When I began to plan this series of beginner's guides to the world's most famous beer styles, I was pumped. I would get to shine light on the underappreciated lagers of Germany and reignite passions for the Belgian beers that gave so many of us beer geeks our start. I'd get to draw attention to the style-bending innovation occurring in the United States [coming soon]! But along with that, I'd have to cover British beers. Less pumped all of a sudden.
It's not that I don't like British beer. I do! There are few things better to me than a couple of rounds of well-made ESB or mild in a cozy pub.
But writing about British beer styles is complicated. Beer culture in Britain is as much about the culture of cask ale and the pub as it is the beer itself. In the Oxford Companion to Beer, Pete Brown describes the scene as "something that refuses to be bottled, standardized, or easily replicated."
In other words—just discussing beer styles sells British beer short. These beer styles also have a history of dramatic change over time such that it's difficult to establish what a "traditional" example of any style looks like.
Then there are the myths and half-truths. Think that IPA was invented to sustain British troops in India? Think milds have always been super low in alcohol? Think porter was invented by a dude named Ralph Harwood? These often-told fanciful stories are more myth than history.
So let's get into it. Curious about the beer styles of Britain? Here's an introduction.
When it comes to British beer, "pale ale" isn't really a beer style. It's bigger than that. The term is used primarily to refer to the entire family of bitter and India pale ale styles, along with a few others that we'll save for another day.
Let's start with bitter. What's with the name? There are certainly more bitter beers out there than these, so what gives?
There's a satisfyingly simple explanation. Amidst the rising popularity of pale ales in 19th century Britain, thirsty bargoers latched on to the term "bitter" to refer to these hoppy and sharp beers in contrast with the less hoppy milds that were prevalent at the time. The nickname stuck.
For better or worse, we've come a long way from these vague, casual distinctions of style. We now have three separate recognized styles within the world of bitters: standard or ordinary bitter, best, special, or premium bitter, and extra special or strong bitter, better known as ESB. The primary difference between these is strength. All tend to be golden to copper in color with a shared toasty or caramelly malt character that is balanced by a fairly assertive presence of earthy English hops. The yeast used for fermentation leaves behind some fruity aromas and perhaps a touch of the butterscotch-like flavor compound called diacetyl (the same stuff used to flavor microwave popcorn!).
Standard/ordinary bitters are the weakest of the bunch—most weigh in around 3 to 4% ABV. Best/special/premium bitter is a bit stronger, tipping the scales in the low to high 4%s. ESBs go up from there, occasionally pushing 6% ABV, but living more commonly in the 5%s.
India Pale Ale
IPA is a related style with a murky past—there's no beer with a history more convoluted by shaky legends. You're likely to encounter this one: "IPA was invented for British troops stationed in India. Brewers kicked up the amount of hops and alcohol in their pale ale recipes to help preserve the beer on its voyage to the East."
This drives beer historians crazy.
The development of beer styles is rarely as simple as x being invented for y purpose, and indeed, IPA's inception has a much more complicated history than we'd like to believe. It's clear, though, that the style was not invented with the specific intention of creating a beer that could make it to India. Many types of beer were shipped to India in the 1700s—not just pale ales, but also porters and others. IPA likely sprung out of a tradition of "October beers"—unusually hardy beers that arrived in India in especially fine shape.
Regardless of how it came to be, IPA gained traction in both India and, eventually, back home in England.
Through centuries of waxing and waning popularity, IPA continues to evolve. American craft brewers have run away with the style, developing countless variations on the theme of aggressively hopped ales that all bear the name of IPA. These beers are influencing the worldwide landscape of hoppy beer—including the scene in England. Wherever they are produced, these genre-bending beers often bear a preceding "American" modifier and show little resemblance to the balanced, straight-forward English-style IPAs, which may or may not be labeled with such geographical specificity.
As it stands, most modern English IPAs are deep golden to medium amber in color with a lively aroma of earthy, grassy, and floral English hops. A firm base of toasty or caramelly malt flavor and fruity yeast are noticeable as well.
This stuff bears very little resemblance to the hop-dominated, explosively citrusy American IPAs that are popular right now. Though these are aggressively hoppy beers, the English hops typically used are less overtly fruity and bright. And malt flavor plays a much bigger role in these beers, as well.
Though American drinkers are intimately familiar with IPA and the many styles that have shot off of that British beer style, most folks are less familiar with the humble beer known as mild.
The term "mild" hasn't always referred to a specific beer style. It was originally used as an indicator of freshness. In a time in which much beer was aged prior to sale, mild was sold as a strong, cheap, fresh pub drink to be drunk in quantity.