“Unique Beer, Wonderful Beer”
The Classic English Beer Styles
What would England―and the wider world of beer―lose if her native beer styles vanished? These nine distinct styles, each with its own pedigree of a century or more, express the culture, social history, agriculture, and even the geology of their separate places of origin. There will always be innovation, and the globalization of the beer market is the dominant story of the last decade, but if these styles are washed away by one homogeneous mega-style, much of what is local and characterful about beer will disappear.
Once the dominant style of beer in England, mild is now hard to find. Mild refers not to strength but to the fact that the style is less heavily hopped than pale ale. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, drinkers moved away from porter and stout toward sweeter mild ales. Mild became the drink of the industrial working class, who wanted refreshment and to restore lost body sugars after eight or 10 hours in a factory or down a mine. Pale ale was too expensive for most blue-collar workers.
Mild went into steep decline after World War II and the decline has accelerated with the de-industrialization of Britain. It’s found today in the English Midlands, parts of Yorkshire, and the Manchester and Liverpool areas.
While a few examples of “light mild” are available, most milds are a deep copper or amber color as a result of the use of crystal, brown and black malts or even roasted barley. Some brewers use caramel, which in England means burnt sugar. Strength has declined over the years: most milds register around 3.2 or 3.4 percent alcohol by volume.
IPA and Pale Ale
Pale ale is not the same as bitter. It is the descendant of India pale ale, brewed for the English colonial market at the end of the 18th century and for most of the 19th century.
While “India ale” was first brewed in London, it is historically linked to Burton-on-Trent in the English Midlands. Here, the high levels of sulfates in the spring waters, principally gypsum and Epsom salts, aided the production of pale beer with malt cured over coke fires and heavily hopped to prevent bacterial infection during long sea journeys to Asia, the Caribbean and Australasia. IPA was between 6 and 7 percent alcohol by volume and was considered to be too strong and even narcotic for the home market. So brewers produced lower-strength pale beers of between 4 and 5 percent abv.
When commercial glass blowing developed in the late 19th century, pale ales were bottled and were the first beers to be filtered and carbonated. Many brewers today produce draft beers called IPA but these have little in common with the original, being too dark and too weak. Pale ale is now almost completely confined to bottles.
This is the quintessential English beer style, sold only on draft in the nation’s pubs. It is a descendant of IPA and pale ale but has become a separate style.
Its origins lie in the building of “tied estates” of pubs owned directly by brewers from the late 19th century. With a lot of capital invested in real estate, the brewers wanted ales that could be sold quickly, whereas IPAs took months to mature. They developed “running beers” that were brewed in a week and took only a few days in cask in pub cellars to reach maturity. The beers were given roundness and full flavor by the use of a new “stewed malt” called crystal. As these beers were generously hopped, consumers quickly dubbed the style “bitter.”
As bitter is consumed in pints, it is relatively low in alcohol⎯around 3.8 to 4 percent abv. It is usually a pale copper color and is generously hopped, with bitterness units in the 30s and 40s. Brewers often use two hop varieties, such as the Fuggle and the Golding, for bitterness and aroma.
Sometimes called special bitter, it is a stronger version of bitter, between 4 and 5 percent abv. Maltier than bitter, but balanced by good hop rates, best bitters are drunk more sparingly and are noticeably full flavored with complex fruit on the aroma and palate. ESB, or extra special bitter, is a distinct beer style in the United States. In England, ESB is considered to be the definitive strong ale produced by Fuller’s of London, 5.5 percent alcohol, with rich marmalade fruit and immense hop character.
Porter and Stout
The English interpretations of these styles virtually disappeared for most of the 20th century but have been revived with enormous vigor and enthusiasm by the new wave of microbrewers.
Porter, and its stronger or “stouter” version, developed in London in the early 18th century from a beer known as “three threads” or “three thirds,” a blend of pale, brown and old or stale ale. When a London brewer created a beer served from one cask (or butt) that replicated the flavor of three threads, he launched, with his “entire butt,” a style that became so popular with market porters (delivery men) that it took on the nickname of porter. The demand for porter was insatiable and prompted small brewers such as Sam Whitbread to build new breweries dedicated solely to porter and stout production.
Porter and stout were brown beers at first but became darker following the invention of malt roasters in the early 19th century. Restrictions on the curing of dark malts in World War I, allied to the growth in demand for pale ale and mild ale, sent porter and stout into steep decline in England, and enabled the Irish brewers to dominate both the British and world markets.
However, many small English craftbrewers have revived porter and stout in recent years, producing some dazzling interpretations of the style, many based on 18th- and 19th-century recipes. Strengths vary enormously but a porter should be not less than 4 percent abv; a stout, 5 percent or more. Unlike a dry Irish stout, English porters and stouts use crystal, brown, chocolate and black malts, plus oats, to achieve a smoother, creamier flavor, underpinned by generous hop rates.
Old ale is often linked with barley wine as though it were the same style. But old ale does not have to be especially strong. Historically, it was “old” because it was stored or staled for months or even years in great oak vessels known as tuns.
Stale was one of the principal beers in the first blended porters. Today, old ales tend to mature in casks or bottles for briefer periods, though a few are matured for years or are meant to be laid down to improve in bottle. The large regional brewer, Greene King in eastern England, produces a Strong Suffolk Ale that is a blend of a 5 percent Best Pale Ale and a 12 percent 5X that is stored in wooden tuns for up to two years. It is the last known version of a genuine blended country strong ale.
In southern England, George Gale produces an unfiltered, 9 percent Prize Old Ale in a stoppered bottle that is meant to be stored for at least three years. Some versions of the style weigh in at 4 percent abv, but the stronger ones will deepen and become more complex if stored.
An old ale should have a rich fruity/malty complexity, balanced by a tart, spicy and peppery hop character.
English brewers have always made strong ales, but the term “barley wine” came into use only in the 18th century when England was often at war with France and imported French wines were avoided for patriotic reasons. Ales as strong as 12 percent abv were produced and were dubbed barley wine as a sign of John Bull’s proud insularity.
The Industrial Revolution made it possible to make barley wines pale in color as well as strong, and they became almost the “house beer” of the wealthy, leaving the hoi-polloi to drink darker milds and porters. Today, barley wines are usually confined to the winter months and some are sold on draft as “winter warmers” or “Christmas beers.” Such versions are something of a hybrid, a cross between old ale and barley wine.
A small pilot brewery in the Bass complex at Burton-on-Trent makes small batches of a once-famous barley wine, Bass No 1, at 10.5 percent abv. In London, Fullers makes a Golden Pride every fall at 9.2 percent. The finished ale is rolled around the brewery yard in a giant, 54-gallon hogshead cask in the approved, historic fashion before being decanted into smaller casks. In 1995, barley wine as a style was given a major boost when a 7 percent beer called Norman’s Conquest, from a micro in the west of England, won the CAMRA Champion Beer of Britain competition.
At their best, barley wines, as the name suggests, should have enormous vinous aromas and flavors, backed by a deep hoppiness.
Roger Protz is the author of Complete Guide to World Beer and 300 Beers to Try Before You Die. He is a respected beer authority and editor of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.