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A Beginner's Guide to British Beer Styles

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Some of Britain's finest. [Photographs: Mike Reis]

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.

Bitter

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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

20140314ipa.jpgIPA 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.

Mild/Brown Ale

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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.

These days, milds tend to live in the 3.0-4.5% ABV range, but in the late 1800s, the drink was much stronger, frequently exceeding 6% ABV. It wasn't until the 1900s, when wartime restrictions necessitated weaker beers, that the mild took its current form as a low-alcohol beer.

So what is a mild, nowadays? Though pale versions do exist, most milds are brown in color and served on draft. They're malty beers with little hoppiness and a fruity yeast flavor that can veer towards buttery in some examples. Expect toasty, caramelly, nutty, licorice-like, raisiny or chocolatey malt flavors alongside a bit of fruitiness. There's a lot of flavor packed into this little beer.

English brown ales are fairly similar in flavor and composition to darker versions of mild. There's a fairly wide range of beers that are lumped into the world of brown ales, so some folks prefer to break the style down into two categories: Southern and Northern English brown ales.

Northern English brown ales tend to serve as the inspiration to many of the brown ales that are found in stores in the US. Northern English brown ales tend to be a bit drier and stronger than dark milds—they've got that same caramel, nut and dried fruit malt flavor, but often with less sweetness and a bit more alcohol (think 4.0 to 5.5% ABV). If you've had Newcastle, you've had a Northern English brown ale. Unlike milds, brown ales are mostly bottled—draft versions are less common. It's perhaps due to the shippability afforded by this packaging that brown ale has taken off in the US amongst craft brewers while mild remains a product of relative obscurity.

Porter/Stout

20140313porter.jpgBefore mild ruled the British beer monarchy, there was King Porter. Originating at some point in the 1700s, porter's earliest history is a bit murky. You may have heard that this beer style was developed by a brewer named Ralph Harwood to replace the common practice of blending several beers of varying ages and conditions at the pub to create a unified and palatable drink. But most historians don't buy into that tale. While pub-level blending was common, it seems more likely that porter developed organically as a variation on an existing beer style predecessor known simply as "brown beer."

As porter rose in popularity in the late 1700s and early 1800s, new branches of the porter family tree sprouted forth. There was robust porter, Baltic porter, and stout porter.

Stout...porter? It's easy to get confused about the difference between stout and porter, but we can help.

Stouts were born as a stronger variant of porter. Before "stout" was a beer style, it was just another adjective meaning thick or strong. The term was applied to all kinds of beer—sort of like how beer geeks use the terms "imperial" or "double" today. Eventually, stout porters became popular enough that the "porter" part could be dropped, and porter and stout began to develop their own individual identities.

So stout and porter were the same and then they weren't. Where are we now?

Well, in some ways, we're back where we started. Truth is, there aren't that many differences between stouts and porters these days. They contain most of the same ingredients (like the dark, roasted grains that give these beers their signature black color) producing many of the same nutty, chocolatey, and coffee-like flavors. Stouts tend to be a bit stronger and have a bit more roasty bitterness than porters, but there are so many examples that don't conform to these generalizations that they aren't super useful.

Thankfully, within the categories of porter and stout there are a number of modern sub-styles that give us some guidance about what to expect before we crack open a bottle.

British Porters are usually broken down into 3 styles: brown, robust, and Baltic. In their modern forms, brown porters taste a bit like stronger dark milds or brown ales—malty beers with chocolate, caramel, and nut flavors alongside a varying amount of roasty bitterness. They tend to float around the 4-6% ABV range.

Robust porters are a bit more...robust. Historically, they were sweeter than brown porter, but this isn't always the case these days. Robust porters tend to exhibit a more assertive roasty bitterness than their brown brothers, along with a little extra alcoholic kick (think 4.5 to 7%ish ABV).

Baltic porters are the strongest members of the extended British porter family. As the name implies, these beers were developed in the Baltic, where brewers began producing their own variations on strong imported British porters using lager yeast. They can stretch up to 10% ABV, but expect a fairly smooth beer—less bitter and more focused on dense caramel and dark fruit flavor.

The stout category has a whole bunch of sub-styles too. The softest of these is Irish dry stout, which as you may guess from its name, was not born in Britain, but we'll include it here anyway. Dry stout is indeed a dry beer style, made famous by the iconic Guinness Draught. It's light in alcohol (Guinness barely exceeds 4% ABV, but other examples range from about 3.5-5%), bitter from a dose of roasted barley, and commonly served as a nitrogenated draft beer, which gives the pour a dense, creamy foam.

Oatmeal stout is brewed with oats to provide a smooth texture alongside a nutty, chocolatey richness. These display varying levels of sweetness, but tend to be richer than dry stout. Their flavor is often likened to that of a coffee with cream.

If oatmeal stout is made with oats, you might get nervous when I mention milk stout. But don't worry: brewers aren't dumping the dregs from their morning cereal into the tank. Milk stouts are made with powdered lactose sugar. This stuff cannot be fermented by regular ale yeast, so it leaves behind sweetness and body that soften the roasty bitter edge common in other stouts.

The biggest and baddest stouts are the imperial stouts, also known as Russian imperial stouts. Here, the story is true: these started out as a specialty product brewed in England for Russian empress Catherine the Great, and they're boozy, aggressive beasts. Americans have run away with their own interpretations of the style, but English examples tend to have a whole lot of fruity flavors accompanied by big doses of malt or hop-derived bitterness in a dense, dark liquid.

Old Ale/English Barleywine

20140314barleywine.jpgIf you dig the intensity of imperial stout, old ales and barleywines (sometimes spelled "barley wines") are a great place to look next.

There's quite a lot of overlap between these two styles as they exist today. Both are strong beers that are frequently aged prior to release. Old ales tend to be sweet, strong beers with nutty and toffee-like malt flavor complemented by sherry and leathery notes that result from aging. Some examples will show the tart or funky influences of wild yeast and bacteria that often live in the wooden casks where these beers are sometimes cellared.

Barleywines offer similarly dense maltiness, which means flavors reminiscent of brown sugar and leather are balanced by an assertive presence of alcohol. While American takes on the style are usually highly hopped and aggressively bitter, English versions are more often malt-focused sippers built for fireside contemplation.

Irish Red Ale

20140314irishred.jpgRed beer has a long history in Ireland; literary mentions go back at least as far as the ninth century. But as a style, the stuff we call Irish red ale is a more recent development. Many credit Coors with the popularization of the beer as we know it today—after purchasing an established brewery, they renamed and rereleased an existing beer as George Killian's Irish Red Ale. The beer found wild success in the 1990s and spawned a slew of imitators.

Killian's Irish Red is now actually made with a lager yeast strain, so it isn't an ale at all, but most Irish red ales are indeed made with ale yeast. They tend to be caramelly, malt-driven beers with little hop character, a touch of bitterness on the finish from roasted barley, and a deep reddish hue imparted by the malt used for its production. Expect toasty and caramelly flavors along with a light, coffee-like bitter finish.

Strong Scotch Ale

20140313scotchale.jpgThough Scotland hangs its boozy hat mostly on whisky, Scottish beer shouldn't be forgotten.

By far, the most common Scottish-style beer you'll encounter in the US is the strong Scotch ale, also known as "wee heavy." These are rich, strong (6-10% ABV) amber or reddish-brown beers that boast some serious malt character. Expect a flavor that's somewhat similar to barleywine—dense and caramelized with some fruitiness and sweetness. Some breweries (especially in the US) have taken to including a portion of peat-smoked malt in their Scotch ale recipes, probably to recall the smokiness of some Scotch whiskies.

Less-strong Scottish beers do exist, but they are pretty uncommon in the US. If you see a reference to shillings on a label, you've probably got one. These will tend to have similar malty flavors but are lighter in both body and alcohol.

More Beer Basics from Mike Reis

How to Identify Bad Flavors in Your Beer
Decoding Beer Labels: 5 Terms Every Beer Drinker Should Know
How to Pour A Beer
How Draft Systems Work
The Serious Eats Guide to What's in Your Beer
How to Pair Beer and Dessert

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