In the dark of night well before dawn, a Volkswagen bus travelled past the hedgerows and hop farms of Kent County, England. Mark Carpenter was behind the wheel on holiday, in September of ’69, two years before he joined Anchor Brewing. He was headed to the city of Maidstone, where unbeknownst to him, a single pint of ale would inspire him to create Mark’s Mild over forty years later.
The trip wasn’t a grand tour of Europe’s historic breweries. In fact, he drove into Maidstone with a certain amount of innocence, as far as the beer world was concerned. As he rounded one corner in the dead of night, a lonely billboard startled him. In large glowing letters, it read Take Courage. He thought it was a World War II relic, but it was really an ad for the Courage Brewery in Maidstone.
Carpenter was simply visiting a friend, who caught his eye in France. She lived in Maidstone, so he followed her to England. They spent three weeks together hanging out with friends in the city and countryside, where the hop harvest was in full swing. Carpenter toured a few farms and spent countless hours over pints in Maidstone’s plentiful public houses.
It was during one of these visits to the pub that Carpenter discovered mild ale, a lightly-hopped, low-alcohol beer that typically accentuates caramel, toffee, and nutty flavors found in malt. In the late 1960s, this historic style was largely in decline. Drinkers were starting to favor bitter and lager. In 1960, mild ale accounted for 61% of draft beer consumption. By 1980, its prominence dwindled to just 14%. If Carpenter had arrived in England ten years later, he would have been hard pressed to find mild ale.
Evidence of this shift in taste is found in Carpenter’s recollection of that fateful day. “Everyone was drinking bitter and one person had a mild. I enjoyed bitter, but decided to drink a mild because it was something new to try. I didn’t want lagers because I knew what lagers were, so I tried a mild and liked it very much. It just had a wonderful malty, fruity flavor to it, and that’s what got me interested in mild.”
Carpenter later grew to appreciate the beer’s status in England as a workingman’s drink. It was plentiful, thirst-quenching, low in alcohol, and flavorful. These were the perfect ingredients for coworkers who could spend all evening talking about football and enjoy not just the beer, but also the social experience of enjoying the beer. Carpenter sees this as analogous to Anchor Steam’s historic reputation. He explained, “It was always the nickel beer. Steam was served in all the bars along San Francisco’s Embarcadero where the stevedores worked. It was always more readily available than lager beer, so they share those roots.”
Over the years at Anchor Brewing, as Carpenter traversed the ladder of responsibilities, from the bottle shop to brewmaster, he always wanted to make a mild. He would search them out during trips to England with Fritz Maytag, but by then, there were only a few London pubs he could count on to find a mild.
His opportunity finally arrived, some forty years later, when Anchor Brewing launched its new Zymaster® Series this year. This new series of unique beers is devoted to exploring brewing traditions, exceptional ingredients, and unusual flavors. After retracing the early history of California Lager with Zymaster No. 1, Carpenter decided to create a mild and his first pint in Maidstone was the inspiration.
Carpenter already had a few traditional recipes, but deviated from them ever so slightly, avoiding black malt. For Mark’s Mild, he chose Maris Otter as the primary base malt, added some crystal malt, and then utilized a small amount of invert sugar, which imparts color and a unique caramel flavor. It’s an English technique that dates back to the 1700s. In addition to the malt and sugar, Carpenter added a single infusion of English Goldings hops to the boil, before the wort was transformed by Anchor’s ale yeast in open fermenters and finished at 4% alcohol by volume.
The first brew of Mark’s Mild took place in March. Carpenter made almost 3,000 gallons. He doesn’t have a pilot system for experimental brews, so everything needed to go as planned. While this may seem risky, Anchor Brewing’s team is used to the challenge. It happens every year during the production of Anchor’s Christmas Ale, since the recipe is always evolving.
After the beer was allowed to rest in the cellar for a short period of time, Carpenter put it to the test with a few fellow brewers. Here’s how he described the moment: “I brought it up from the cellar to the lab. We took a taste and man, if I closed my eyes I could have been standing in a pub in England. It was mild. It was really mild. I was so happy that we achieved that, because I wasn’t sure we could.”
The beer has a wonderful malty flavor that harbors hints of toffee, chocolate, and nuts. There are also subtle fruit notes imparted by the yeast. It’s luscious, yet thirst-quenching, and explores the notion that beer doesn’t have to be extreme to be extremely interesting, according to Anchor Brewing’s resident historian, Dave Burkhart.
Mark Carpenter shares this sentiment. “I didn’t want to just go for another very hoppy, high-alcohol beer. There are so many fellow brewers doing that. I’m never going to win that race and I thought, why not go the other way and see if we could make a very good, drinkable beer. It’s important for people to keep in mind that mild is not an adjective.”
Mark’s Mild is ultimately a sociable beer, and Anchor Brewing hopes it will inspire moments and trigger memories for beer drinkers everywhere as they gather with friends, just like Carpenter back in Maidstone, more than forty years ago.
Brian Stechschulte is a beer writer and photographer based in San Francisco, who also volunteers as program manager for the San Francisco Brewers Guild. As a member of the Guild, Anchor Brewing supports the group’s mission, which is to unite those who make local beer with those who love it, and revive the vibrant heritage of beer brewing in the San Francisco.