There many different styles of real ale, varying from malty, lightly-hopped milds to dark and bitter stouts and porters. With over 700 brewers producing around 2,500 ales, it can truly be said that British real ale is an incredibly diverse product. Whatever your taste preference you can be sure that there is a beer to suit almost everyone! To find out more about individual beer styles please click on the links below.
Pale Ale or IPA
Porter & Stout
Mild is one of the most traditional beer styles which is enjoying a revival in today's real ale market. Usually dark brown in colour, due to the use of well-roasted malts or barley it is less hopped than bitters and often has a chocolatety character with nutty and burnt flavours.
Cask conditioned Mild is a rarity in a lot of parts of the country, which is a crying shame, because Mild is a distinctive and tasty beer. Mild is one of, if not the, oldest beer styles in the country. Until the 15th century, ale and mead were the major British brews, both made without hops. Hops were introduced from Holland, France and Germany after this time. This also started the trend on reducing the gravity of ale, as the Hop is also a preservative, and beers had to be brewed very strongly to try to help preserve them. The hop also started the rapid decline of mead, which is only made in a very few places today.
So what is Mild? It is a beer which has tastes and textures all it's own. Basically it is a beer that is less hopped than bitter, etc. The darkness of Dark Milds, such as Greene King XX Mild, comes from the use of darker malts and/or roasted barley which are used to compensate for the loss of Hop character. "Chocolate ", "fruity", "nutty" and "burnt" are all tastes to be found in the complexity of Milds. However, not all milds are dark. Yorkshire brewed Timothy Taylors Golden Best is one of the best examples of a light coloured mild, as is Bank's Original, the name changed from Mild to try to give it a more modern image. In Scotland, 60/- ale is similar to mild (Belhaven's being a good example).
Milds today tend to have an ABV in the 3% to 3.5% range, with of course some notable exceptions. In fact, a lot of the Microbreweries who try their hand at mild are bringing the alcohol content back up somewhat! Mild wasn't always weaker though. In the latter half of the 19th Century, milds were brewed to about the same strength as bitters as a response to the demand for a sweeter beer from the working classes and in those days most bitters were around 6 to 7% ABV.
During the First World War, malt rationing and pressure from the temperance movement led to brewers rapidly reduced the strength. Following the Second World War, as prosperity returned, mild`s popularity as a cheap ale began to fade, not being helped by being kept badly in run down pubs as the Big Brewers began to heavily promote their keg lager brands. Coupled to this was a gradual, but steady decline in heavy industry in the North and Midlands of Britain, mild`s great marketplace.
By the 1970s, the keg lager boom had seen mild's share of the market fall to around 13% and it was a shame to see a bland gassy and overpriced product, which was generally weaker than the mild it was trying to oust, succeed in many cases.
Examples of milds brewed in your region
Bitters developed towards the end of the 19th century as brewers began to produce beers that could be served in pubs after only a few days storage in cellars. Bitters grew out of pale ale but were usually deep bronze to copper in colour due to the use of slightly darker crystal malts.
Towards the end of the 19th century, brewers built large estates of tied pubs. They moved away from vatted beers stored for many months and developed running beers' that could be served after a few days' storage in pub cellars. Draught Mild was a running beer' along with a new type that was dubbed Bitter by drinkers. Bitter grew out of Pale Ale but was generally deep bronze to copper in colour due to the use of slightly darker malts such as crystal that give the beer fullness of palate. Best is a stronger version of Bitter but there is considerable crossover. Bitter falls into the 3.4% to 3.9% band, with Best Bitter 4% upwards but a number of brewers label their ordinary Bitters Best'. A further development of Bitter comes in the shape of Extra or Special Strong Bitters of 5% or more: familiar examples of this style include Fuller's ESB and Greene King Abbot. With ordinary Bitter, look for a spicy, peppery and grassy hop character, a powerful bitterness, tangy fruit and juicy and nutty malt. With Best and Strong Bitters, malt and fruit character will tend to dominate but hop aroma and bitterness are still crucial to the style, often achieved by late hopping' in the brewery or adding hops to casks as they leave for pubs.
This new style of pale, well-hopped and quenching beer developed in the 1980s as independent brewers attempted to win younger drinkers from heavily-promoted lager brands. The first in the field were Exmoor Gold and Hop Back Summer Lightning, though many micros and regionals now make their versions of the style. Strengths will range from 3.5% to 5.3%. The hallmark will be the biscuity and juicy malt character derived from pale malts, underscored by tart citrus fruit and peppery hops, often with the addition of hints of vanilla and cornflour. Golden ales are pale amber, gold, yellow or straw coloured and above all, such beers are quenching and served cool.
Pale Ale or IPA
India Pale Ale changed the face of brewing early in the 19th century. The new technologies of the Industrial Revolution enabled brewers to use pale malts to fashion beers that were genuinely golden or pale bronze in colour. First brewed in London and Burton-on-Trent for the colonial market, IPAs were strong in alcohol and high in hops: the preservative character of the hops helped keep the beers in good condition during long sea journeys. Beers with less alcohol and hops were developed for the domestic market and were known as Pale Ale. Today Pale Ale is usually a bottled version of Bitter, though historically the styles are different. Marston's Pedigree is an example of Burton Pale Ale, not Bitter, while the same brewery's Old Empire is a fascinating interpretation of a Victorian IPA. So-called IPAs with strengths of around 3.5% are not true to style. Look for juicy malt, citrus fruit and a big spicy, peppery bitter hop character, with strengths of 4% upwards.
Porter & Stout
Porter was a London style that turned the brewing industry upside down early in the 18th century. It was a dark brown beer - 19th-century versions became jet black - that was originally a blend of brown ale, pale ale and stale' or well-matured ale. It acquired the name Porter as a result of its popularity among London's street-market workers. At the time, a generic term for the strongest or stoutest beer in a brewery was stout.
The strongest versions of Porter were known as Stout Porter, reduced over the years to simply Stout. Such vast quantities of Porter and Stout flooded into Ireland from London and Bristol that a Dublin brewer named Arthur Guinness decided to fashion his own interpretation of the style. The beers were strong - 6% for Porter, 7% or 8% for Stout. Guinness in Dublin blended some unmalted roasted barley and in so doing produced a style known as Dry Irish Stout. Restrictions on making roasted malts in Britain during World War One led to the demise of Porter and Stout and left the market to the Irish. In recent years, smaller craft brewers in Britain have rekindled an interest in the style, though in keeping with modern drinking habits, strengths have been reduced. Look for profound dark and roasted malt character with raisin and sultana fruit, espresso or cappuccino coffee, liquorice and molasses, all underscored by hefty hop bitterness. Porters are complex in flavour, range from 4% to 6.5% and are typically black or dark brown; the darkness comes from the use of dark malts unlike stouts which use roasted malted barley. Stouts can be dry or sweet and range from 4% to 8% ABV.
Barley Wine is a style that dates from the 18th and 19th centuries when England was often at war with France and it was the duty of patriots, usually from the upper classes, to drink ale rather than Claret.
Barley Wine had to be strong - often between 10% and 12% -- and was stored for prodigious periods of as long at 18 months or two years. When country houses had their own small breweries, it was often the task of the butler to brew ale that was drunk from cut-glass goblets at the dining table. The biggest-selling Barley Wine for years was Whitbread's 10.9% Gold Label. Bass's No 1 Barley Wine (10.5%) is occasionally brewed in Burton-on-Trent, stored in cask for 12 months and made available to CAMRA beer festivals. Fuller's Vintage Ale (8.5%) is a bottle-conditioned version of its Golden Pride and is brewed with different varieties of malts and hops every year.
Many micro-brewers now produce their interpretations of the style. Expect massive sweet malt and ripe fruit of the pear drop, orange and lemon type, with darker fruits, chocolate and coffee if darker malts are used. Hop rates are generous and produce bitterness and peppery, grassy and floral notes.
Old Ale recalls the type of beer brewed before the Industrial Revolution, stored for months or even years in unlined wooden vessels known as tuns. The beer would pick up some lactic sourness as a result of wild yeasts, lactobacilli and tannins in the wood. The result was a beer dubbed stale' by drinkers: it was one of the components of the early, blended Porters. The style has re-emerged in recent years, due primarily to the fame of Theakston's Old Peculier, Gale's Prize Old Ale and Thomas Hardy's Ale, the last saved from oblivion by O'Hanlon's Brewery in Devon. Old Ales, contrary to expectation, do not have to be especially strong: they can be no more than 4% alcohol, though the Gale's and O'Hanlon's versions are considerably stronger. Neither do they have to be dark: Old Ale can be pale and burst with lush sappy malt, tart fruit and spicy hop notes. Darker versions will have a more profound malt character with powerful hints of roasted grain, dark fruit, polished leather and fresh tobacco. The hallmark of the style remains a lengthy period of maturation, often in bottle rather than bulk vessels. Old Ales typically range from 4% to 6.5%.
Historically, Scottish beers tend to be darker, sweeter and less heavily hopped than English and Welsh ales: a cold climate demands warming beers. But many of the new craft breweries produce beers lighter in colour and with generous hop rates. The traditional, classic styles are Light, low in strength and so-called even when dark in colour, also known as 60/-, Heavy or 70/-, Export or 80/- and a strong Wee Heavy, similar to a barley wine, and also labelled 90/-. In the 19th century, beers were invoiced according to strength, using the now defunct currency of the shilling.
We define light bitters as any bitter with an ABV of 3.4% or lower or an original gravity (OG) of 1034 or lower. By light bitters, we generally mean low gravity or low strength, but they do also tend to be lighter in colour than stronger bitters.
Originally these beers were most prevalent in the West Country where they were colloquially known as Boy's Bitters. Other names that have been used over the years are Family Ales or Luncheon Ales.
Recent years have seen a reduction in the number of traditional West Country light bitters, most notably the tragic demise of Palmer's Bridport Bitter, although St Austell IPA and Arkells 2B still fly the flag. Other parts of the country have seen the reintroduction of lower strength family ales such as Weltons Pride and Joy, mainly from small independent brewers.