English Pale Ales: Rainy Day Tipple or Pub Grub Hub?

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Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way….or so David Gilmour famously sang in Pink Floyd’s 1973 The Dark Side of the Moon album. After living in the United Kingdom for the last year, I can attest to the renowned British stoicism and “take-it-on-the-chin-and-bang-on” attitude that could lead any Brit to characterize his life as a polite and orderly march through life (and the weather there certainly doesn’t help lighten the mood.) But amid the daily toils and weather-related misfortunes of the British working class, there is at least one bright spot: the bitters. Bitter is an umbrella term the Brits use to describe ales of varying strengths that exhibit a mild to strong bitter flavor. The three recognized types of English bitters are Standard/Ordinary Bitter, Special/Best Bitter, and Extra Special/Strong Bitter (ESB). As you might have guessed, the differences between these three styles are the relative strengths of body, flavor, color, and alcohol, with each increasing as you move from Standard to Special to Extra Special. Confusingly (and in typical British fashion), Bitters are sometimes also known as English Pale Ales. The difference? The packaging. Technically speaking, Bitters are served from a cask (similar to draft beer in the US) while Pale Ales are bottled. So quite often, the exact same beer can be called a Bitter or a Pale Ale depending on the type of container in which it is held. To complicate matters even further, some breweries ignore this distinction and just call it whatever they like. No wonder the US declared independence from such arbitrary nomenclature….
One other difference between the Bitters and Pale Ales is that Bitters, because they are served from a cask, are “real ales.” I won’t go into the nitty gritty of this distinction in this article, but all this term means is that the beer is undergoing fermentation up until the moment the cask is tapped and that no artificial carbon dioxide is pumped into the cask to carbonate the beer. This gives significantly different qualities to a beer and is easily the most piquant feature of English ales.

A Beer Mat Size History of Beer
The three different strengths of bitter dates back to the 16th and 17th century when large English manors had ruling families and well as servants living together. Due to of a lack of precise technology, beer malt was collected in different “runnings” from the mash tun. The first runnings were the strongest, with the most fermentable sugars. Subsequent runnings had less and less fermentable sugars and more and more water mixed in. The strongest of the runnings went towards brewing strong beers between 8 and 10 percent ABV. The middle runnings created “table beer,” which would be drunk at meals at 5 to 6 percent ABV. The last runnings created “small beer,” weighing in around 2 to 3 percent ABV. These distinctions form the basis for the three types of bitter as the years wore on. The invention of better brewing and malting technology in the 19th century allowed for the invention of pale malt—the basis for pale ales and bitters. Almost overnight, bitters became the most popular beer in Great Britain and the envy of the rest of the beer world. Over the next century, various British brewers perfected their recipes and coined a style for which England is known today.

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What You Need to Know About English Pale Ales
English pale ales (and bitters) are characterized by a light to dark amber to copper color, low to medium alcohol by volume, and medium to somewhat strong bitterness. The essence of an English Pale Ale lies in its hop aroma and flavor. To be an English Pale Ale, the beer must use traditional English hops, such as Fuggles and East Kent Goldings. These hops will usually be most easily noticed in the aroma of the beer. Look for their characteristic earthy and floral aroma and flavor. The malt character will range from toasty caramel to nutty and fruity. Its balance will be tipped towards the bitter side of the Sweet-Bitter spectrum. Also of great importance, it will be of a quite sessionable strength (meaning one could drink several of them in one sitting without falling off his or her barstool). Standard/Ordinary bitters usually weigh in around 3.2-3.8% ABV, while Extra Strong/Special Bitters weigh in between 4.6-6.2% ABV. The British drinking culture is centered around the idea of long drinking sessions, with many pints consumed in one sitting. This, as well as progressive alcohol taxation, has led the English to create low to moderate strength ales that can be purchased in rounds.

What’s the Difference between English and American Pale Ales?
Pale ale is a common term one will find in any beer aisle. So is an English Pale Ale different from an American Pale Ale? The answer is a definite YES. While both styles exhibit a bitter finish, they differ in a few important ways. American Pale Ales tend to exhibit a lighter color, slightly cleaner fermentation, and less caramel-like malt character. Most of all however, American Pale Ales are made using American hops, while English Pale Ales are made using English hops. American hops tend to be very aromatic and flavorful, with a citrusy and herbal character. English hops tend to be slightly less aromatic and flavorful, with an earthy and floral character. When deciding between whether to buy an English Pale Ale or an American Pale Ale, consider what type of flavor and aroma you are going for in your beer: one that is more caramelly, fruity, earthy and floral OR biscuity, citrusy, and herbal. Based on that, you will be able to select a better pale ale for your own tastes.

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2 thoughts on “English Pale Ales: Rainy Day Tipple or Pub Grub Hub?

  1. Hi David,

    I visited your site due to seeing you on Google +. The ‘Bitter’ topic is slightly confusing over here, isn’t it? Did you manage to try any of the Cornish beers during your stay? Adnams brews are always worth a try with deep, rich flavours and usually a nice kick although if a strong beer is required then try BrewDog… they really do make a few strong brews.

    All the best,
    James

    • Hi James,

      Haha yes, bitters and pale ales being used willy-nilly over here was definitely confusing until I did some research and talked to some publicans. I tried a lot of ales while I have lived in the UK, including Cornish beers. I especially liked St. Austell’s Tribute. Adnams Broadside was a regular in my rotation and each time I got to a big city (Bristol, Glasgow, Edinburgh) I always stopped in the Brewdog pub. Loved the Hardcore IPA and the Sink the Bismarck! Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll enjoy my upcoming articles. -David

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