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An American's Guide to British Beer: Part 2, Styles

Updated on November 20, 2011

In Part 1 of An American's Guide to British Beer, we described some of the basic tenets of "the knowledge"... No not the memorized compendium of London Cabbie street routes - but the basics of British beer and where to get it. In the second part of this series we're going to delve into the traditional styles and consider some recent trends. We'll concentrate on the beers for which the British are best known: Bitter, including basic and best bitter, Mild and Ales including the pale, strong and IPA styles. Along the way we'll take a look at recent trends including how American microbrews in the English style are influencing their peers in the UK.

Black Sheep Bitter
Black Sheep Bitter | Source
A pint of Taylors
A pint of Taylors | Source


My primary goal upon touching down in England for the first time with my then fiance, was to order a pint of bitter from her local pub. I couldn't miss it - The Plough and Harrow is a three story Edwardian structure not more than a football field away from her parent's house. After doing so, without hesitation, except for the noticeable hitch when my accent caught her off-gaurd, the landlord reached for the handpull and poured me nice frothy Greenall's bitter. This set me back about £1.10 - a consumer friendly price for a pretty good session beer.

So what is bitter? According to John Spedding, second brewer at Wigan, Lancashire's AllGates Brewery, "Bitters are traditionally beers that run from deep chestnut or ruby in colour to something that is straw coloured. They have a distinctive bitterness from the hops. Modern terminology seems to be replacing the word bitter with the word 'hoppy'."

Bitters run the gamut from quite dry (Brains of Cardiff, Wales) to aromatic (Taylor's Best Bitter, from Yorkshire comes to mind) and most use Fuggles, Goldings and Styrian hops. There is definitely a citrusy nose in many basic bitters, and most are quite flowery. American ales on the other hand tend to have a piney nose. Best bitters and ESB (Extra Special Bitters) get progressively stronger and more intense in flavor and nose, though your basic session bitter hovers around 3.8 to 4.2 ABV and is smooth and mellow enough to facilitate four or five pints at a session. I know I've mentioned "sessions" a few times in my articles, and no I'm not fixated on "drinking a lot" in fact just the opposite. The beauty of the English bitter is they are low enough in alcohol to be able to have one at lunch, or casually with friends after work without getting hammered. And when the time calls for it, you can sit down with your friends for a longer session and not wind up praying to the porcelain goddess later that eve.

Highgate Dark Mild
Highgate Dark Mild | Source


The mild style is a favorite of mine partially because of its stature amongst old-timers in the UK. More often than not when you go to a pub and chat with some of the pub elders, they'll be drinking a mild - just like their fathers, and grandfathers before them. As the story goes, coal miners used to quaff pints of mild during their lunch breaks in the pits. So what is mild? According to AllGates brewer John Spedding "The vast majority of milds are dark in colour, sometimes verging on black, although there are some 'light milds'. Mild is usually maltier in taste with hints of the roasted malts used. The quantity of hops used to brew a mild will be significantly less than that used for a bitter - and so there will only be a touch of bitterness to the beer."

The style has always remained consistent, if not popular across the UK, especially so up north - but as younger brewers adopt and adapt the style, milds have emerged as some of the most interesting beers on offer in the UK. Wetherspoon's, a large non-brewery-based pub chain regularly features a regional mild amongst their guest ales. When I lived in the UK, Cain's Mild, of Liverpool could be found on the cask in city centers across the north. This dark, spicy, well balanced mild is a consistent beer festival medal winner (and sold for 99 pence in all but the trendiest locales). Another favorite of mine is Mayflower Black Diamond, which checks in at a modest 3.6 ABV and boasts a dry (dark) chocolaty flavor.

The beauty of mild is in the taste, but also in the low alcohol content. A Tetley's mild lists at anywhere from 3.2 to 3.4 ABV. Moorhouses Black Cat checks in at 3.6 ABV - and you won't find many tastier beers of any style. A walk along the canal, a hike across the dales, or a pit stop while out shopping are all made that much more enjoyable - to paraphrase beer connoisseur Michael Jackson - by a restorative pint of mild.

Meantime Raspberry Ale and Pale Ale
Meantime Raspberry Ale and Pale Ale | Source
Greene King IPA, The Greene King brewery is famous in England and was started by the family of author Graham Greene
Greene King IPA, The Greene King brewery is famous in England and was started by the family of author Graham Greene | Source
Thomas Hardy's Ale - a classic  barley wine strong ale
Thomas Hardy's Ale - a classic barley wine strong ale | Source

Other Ales

The labels Bitter and Ale used to be interchangeable, as the average drinker would be hard pressed to identify say, a Marston's Pedigree as a different style than a Thwaite's Bitter. Recently the category of "Ale" has broken from the bitter pack and become the UK's most fertile ground for enhancing traditional favorites and introducing new ones. Smaller independent microbrewers such as AllGates, Hopback, Phoenix and Coach House, in addition to their standard portfolio of bitters and milds, rotate seasonal or "experimental" beers, and others commemorating everything from their favorite Rugby League team to the Queen Mum (well, not so many of those). The larger regional pub-brewers have followed suit and now feature seasonal ales that mix and merge traditional UK styles with styles from continental Europe and America.


It would be hard to pin down any one trend amongst these thousands of real ale offerings, but brewer John Spedding reckons "The trend definitely seem to be towards the 'pale & hoppy'... IPAs seem to be a very popular style." Indeed these bright, dry, hoppy thirst quenching ales will make Americans who are familiar with stateside breweries such as Anchor, Sierra Nevada and Samuel Adams very happy. In fact, I believe via exposure to American microbrews while travelling or at international beer festivals, brewers in the UK are re-adopting their own UK-born IPA recipes and making them hoppier and stronger. In 2004, the 'biggest' beer I ever tasted was Cain's Dr. Duncan's IPA which I described as "golden in color, super hoppy - makes Lagunitas (IPA) seem tame!" Indeed since then Pliny the Elder, from the Russian River Brewing Company has since claimed that honor - though I'm sure the brewers at Hopback, in Wiltshire, UK have cooked up something to steal the crown back.

Strong Ales & Warmers

Seasonal ales are where the UK's brewmasters pull out all the stops - often to unique and amazing effect. If you happen to be travelling in the UK over the winter holidays, you won't want to miss sampling and comparing the many 'Winter Warmers' - strong ales - that independent and pub-breweries roll out. These ales trend toward the maltier side of the palate and are often brewed with aromatic spices to give them sort of mulled cider feel to them. After a long day out shopping or visiting museums, they are the perfect way to end the evening on a spirited note.

What's Next?

After reading part 3 of the series on Uk Beer and cask ale resources you will be poised with all you need to get the best beer in the UK. Cheers!

Tasting Notes

(click column header to sort results)
Brewery/ Beer  
Strength (ABV)  
Oakhams/ JHB
Slightly malty, bright, mellow citrusy hops, golden color, flowery nose. A tasty, easy drinking session bitter with complexity and lots of taste.
Conniston/ Bluebird
Slighlty hoppy, straw color, smooth mouthfeel. A mellow drinkable session beer!
Fuller's/ London Pride
Hoppy, amber, zingy, tart. Great color excellent excellent surprisingly dry bitter.
Adnam's/ Bitter
Nice and hoppy, dry and peppery, golden color. Well balnced seeion brew ends on a soft maltyness.
Hyde's/ Bitter
Hoppy, citrusy, straw colour. Manchester Ale with the signature Hyde's hop!
Caledonian/ Trick or Treat
Best Bitter
Hoppy, fruity, straw color, Nice full taste - light but nice.
Young's/ Special Brew
Best Bitter
Balanced rich, malty. Reddish brown fruity malt dominates in this rich brew
Banks's/ Best Bitter
Best Bitter
Zingy, copper color, metallic nose. Good to the last drop - moreish!
Cain's/ Dr. Duncans
Extremely hoppy golden color, maybe the hoppiest beer I've ever tasted. Makes Lagunitas seem tame!
Lockyer Own Storage, 2011 Ninth & Broad Press, $16.99 US
Lockyer Own Storage, 2011 Ninth & Broad Press, $16.99 US | Source

About the author

Peter Allison is the author of the novel Lockyer Self Storage, 2011, Ninth & Broad Press for sale on Lulu.

So what do you think about beer?

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