Dark Mild

History by the Glass by | Jul 2016 | Issue #114

When I started diving into archived brewing records, I experienced a few shocks. One of the biggest was discovering Dark Mild had a much shorter history than I imagined.

The history of Mild stretches back several hundred years, yet dark versions only appeared a little over a century ago. One of the biggest remaining mysteries of beer history is when did Mild turn to the dark side? And why?

Finding answers is more difficult than you might expect. Very little mention is made of beer color in 19th century texts, and brewing records aren’t much better. The first color values appear just after 1900, but only occasionally. Ingredient lists aren’t much more help because Dark Mild rarely contained colored malts. It was darkened with sugar or caramel instead. And 19th-century brewing records are often imprecise about the exact type of sugar being used and may not mention caramel at all.

But I am starting to get some grasp on the “when.” The pictured advertisement was a big help.

A clear distinction is being made between Swan Brewery’s pale Bitters and its brown Milds. The beers have been handily grouped by style, with the Pale Ales lumped together as “Pale & Bitter Ales” and the Milds as “Brown Sweet Ales.”

I doubt that these were the same shade as most modern Dark Milds. The darkening process was a gradual one. After WWI, brewing records become more specific about color. My favorite London brewer, Barclay Perkins, brewed a variety of Milds of different colors and strengths. The darker ones—about the same color as modern Dark Mild—had caramel added at racking time. The paler ones, still dark enough to be easily distinguished from Bitter, were sold as brewed.


The process of darkening continued as the 20th century progressed. Looking through my analyses of Mild, the average color of those brewed between the wars was 15 SRM. Those brewed between 1945 and 1970 averaged 22 SRM.

The “why” is a trickier question to answer than the “when.” I’ve a couple of theories, but no proper evidence to back them up.

The first is connected with the demise of Porter. As Porter’s popularity waned in the second half of the 19th century, brewers began to discontinue it and pubs stopped stocking it, which left landlords with a dilemma: where do you put the slops? A cheap, dark beer was what they needed. Dark, so the addition of different colored beers wouldn’t be as obvious. Cheap, because you wouldn’t want to adulterate an expensive beer. A dark version of Mild fit the bill perfectly.

Another reason has to do with the move from opaque drinking vessels to glass. A darker color was associated with stronger beer. An XXXX Ale brewed from 100 percent pale malt would be significantly darker than an X Ale. With glass drinking vessels the color was more obvious and a brewer might darken his Mild to give the impression of greater strength.

I’m convinced the use of sugar played a part, too. Much more sugar was used in British brewing after the passage of the 1880 Free Mash Tun Act, which taxed wort instead of malted barley. The use of dark sugars gave brewers total control over the shade of their finished beer, allowing them to easily and consistently brew beers of intermediate shades, i.e. anything other than really pale or really dark. Achieving the same results with malt alone would be trickier.

Today it all seems a bit irrelevant, with Mild’s extinction as a mass-market beer leaving the style as little more than a footnote to beer history.