but even now about right for an ale of 1070, according to Hough , Briggs and Stevens’s Malting and Brewing Science of 1971.

The Cyclopedia gives several other recipes for different ales from around Britain, not all of which used only pale malt: “Dorchester ale”, for example. used one third pale malt to two thirds amber, which must have been a ruddy shade. at least. But John Tuck’s Private Brewer’s Guide of 1822 confirms the Cyclopedia‘s account of the style of ale brewed in the capital, giving a recipe for London Ale that was 92 per cent “good Herts white” malt, and just eight per cent Hertfordshire amber malt.

London’s semi-hard water extracted more colour from malt than the permanently hard waters of Burton upon Trent, the iron mash tuns used by many brewers were reckoned to darken the worts obtained from them, and these were stronger liquors than most pale ales/bitters, with a higher percentage of everything from fermentables to colouring materials in the wort, than Victorian bitter beers, So even if they were brewed with pale malt, London ales, in the first 75 or so years of the 19th century, were very likely darker than the pale ales of Burton; but they were not the dark brown to almost black brews that made up the bulk of mild ales in the later 20th century.

These Victorian ales were either sold mild (that is, unmatured, just a couple or weeks or so old) from at least the early years of the 19th century, or before; or eventually became sold only in a mild condition; so that “ale”, at least in London, became a synonym for “mild”. To quote Maurice Gorham’s Back to the Local of 1949, “In London pubs ale stands for mild ale”. Tom Berkley, who was a trainee pub manager in the early 1950s in Poplar, East London, learnt quickly that when the stevedores walked in after work and said: “Ghissile”, they wanted mild, while bitter was “pinta bi’er”.

The evidence is, at any rate, that whatever ale was like in Georgian times, by 1830 it was being sold mild. Gourvish and Wilson, in The British Brewing Industry 1830-1980, quote a witness to the 1833 House of Commons select committee on the sale of beer who said that the London drinker

will have nothing but what is mild, and that has caused a considerable revolution in the trade, so much so that Barclay and Perkins, and other great houses, finding that there is a decrease in the consumption of porter, and an increase in the consumption of ale, have gone into the ale trade; nearly all the new trade is composed of mild ale.”

However, while the big porter brewers gradually began moving into brewing mild ale (Whitbread started ale production in 1835, for example) because of this slow change in public taste, and the capital’s ale brewers started to see their sales rise, it was, in fact, decades before porter lost its pre-eminence and the ale brewers grew to be on equal terms with the former porter giants. Here’s a table cobbled together from various sources:


Output in thousand barrels of selected London brewers

Primarily porter brewers 1830 1850 1880
Barclay Perkins 320 460 480
Truman 230 420 580
Whitbread 190 207 250
Primarily ale brewers      
Mann 7 96 220
Charrington 15 84 470
Courage 10 56 250

As you can see, while the ale brewers grew dramatically in percentage terms between 1830 and 1850, their climb to challenge the former porter brewers in size – and thus, we can take it, the real rise in the market for mild – happened in the three decades after the Great Exhibition of 1851.

(Admittedly the ale brewers moved into making porter and stout, just as the porter and stout brewers moved into making ale, but the real rise of Mann, Charrington, Courage and so on must have been because of the growing popularity of ale. Their brewing of porter as well as ale was a reaction to the porter manufacturers encroaching on their prime market, and a desire to ensure that they too could supply the publican with all his wants, in the same way that several London brewers, such as Charrington and Mann, opened breweries in Burton upon Trent to supply their London publicans with Burton-brewed pale bitter ales, rather than surrender that sector to Bass, Allsopp and the like.)

One cautionary point: this was the London market, and different things were undoubtedly happening outside the capital. There is, for example, a small ad in The Times from November 1845 which reads:

WANTED to HIRE, a COUNTRY BREWERY, of about an eight-quarter plant, with public-houses and trade attached. It must be in a mild beer country. A distance from 30 to 50 miles from Cambridge would be preferred.

What this suggests is that parts of regional England, at least, were already given over to drinking mild beer. Thirty to 50 miles round Cambridge would take in a chunk of East Anglia, which was certainly “a mild beer country” later in the century: at Steward & Patteson of Norwich the XX mild made up 45 to 50 per cent of production in the 1890s. (An “eight-quarter plant”, incidentally, was one that could mash eight quarters, around 2,500 pounds, of malt at a time to produce around 32 barrels of beer.)

In London, however, porter seems to have kept up its end for another 35 or 40 years, despite the rise of the ale brewers. Only in September 1887, the year of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, did the Brewers’ Journal complaint that

There will be few to challenge the correctness of the assertion that there is a marked and increasing diminution in the amount of porter sold by London brewers.”

The Journal was surprisingly certain that

… the decline in the porter trade has little, if anything, to do with the public taste. Porter has long been esteemed by the British workman, and there is no doubt that his affections are as traditionally conservative in this respect as in most others.”

The Journal then went on to assert that the British workman was changing from porter to mild solely because of price:

Porter has found favour with him because … above all he has hitherto been enabled to obtain a long draught at a cheap rate. It is the latter inducement that has secured its ready demand, rather than any preference for it over good, sparkling mild ale. It has not only been a cheaper beverage than ale, but a very much cheaper one, and it is in the main due to an alteration of the relative prices of ale and porter that the falling off in the sale of the latter is to be attributed … As retail rates now rule, there is but a difference of one halfpenny a ‘pot’ between ale and porter, and this being insignificant the choice is given to the ale.”

The Journal added that publicans were also less inclined to promote porter because the habit of illegally diluting it to increase retailers’ profits – “black beer told no tales, at least to the unsuspecting artisan” – had been made too dangerous as the authorities wielded the provisions of the Inland Revenue Act 1885 against those who watered down their porter. It urged the brewers to adjust the wholesale price of porter downwards so that it could compete again against mild ale, warning them:

Many brewers who are now prospering will have cause to regret the change if the demand for porter should be allowed to expire for want of a slight readjustment in its wholesale price. It is of great importance to the industry that porter should continue to be brewed in large quantity.”

Not everybody agreed that price was the only determinant in working men choosing between ale and porter. A few months earlier, in the Journal‘s January 1887 issue, the brewing scientist Frank Faulkner, writing about London well waters, commented that their high sodium carbonate content, which meant high colour extraction and “a certain roughness or rawness in flavour”, which also meant that they

could not well be employed in producing pale ales … London brewers for years allowed their tenants freedom in reference to pale ale requirements, Burton firms supplying the London publican with his pale beer.”

However, Faulkner said,

Within the last few years a practical revolution has taken place. Public taste has changed in favour of a perfectly mild as compared with a matured beer, while the London brewer has discovered that by manipulating the [water] company supply he could, with a suitable blend of malt, produce a mild pale ale, not requiring, and indeed not suited for long storage, but still one that enabled him to satisfy the requirements in pale as well as in black beers, while, as a result of this, we shall, sooner or later, see London pale ale gradually driving out the Burton production, although it may not exactly equal it in general quality.”

Even as the Journal was urging London’s brewers to preserve porter brewing, those brewers were ripping out their porter vats to make more room for storing casks of ale. When Alfred Barnard visited Mann’s brewery in the East End in 1889, he found large numbers of huge vats, capable of holding up to 18,000 gallons and made from 22-feet-long staves of English oak,

have all been removed within the last five years …simply because the fickle public has got tired of the vinous-flavoured vatted porter and transferred its affections to the new and luscious ‘mild ale’.”

As Faulkner’s comment confirms, the beer that was driving out porter was “a mild pale ale”. So when and why did darker milds start to arrive? The date of the change seems to be around the 1890s, since dark milds appear to be firmly in existence at the start of the 20th century – about the time, which may be significant, that Mann’s was developing the modern sweet brown ale. By 1902 Wahl and Henius’s American Handy-book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades could write: “Sometimes black beers and mild ales receive an addition of caramel solution in the fermenting vessel just prior to the close of the principal fermentation.” Caramel would darken the colour of the mild, as well as sweeten it.

A few years later we get the first mention of a specific “mild malt”, in The Brewer’s Analyst: A Systematic Handbook of Analysis Relating to Brewing, by R Douglas Bailey, published 1907, which says: “A diastatic power for a pale-ale malt ought not to be below 35° or more than 44°, a mild-ale malt from 23° to 30°, and a high-dried malt from 15° to 23°.” The reduced diastatic power for the mild ale malt, caused by it being heated longer and to a higher temperature than pale malt, would be matched by a darker colour, clearly midway between pale ale malt and high-dried malt. The darker-coloured malt would, of course, give a darker colour to the beer.

In confirmation of the use of darker malts in mild, the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1911 reported:

pale ales are made either from pale malt … only, or from pale malt and a little flaked maize, rice, invert sugar or glucose. Running beers (mild ale) are made from a mixture of pale and amber malts, sugar and flaked goods.”

It added that

good mild ale waters should contain a certain quantity of sodium chloride”

which, as we have seen, would have increased the colour extraction from the malt.

By the second half of the 20th century, mild was established as a darker beer than pale ale/bitter. Maurice Gorham said in 1949 that mild ale was “reddish-brown in colour, not unlike Burton to look at”, while light mild “is a mild ale lighter in colour than the ordinary mild: more the colour of bitter. This is not often met with in London pubs.”

Andrew Campbell writing in 1956 said mild beer grists “may be of up to two thirds pale ale malt, and the balance a blend, in almost equal proportions, of amber malt and sugar.” Hough , Briggs and Stevens in 1971 suggested a grain bill for mild ale of 10 per cent wheat flour, 15 per cent invert sugar, 73 per cent mild-ale malt and two per cent black malt. The invert sugars used for milds were the Nos 2 and 3 grades, both dark in colour.

Why did this change in colour take place? I haven’t got a clue. All I can do is quote Richard Wilson, writing in The Dynamics of the International Brewing Industry since 1800 on “The Changing Taste for Beer in Victorian England”:

… no aspect of the history of brewing is more difficult to reconstruct than types of beer and subtle changes of taste of more than a century ago.”

If anybody has any ideas I’d be glad to hear them.

0 thoughts on “What colour was mild?

  1. I wasn’t really away, mate, just very busy writing stuff that actually paid money – and pieces like this take A LONG TIME to pull together, believe me …

  2. Great stuff again. I wish I could understand why Mild changed colour. It seems to have happened in phases and between the wars Barclay Perkins were producing versions of the same Mild in different shades. The “natural” colour was a darkish amber (I reckon about the colour of Boddingtons Mild, if you remember that) but it was also darkened with caramel to produce something we would recognise as Dark Mild.

    One of my missions is to pin down exactly when Dark Mild appeared.

  3. Hi Martyn, There is a plan led by Hanbury Manor to recreate a Truman Hanbury Buxton beer. Your advice would be most helpful; please contact me 🙂

  4. Excellent work, as always. Can the trend to a darker mild have been attributed to a generalized increase in the use of sugar in English brewing? I cannot recall the date legislation permitted the use of sugar after a period of malt-only, but was it not in the later part of the 1800’s, around the time darker milds start to appear?


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