What Ho, Chaps!
The United States declared its independence from Britain over 240 years ago. But we still have ties to Merrie Olde England, and not just the common language which separates us. (Because, honestly, who calls cookies “biscuits” and biscuits “scones”?)
For one thing, the love of ale is richer and deeper in English history than it is in the States. Shakespeare makes many references to ale in his plays, and we’ve honored that with naming a beer after his beloved character Sir John Falstaff. Sadly, Falstaff beer is no longer in production, which can’t be said for Shakespeare.
Anyone familiar with Dickens’s A Christmas Carol knows Scrooge relived Fezziwig’s Christmas party, in which the beer flowed freely. If nothing else, Ol’ Fezziwig knew how to throw a kegger.
And the image of the local pub is fixed in our subconscious, where bitters, brown ales, skittles, darts, and song lift a fellow’s spirits and cement friendships.
Okay, that’s idealized, to an extent. But there’s some truth to the notion that Limeys love their beer. And with good reason; there’s a lot to love.
From Light to Dark
I’ve titled this post “English Ales,” but I’ll be including the beers of Scotland and Ireland, as well as a brief detour Down Under. They all helped put the “great” into Great Britain’s ales, after all.
The varieties of these beers run the gamut of colors and flavors, and there are some wonderful regional differences that contribute to the personalities of each one.
So let’s hop down to the village pub and see who we meet.
BITTERS – “The Lads”
These are the regular fellows from the neighborhood. You’ve known them all your life, and love to share stories, songs, and a round of darts with them. You can relax and enjoy your time with the Lads.
Ordinary Bitter – Pale amber/light copper, Low carbonation. Low ABV (3.2 – 3.8%)
Best Bitter – Pale amber/medium copper, Low carbonation. Low to moderate ABV (3.8 – 4.6%)
Strong Bitter – Light amber/deep copper, Low to moderate carbonation. Medium ABV (4.6 – 6.2%)
PALE COMMONWEALTH BEER – “The Expats”
This category includes IPAs, but I’ll be writing a separate entry comparing English and American IPAs later. The two remaining beers have their roots in Great Britain, but they’re only visiting the pub, maintaining their allegiance to their new homes.
British Golden Ale – A recent (c. 1980s) addition. Similar to American Pale Ales, with a medium-high bitterness, a clear, golden color. Low/moderate ABV (5% or lower)
Australian Sparkling Ale – Very high carbonation, deep yellow to amber color. High session ABV (4.5 – 6.0%)
BROWN BRITISH BEER – “The Handyman”
What would the village pub be without him? Yes, he’s a little rough around the edges, and he’s still got his Wellies on, but he’s as welcome as the flowers in May. And he’s got the skills to set things to rights, smiling all the while. Brown ales are down-to-earth and malty.
Dark Mild – Copper or mahogany color, wide range of malt/yeast flavors, low to medium carbonation,. Low ABV (4% or less)
Brown British Beer – Dark Amber or dark reddish-brown, moderate malt sweetness, medium to medium-high carbonation. Moderate ABV (4.0 – 5.5%)
English Porter – Light brown to dark brown, toasty, bready flavor with significant nutty, caramel flavors. Moderate carbonation with a creamy texture. Moderate ABV (4 – 5.4%)
SCOTTISH ALE – “The Scotsman”
See that elderly bloke in the corner? The one with the bushy beard and the tam o’shanter? That grandfatherly type is the Scottish Ale. Sit and bide wi’ him a wee. Listen to his stories. With their traditional highland grains and specialty malts, Scottish ales aren’t lacking in personality.
Scottish Light – Pale copper to dark brown color, very malty flavors, with hops only used for balance. Very low ABV (2.5 – 3.2%)
Scottish Heavy – Similar in color and character to the Light, but with slightly higher ABV (3.2 – 3.9%)
Scottish Export – Same color and characteristics as the others. Higher ABV (3.9 – 6%)
IRISH BEER – “The Genial Irishman”
Sure, and whenever you hear that clear, bright tenor, singing about Galway Bay, you know the Irishman is there. Ready with a song and a joke, he’s full of camaraderie. These ales are warm, wonderful samples of the Emerald Isle. Embrace one, and he’ll hug you back like an old friend.
Irish Red Ale – Amber to copper color. Easy-drinking and malty, with a touch of roasted or bready flavors. Low-medium ABV (3.8 – 5%)
Irish Stout – Black, with some garnet highlights. Can be bitter, like coffee, with a full-bodied mouthfeel. Low to moderate carbonation, and moderate ABV (4.0 – 4.5%)
Irish Extra Stout – Black and full-bodied. Some bitterness from the roasted grains, but tempered with chocolate and caramel flavors. Stronger flavor and higher ABV (5.5 – 6.5%)
DARK BRITISH BEER – “The Footballers”
Careful, now. These are rowdy, rough-and-tumble lads with visible scars and broken noses. But the secret they all share is that they’ve got a real tender heart. They’re gentle and sweet with their mums, and will carry their grans’ groceries every day. These dark, “chewy” beers are full-bodied, with deep, complex flavors derived from adjuncts such as oatmeal and lactose. After that first belt in the mouth, you’ll be one of their best friends.
Sweet Stout – Black, sweet, full-bodied. Mild roasted flavor tempered by the sweetness of the lactose addition. Moderate ABV (4.0 – 6.0%)
Oatmeal Stout – Medium brown to black. Oats add a nutty, grainy flavor and a creamy mouthfeel. Moderate ABV (4.2 – 5.9%)
Tropical Stout – Deep brown or black color. Sweet and somewhat fruity, often with a dark rum-like aspect. Medium to high ABV (5.5 – 8.0%)
Foreign Extra Stout – Deep brown or black. Coffee and chocolate flavors mixed with slightly burnt grain character. High ABV (6.3 – 8.0%)
STRONG BRITISH ALE – “The Posh Set”
I say, can you believe it? Lord Mannerling has decided to make an appearance. If you thought he was more a brandy or gin-and-tonic type, well, you’d be right. But these traditional strong ales have their appeal as well. Just the thing for settling in by the fire after the hunt, don’t you know.
British Strong Ale – Deep gold or reddish-brown color. Malty, with nutty, caramel, or toffee flavors. Full-bodied, with alcohol strength noticeable, but subtle. Moderate to high ABV (5.5 – 8.0%)
Old Ale – Light amber to fairly dark reddish-brown. Complex malt flavors from aging include caramel and molasses. Sometimes wood-aged to add slight tannin complexity. Moderate to high ABV (5.5 – 9.0%)
Wee Heavy – Light copper to dark brown. Very malty, with strong caramel flavor. Medium-full to full-bodied mouthfeel. Smooth alcohol warmth balances the sweetness. Higher ABV (6.5 – 10%)
English Barleywine – Rich gold or dark amber. Complex malt flavors ranging from bread and toffee in lighter versions to caramel and/or molasses in darker versions. Very full mouthfeel. High ABV (8.0 – 12.0%)
I’ve only scratched the surface and had a little fun with my descriptions of these styles and their personalities. A look at the BJCP Style Guidelines details the categories and subcategories, so if you want more than my quick duck into the pub, click on the link.
The primary characteristic of many of the more common and popular British ales is the low ABV and the focus on the malt. They’re mostly meant to be refreshing session beers, concentrating on malt complexity rather than hop bitterness or alcoholic content.
The weather conditions in that area are most conducive for the cellar storage that some mistakenly call “warm beer.” How little those detractors understand! Cellar temperatures (roughly 50º – 55º F) allow the intricate flavors of the various malts to blossom and blend. This has been understood and employed by British brewers for centuries, giving these ales their pedigree. The sun may have set on the British Empire, but never on the UK’s influence over ales.
So have another pint of brown ale, sing another chorus, and bid farewell to the Lads for tonight. They’ll all be waiting for you down to the pub tomorrow.