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The bland plays on for the mild mannered; BEER.

Byline: ALASTAIR GILMOUR

THE range is staggering. In this country, we can choose harvest ale, brown ale, old ale, strong ale, pale ale, light ale, lager, barley wine, bitter, stout, porter and export. Even "plain" and "ordinary" have their followers.

Missing from that roll-call, however, is mild. Mild is the Accrington Stanley of beer. It has its supporters, it's had its ups and downs and people have been known to shed a tear - or at least blink fondly - at its very mention. Mild drinkers can be compared to the 1,308 hardy souls who witnessed The Stans being beaten at home last weekend by mighty Gillingham - vocal and committed in their own corner but overwhelmed when the Gills are decanted. Apart from a mention every Saturday teatime by James Alexander Gordon on Sports Report, would anybody notice if the club slipped back into the Lancashire Combination where it wallowed for several years? And, it's the same with mild.

Several breweries, many individuals and organisations such as the Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) have worked hard to resuscitate the style and, bravely, there are a few versions being produced. Camra has designated May as Mild Month and is encouraging its network of branches to celebrate by hosting public events in their area. The organisation goes to a lot of trouble in promoting it, pumping life into it and raising its profile far above its station, but the truth is, hardly anybody north - or south - of mild's Midlands epicentre produces it, let alone drinks it. As for the rest of the nation, it benefits from a pocket of resistance in the North West - like Accrington Stanley - but there are those who would say that in the North East, publicans couldn't give mild away. Possibly as an indicator of its regional status, Camra's mild web link displays: "North East: No Mild Month events have been submitted in this area."

Having said that, a mild ale with an alcohol content of just 3.2% was named Britain's best beer in 2007.

Hobsons Mild overwhelmed more than 50 other brews at the Great British Beer Festival, praised by judges for its hop character and "complex layers of taste".

Sadly, Accrington Stanley and mild are anachronisms, regarded as old fashioned among the chattering classes and the prawn cocktail set for bearing the hallmarks of a cloth cap age that has dogged their progress since the 1960s. Perhaps the beer's dark, mysterious appearance gives the impression of a full flavour that will dig deep into a hearty centre and reward with a hefty kick - but actually disappoints by following up with neither. An old jazz-loving friend used to say: "Glenn Miller should have lived; it's his music that should have died." Mild comes into that category; the word is inoffensive, it's unassertive, bland and innocuous and deserves its entry in Collins Concise.

But the beer is also inoffensive, unassertive, bland and innocuous. After years of decline, the next time mild and Accrington Stanley dip below the horizon, shouldn't they be left to curl up and die?

Mild's disappearance from many parts of the country over the past half-century coincides with the steady growth of home-produced lagers, a resurgence of beautifully balanced, hop-influenced bitters and the slow strangulation of British industry. It was intended as a restorative to be drunk in quantity rather than as a refresher and fewer after-work bodies now need the dust-shifter or the short sugar-rush.

It is a low-gravity, malt-flavoured beer that has now come to be characterised by a low hop content. It found favour because of its easy quaffability and weak alcoholic strength - the category can range from Bateman's Dark Mild (3.0% ABV) to Sarah Hughes Dark Mild (6.0% ABV), though the latter is an exception. Flavours in general are difficult to detect above a thin, sometimes smoky malt with a smidgin of liquorice and an addition of caramel to add some backbone.

Modern milds are dark in colour in a range that hovers from black to dark brown. Malt and sweet notes dominate the profile, but there may be a light hop flavour or aroma with some slight toffee and butterscotch flavours. Pale milds tend to have a lighter, more fruity aroma with a gentle hoppiness, whereas dark milds may have a light roast malt or caramel character throughout.

McEwan's Best Scotch sneaks into this area.

As part of an initiative to highlight mild's Division Two position, several North East beer lovers formed a panel to taste six examples at Tilley's Bar in Newcastle. The eight-strong group - including an alliterative array of postman, policeman and publican - was invited by Tom Stainer, editor of Camra's monthly newspaper What's Brewing and its quarterly magazine Beer (where the results will be published next month). Though now based in Northampton, Tom's associations with Newcastle are impeccable.

"My family moved to the North East in 1984 from Bedford - via a four-year stint in the Netherlands," he says. "And while not North East born and bred, I consider the region my home. I went to Newcastle University in the mid-1990s and fell in love with the city.

"It was in the various pubs surrounding Leazes Park that I really began to enjoy ale - particularly Castle Eden and Directors, in whatever incarnation it was in. I also have happy memories of cycling round the Old Peculier pub tour which took you out to places like Gosforth and earned us hard-up students valued T-shirts - some of which I still have, if not being able to fit into. Other ale memories include the excellent Hadrian & Border beers, and those from Big Lamp.

"I've managed to spend most of my life within the scent of a brewery - I currently live close enough to Carlsberg in Northampton to tell when they are mashing. In my second year in Newcastle we used to share a back wall with Scottish & Newcastle's Tyne Brewery. There's nothing quite like waking up with a hangover, opening the window and taking a lungful of thick, Newcastle Brown-soaked air.

"And I spent a lovely year living above Heaton Drink off-licence on Heaton Road, with its real ale handpumps and take-home plastic containers. It obviously wasn't far to take home and I also had the key to the shop."

Without giving anything away about the mild tasting, our notes describe sample number one as "a bit sweaty, tasting of plastic and over-ripe fruit". Number two had little aroma. Three: "Horrid. No positives, my mild suspicions confirmed." Four tasted "like flat Coke then dead vegetation", while the main query about number five was "is it beer?" Number six seemed to be everyone's favourite, though it appeared far too light for the style.

On Saturday, Accrington Stanley are away at Notts County. Come May, there's a distinct possibility that the Lancashire Combination will prove irresistible - but mild will live. Glenn Miller has ensured the bland plays on. Further Mild Month information at www.camra.org.uk alastair.gilmour@ncjmedia.co.uk

FIRST ROUND

ENCOURAGING news from the launch of Last Night I Married The Audience, a first poetry book by Tyneside singer-songwriter Simma.

The theme is performing in pubs, bars and clubs through a range of verse floating between the poignant to the belly laugh.

Publisher Jeff Price says: "It was a fantastic night with sales way beyond what we were expecting. We have nearly sold out of the first run and will be ordering a second run soon."

If you would like a copy - there are a few left - send a cheque for pounds 6.95 (to Zebra Publishing), which includes postage and packing, to Zebra Publishing, 7 Gosforth Terrace, Newcastle NE3 1RT.

CAPTION(S):

PUTTING IT MILDLY Tom Stainer, editor of Camra's monthly newspaper What's Brewing.
COPYRIGHT 2009 MGN Ltd.
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Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Mar 13, 2009
Words:1288
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