French children are supposed to start drinking in the presence of their parents, with watered-down wine. English ones generally begin a little later, in the presence of their friends and with the help of a friendly off-licence or an easy-going pub, on cider or alcopops. You can tell what kind of teenager I was by the fact that I started on mild ale.
There was some logic to the plan. Mild ale is, well, mild, even a little sweet. In Nottinghamshire two decades ago, at least, it was also cheap, because less alcoholic beer attracts less beer duty, and because the toothless old men who drank most of it were what marketing strategists call ‘price-sensitive consumers’. And the kind of pubs that served those old men were often surprisingly unfussy about younger patrons – quiet ones, at least. That lower alcohol level – usually about 3 per cent by volume – was an advantage for me, too: I drank neurotically quickly (still do) and this way I could do so for longer.
Mild is thought of as an endangered category of beer, at risk of dying out with those toothless old men. An old-fashioned regional brewer would produce mild just because it always had, and because it had far too much brewing capacity and might as well use it for something. But when an old-fashioned regional brewer sells up to a thrusting conglomerate, only its profitable beers – and the ones with interesting names that might make a good guest ale – continue to be made on the new owners’ busier, shinier equipment. The dowdy old mild is rationalised out of existence. This is what seems to have happened to my preferred teenage drink, Kimberley Mild: its brewer, Hardys & Hansons, sold out to Greene King, and it is now listed on beerspotters’ websites as ‘retired’.
Beer enthusiasts like endangered things, so it’s no surprise that the Campaign for Real Ale has been attempting to engineer a mild revival for several years now. The kind of milds that most appeal to enthusiasts, however, are a far cry from Kimberley: the one that seems to crop up most often, Rudgate Brewery’s award-winning Ruby Mild, is delicious but stronger than many bitters.
So these days, if I’m looking to drink without getting rapidly drunk, I often seek help from small craft breweries. The stereotypical ‘craft beer’ is very strong and very hoppy. Several brewers have discovered that if you leave the hops but take away much of the duty-attracting alcohol, you can end up with something that mugs like me will pay almost as much for as American-style strong ale. (Hipsters are not price-sensitive.) The best version I know of is the Kernel Brewery’s Table Beer, which is about the same strength as Kimberly Mild but tastes impeccably IPA-like. Siren Brewery’s Half Mast achieves almost the same effect with a little less alcohol again; Brewdog even manage an all-right non-alcoholic version of the style, Nanny State. It’s not going to revive many teenage memories, even for me, but it won’t give anyone a hangover, either.