The quintessential British beer, as its name suggests, Mild is known for its low level of hops character. Even the most ardent of mild drinkers would concede that the beer’s image over recent years has been an unfashionable one. Yet all that could be about to change thanks to the success of a small Yorkshire-based micro-brewery and a beer called Ruby Mild that has become the darling of real ale aficionados.
Like many UK industries in recent years, the brewing business has found that when the credit crunch crunches it crunches really hard. Latest figures reveal that harsh trading conditions are resulting in 50 to 60 pubs closing down each month.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. So here are a few facts and figures to cheer you up. For starters, did you know that 24 million pints of beer are consumed in Britain every day? Thirsty bunch aren’t we? And here’s one for the real ale brigade. Britain now has an estimated 660 breweries actively producing real ale, the highest number since the Second World War, and, between them, they are notching up around 2,500 different beers each year. Impressed? Well, you should be. In the past 12 months alone, a grand total of seventy new breweries have sprung up across the UK and consumer demand for small, independently produced real ales is growing all the time.
Given these figures, the Rudgate Brewery, based on a former World War II airfield in Tockwith, North Yorkshire, could be seen as a bit of an old hand at the brewing game. Rudgate is a small, traditional, seven-man micro brewery that’s been happily producing its excellent beer to the same recipe of Yorkshire hops for the last 17 years.
The brewery uses 4 open fermenters, a unique strain of Yorkshire brewing yeast and a full infusion mash system that uses only whole Yorkshire malted Barleys. As well as its 6 regular beers, the brewery produces 3 seasonal ales each month, all based around a Viking theme and all using “closely guarded” recipes. The brewer's choice range makes up the other two seasonals - generally paler beers with new flavours and characters.
2008 wasn’t a bad year for Rudgate with a silver medal award for the mild category of CAMRA's (Campaign For Real Ale) annual Champion Beer of Britain award. This year, though, the Rudgate team went a step further when its Ruby Mild of York, North Yorkshire landed the prestigious title of best beer in Britain for 2009. The award followed a year of local tasting panels and regional competitions, culminating in a final judging at the annual Great British Beer Festival.
Described in the 2009 edition of CAMRA's Good Beer Guide as a 'nutty, rich ruby ale, stronger than usual for a mild', the York brewed real ale was chosen ahead of more than sixty finalists across seven categories (Best Bitters, Bitters, Golden Ales, Milds, Speciality, Winter Beer and Strong Bitters), including beers from tiny micros to major regional brewers. By all accounts, it won by a country mile.
Roger Protz, Chairman of the final judging panel said: 'It's good to see a classic British traditional beer making such a comeback in the age of golden ales and much paler beers in general. The judges were impressed by its rich, fruity character and the fact that it's quite hoppy and bitter for a mild ale. Its victory should invigorate the whole mild ale category.'
Using Yorkshire Malts from Thomas Fawcetts of Castleford and Whole Hops from Charles Faram in Kent, Rudgate currently produces 40 barrels a week — that’s around 11,520 pints of beer to you and me. Fortunately for Rudgate, there is capacity to produce 20 more. I say fortunately because if the experience of previous winners is anything to go by, the CAMRA accolade is likely to see an unprecedented surge in demand for their newly-crowned champion beer. Another previous winner, the Coniston Brewing Company in Cumbria, was forced to move to a larger brewery as demand for their Bluebird Bitter rapidly outstripped supply.
A Brief History of Mild
Even the most ardent of mild drinkers would concede that the beer suffers from something of an unfashionable image. In the beer family tree, Mild sits somewhere between the older generations of brown beers made for centuries across Britain and Europe and the younger pale ales that emerged from the Midlands region during the 19th century. As 18th century brewers struggled to address the seemingly insatiable demand for beer in inner city areas they were forced to develop a stop-gap beer that could be turned around quickly before it lost condition and went sour. The immature flavour of these beers prompted brewers to blend in mature "stale" to improve the taste. Astonishingly, this new breed of “mild” ale, cheaper than alternatives such as porter, proved to be a winner with drinkers. Gradually, quality improved as brewers began to use pale malt, now made on a large commercial scale from coke-fired kilns, and beers were darkened with the new roasted "patent" chocolate and black malts.
As recently as the 1950s, it was the most popular beer in Britain, easily outselling pale ale and bitter. But Mild’s appeal never really extended to the international arena and the drink suffered a catastrophic fall in popularity during the "Swinging Sixties" when it came to be perceived by younger drinkers as old-fashioned and a little, well, "cloth cap". The de-industrialization of Britain during the 1980s and the widespread demise of the steel, coal and car industries led to the gradual disappearance of Mild’s traditional working class fan base and, at one point, the beer was in danger of extinction in many regions. However, the proliferation of microbreweries in recent years has led to a modest renaissance, and an increasing number of Mild (sometimes labeled 'Dark') brands are now being brewed.
Modern dark Mild varies from dark amber to near-black in colour and is very light-bodied. Its flavour is dominated by malt, sometimes with roasty notes derived from the use of black malt, with a subdued hop character, though there are some quite bitter examples. Most are in the 1030°-1036° (3-3.6% abv) range. Light Mild is generally similar, but paler in colour. Some dark Milds are created by the addition of caramel to a pale beer.
CAMRA campaigns for real ale, real pubs and consumer rights. It’s an independent, voluntary organisation with over 100,000 members and has been described as the most successful consumer group in Europe.
CAMRA was founded in the most Westerly pub in Europe - Kruger's Bar in Dunquin, Co Kerry, when four young men from the north west of England, Michael Hardman, Graham Lees, Bill Mellor and Jim Makin were on holiday. Disillusioned with the quality of beer in Britain – all fizz and no character or taste – the men decided to form a Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale.
A year later the first AGM was held at The Rose Inn, Nuneaton and membership started to grow. Articles by the late Richard Boston in the Guardian (Boston on Beer) served to raise CAMRA’s profile and boost membership numbers. In 1973 the Campaign's name was changed to the more user-friendly Campaign for Real Ale.
The group currently has 647 overseas members in countries including New Zealand, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. More than 1,600 of its members are said to be doctors and at least 80 have been ordained.
Over the last few years, CAMRA has concentrated its efforts on encouraging people to try real ale as its research has revealed a high level of conversion (40%) amongst those drinkers who try it.
Further research from CAMRA shows that out of those consumers who try real ale, 64% of people have tried a beer brewed in their local area, revealing why trade bodies such as the Society of Independent Brewers has reported a 7% year-on-year volume growth for local brewers for the last two years*.
CAMRA Champion Beer of Britain winners 2009
Champion Beer of Britain - Rudgate, Ruby Mild (York, North Yorkshire)
Rudgate, Ruby Mild (York, North Yorkshire)
Surrey Hills, Ranmore Ale (Guildford, Surrey)
Best Bitter category
Southport, Golden Sands (Southport, Merseyside)
Golden Ale category
Dark Star, American Pale Ale (Ansty, West Sussex)
Strong Bitter category
West Berkshire, Dr Hexter's Healer (Thatcham, Berkshire)
Speciality Beer category
Nethergate, Umbel Magna (Pentlow, Essex)
Winter Beer of Britain winner (announced in January 2009)
Oakham, Attila (Cambridgshire)
Bottled Beer of Britain winners (sponsored by Travelodge)
Titanic, Stout (Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire)