My first pint the evening I arrived in Leeds for university was Tetley’s Mild. In the Hyde Park, I think. I fell immediately in love. An unassuming, but ultimately sessionable pint. Enough flavor to keep you interested, weak enough not to floor you.
I worked in Leeds for a couple of years after university. Friday night, I’d meet up with friends at opening time (17:30) and pub crawl until closing. Five or six different pubs, eight or 10 pints, but just one beer: Tetley’s Mild. During the seven years I lived in Leeds, I drank almost nothing else.
Last year, I returned to Leeds for the first time in years. The apartment where we stayed overlooked Tetley’s brewery. Or rather, it overlooked the last few pieces of rubble being crunched into dust. A sad sight.
While I was in town, I dropped by the council archives. They’ve got some of Tetley’s brewing records. I’d always thought of their Mild as timeless, as it never changed while I drank it. But my research has taught me that no beer is immutable. Now I could discover the truth.
When did it become the beer I adored?
The first challenge was to identify which beer it was. Before World War I, Tetley brewed five different Milds, ranging in gravity from 1044º to 1078º. Which was the ancestor of my beloved Mild? X1 seemed the logical choice, as it survived the longest.
It turned out that another war saw the birth of the beer I knew. After the fall of France in 1940, times were tough for Britain. More than a third of the 1940 hop crop was destroyed in a single air raid. U-boats sank so many ships that there was no space to bring over the American barley and hops on which British brewing had relied before the war.
Brewers were hit with problems from every side: big tax increases to help pay for the war; shortages of raw materials, fuel and manpower; government restrictions on brewing; and the threat of being blown out of business by a bomb in the brewhouse.
Drastic action was needed. Beers were discontinued, gravities dropped and brewing methods changed to cope with reduced supplies of coal and men.
At Tetley, that meant scrapping the whole pre-war range of six beers in late 1940 or early 1941. They were replaced by just three: Mild, Light Mild and Bitter, completely new beers. They had a way with names. The old beers had been called XXX, X2, X1, X1 Pale, K and F. One thing you can say about the new names—M, LM and B—they were less cryptic.
After World War II, things were much less dynamic. Tetley’s Mild remained rooted at a gravity of 1032º from 1952 until, well, now. I need no statistics to tell me of its constancy after 1975. I drank so much of the stuff, I’d have spotted the slightest change. And there never was one, other than as a result of an inept cellarman.
In a way, Tetley’s Mild tells the story of British beer. Constantly changing, and not just the gravity, but also the flavor and even the color. Pale in the 19th century, amber in the 1930s and only becoming properly dark in the 1950s. But here’s the rub. A century of change ended after World War II, the dynamism finally sucked out of the industry.
I can forgive British drinkers for believing their ales have been the same for centuries, because they haven’t changed in their father’s lifetime. How were they to know that was so atypical of beer’s history? ■