This week’s Know Your Styles is being brought to you by fellow beer blogger Dave Nelson. Dave runs Beer, Wine and Whiskey, so be certain to stop by and check out his most recent features about combining pizza and beer. Two topics close to my heart.
This style needs a bit of an introduction, as it’s not as much a style of its own as a point on a continuum. Traditionally, many English brewers brewed a variety of pale ales of differing strength, and this continues, though the beers are now not as strong as they once were. What has been enshrined as the “Special/Best/Premium Bitter” category by the BJCP is the midpoint of the range. Historically, when these beers were bottled, brewers labeled them as “Pale Ale,” but when served on draft, they were usually called “Bitter.” Check out Martyn Cornell’s outstanding book Amber, Gold & Black for a very well researched history of many British styles including bitter and pale ale.
These days, most British brewers brew their midlevel beer to finish in the 4-5% alcohol range, so that is what I tasted – Fuller’s London Pride (Best Before Date of 9/18/09 – nice of Fuller’s to adopt some form of dating), Daleside Old Leg Over (from Yorkshire, in Northern England), and Tomos Watkin’s Cwrw Braf (from Wales).
What you should be seeing: All three of my examples fell into the copper and amber end of the color spectrum, but these days many British brewers have much paler examples that run to gold or straw in color as well. The London Pride and Tomos Watkins had a relatively low level of carbonation, which did a nice job of mimicking the mouthfeel of a cask-conditioned beer. So don’t necessarily expect a huge rocky head from these beers, though there is variation among regions and brewers on this issue.
What you should be smelling: Balance of malt and hop aromas tends to be a hallmark of the style. There are dry-hopped examples, which accentuate the aroma of hops more, but these still tend to be much more restrained than American Pale Ales. The hops also tend to be English varieties such as Goldings (East Kent or otherwise), and Fuggles that are more on the spicy, earthy side of the spectrum than their citric American counterparts. The malt tends toward the biscuit and cracker notes, usually supported by some toffee or caramel aromas from crystal malts that are also traditional additions. The Tomos Watkins distinguished itself with a really unique honey aroma. Finally, there can be significant mineral flavors from the water used, especially in beers from Burton, and yeast notes, such as light fruitiness and butter/butterscotch. The London Pride had a touch of fruitness to it, while the Daleside had a decent whack of butter.
What you should be tasting: Balance is the key here as well. These are not beers that will slap you upside the head like an Imperial Stout or India Pale Ale, but instead provide a satisfying combination of hop and malt flavors, set off by a spine of hop bitterness and perhaps some mineral notes. In British examples, the malt tends to star, with the hops providing contrast.
How you should be drinking this: Not too cold is the first rule here, as we’re dealing with relatively modest gravity, and cold will make the beer seem simpler than it is on both the nose and the palate. In the UK, these beers are served at cool cellar temperature, or 50 to 55F, and I like them that way, or even a bit warmer. As they warm, the malt will become more apparent, and the hops will better integrate. These are also “session” beers, meant for consuming in quantity, so don’t be shy about taking a hearty mouthful to get the full impact of the flavor.
In the U.K. this group of beers is among those still traditionally served in the pub as “real ale” or beer that gets its carbonation by finishing fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and is then served without CO2 pressure. Some U.S. craft-brewed examples of this style appear as “cask” beers in brewpubs and bars, so keep your eyes peeled for an opportunity to try these beers as they’ve been served for over a century.
For glassware, nonic and tulip pints are traditional (though there are other regionally-popular glassware choices as well), but I find a glass with a slight taper at the top like New Belgium’s globe glass helps concentrate the somewhat restrained aromatics.
What you should be buying: We have access to many fine beers in this style from the U.K., but freshness is a real concern as these are not big or super-hoppy beers, and therefore they are more sensitive than many to age and mistreatment. In addition to the beers I sampled, look for examples from quality importers (noted in parentheses) such as Coniston Bluebird Bitter (Shelton Bros.), St. Peter’s English Ale, Black Sheep Ale, Felinfoel Double Dragon (on tap in St. Louis), Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted (B. United), and Adnams SSB (Shelton Bros.). With traditional British beers being so inspirational to many of the pioneering U.S. craft brewers, there are a lot of U.S.-produced beers arguably in this style, such as Goose Island Honkers Ale, and Schlafly Pale Ale (esp. on cask).
Related Styles: Standard/Ordinary Bitter, Extra Special/Strong Bitter, and, a bit more distantly, American Pale Ale and Scottish 80/-.