Mild is perhaps the archetype of session beers. It's low in alcohol, nicely flavored with malts and usually a good ale yeast, and it's a smooth, easy drinker.
But it is unfortunately hard to find. Mild just isn't that popular in the U.S., for a variety of reasons. It's looked down on as uninteresting by a number of beer geeks -- not big enough, not hoppy enough -- which includes a number of brewers. "Mild" is not a familiar beer name for most Americans, who unfortunately won't try a beer if it's called "Mild" (or "Bitter," for that matter).
On the other hand, I wasn't surprised at all to find milds at a homebrewing event. Homebrewers, for all their tendencies to go big and go crazy with exotic and experimental beers, also have a respect for uncommon beers. They also know that a flawless low-alcohol beer says more about their skill than a big, chunky beer that might be hiding flaws under heavy layers of hops and roasted malts. And they also like to drink, which mild is perfect for. I meet more and more homebrewers who tell me that they almost always have a mild or bitter around to drink every day.
Sure enough, while walking around the grassy field of the Southern California Homebrewers Festival on a perfect SoCal afternoon, I came across some milds in short order. The Maltose Falcons club was pouring four of them, all on cask (That's right: four, on cask. There were about 16 other beers and meads on tap as well. This is not your typical homebrewing event, these guys are serious. I was awed): Rainier (hopped with the new Mt. Rainier hop), Oat Malt, and Alderwood (made with smoked malt), the fourth wasn't on when I made my run, and I've forgotten the name, sorry.
The Rainier reminded me somewhat of the Three Floyds Pride & Joy Mild, in that it was refreshing, but perhaps too hoppy for the style. The Alderwood was good, not overdone at all, but a bit odd. The Oat Malt was just what I was looking for: good malty flavor in spades, light-bodied but not thin at all, and a subtle richness that rounded things off nicely. And it was really tasty with the "Big Dick's Famous Pickled Egg" I got at another club's stand. For about ten minutes, I was in mild heaven. If not for the "try me, try me!" vibe that festivals like this generate, I'd probably have stuck with this for quite a while, and would have been happy.
The only sad thing about this was that I had to go to a homebrewing festival to find more than a single mild. To be honest, finding a mild in Philly would probably have required some serious searching. There aren't any local brewers who regularly make a mild; Victory has on occasion, Weyerbacher made a nice one back five years ago or so, and Yards has done one.
But they just don't sell. Why? Philadelphia is a town that gets cask ale, possibly more than any other U.S. town. But while pale ales and IPAs and porters and stouts thrive on cask here, milds don't even show up. I have to be honest, too: it's not a case of "milds don't sell because no one makes them, and no one makes milds because they don't sell" circular illogic. Brewers have tried making milds, and they languish in the market.
Is it the name? Is it the unfamiliarity? I don't know if I completely buy that: there are lots of people buying beers with unfamiliar names, just look at the popularity of Belgians. One of Yards' most popular beers is their Saison, hardly a household word outside geek circles.
Are they boring? Not at all, when they're made well. Maybe that's part of it, that brewers don't have enough faith in mild to make it without pumping it up somehow, over-hopping it, or smoking it, or pushing the upper edge of the style on ABV. When things like that get done to a mild, they don't ring true. It's like poodle-clipping a Golden Retriever. Just let the mild be a good mild, don't cover it up.
Getting a good mild is something that's at the heart of the Session Beer Project. The beer-blogging project this post is part of, The Session, is about milds this month: I hope it generates some interest in brewers and drinkers alike. Otherwise, mild is going to be treated the same way Tom Pastorius at Penn Brewing says dark beer is treated, like going to church: everyone talks about it, but most people don't go more than once or twice a year.
That's not enough to keep a beer alive. If you see mild, get it. If it's good, get stuck into it. I'm counting on you. And meanwhile... keep up the good work, homebrewers.