The taste of modern British pale ale – in cask-conditioned form the classic “bitter” – varies among brewers in its homeland. Despite this desirable variety in palate, there are markers.
I would describe them as malty, often with a caramel tone; flowery or bitter-herbal, from the hops; fruity or mineral-like, from the yeast.
Generally this bitter ale is not strongly citric in the way we associate with IPA of craft brewing. A famous English hop, Golding, can offer a lemony tone but is noticeably different to Cascade, Centennial, Citra, and other foundational hops of the craft renaissance.
The true British taste is rarely encountered on these shores, in my experience. That is, most craft brewers choose not to brew it. They work in other directions and in the process have created a vibrant craft industry, but to my mind an opportunity is missed by not giving greater attention to a classic resource.
Some craft brewers do market of course an English-style ale, or Irish or Scotch type which is related in parentage. These can be excellent but only rarely again does the true “pub taste” emerge.
(More fidelity is achieved in porter and stout but that is a relatively small part of the beer market; I’m speaking here of an equivalent to classic pub bitter).
As for imports, cask-conditioned beer is almost never imported due to its fragility. A bottled equivalent is sometimes sold – unpasteurized, unfiltered – but these seem rarely to reach our markets.
We do get pasteurized, fizzy, British and Irish beer. It comes bottled, canned, and even on draft, meant to be served cold. Valid on its own terms, this form rarely achieves the character of cask- and bottle-matured beer.
Draught bitter as a category doesn’t exclusively use English hops, for which the crop is small today. It uses enough of them, usually, to impart a keynote. Also, hops are often used like Target, Challenger, Nugget, and Galena that fit the British profile albeit developed in the last century with some U.S. lineage.
Classic English varieties like Fuggle and Golding, also Styrian Goldings (related to Fuggle despite the name), are still grown. Used alone or with a simpatico type as mentioned and the right malts – in sufficient quantities – the true British character emerges.*
Occasionally one can find a letter perfect British style made here. An example is pictured, made by Mille Iles in Terrebonne, Quebec, a 30-minute drive from Montreal. I drank it at the warm end of cellar temperature. This was perfect to deliver the full effect especially when some carbonation had lifted.
The beer is evidently unpasteurized, and unfiltered, which adds to the authenticity. The choice is yours how to pour it, I poured the first half which emerged crystal clear, the second half was lightly veiled as seen above.
The brewery calls it Irish Red Ale but Irish and English pale ales are, in the view of many, really one style. Irish-style, frequently made by craft brewers with New World hops, accentuates the russet colour but a lot of British bitter has a similar hue.
One could also call it extra-special bitter. In fact, it reminded me very much of Director’s Bitter, Fuller’s ESB, and Ruddles County Ale as experienced in British pubs 30 years ago. It’s that type, for those who know, which means, very good!
Mille Iles also markets a paler beer styled English Best Bitter, so the Irish designation perhaps helped to differentiate the two.
The Irish Red Ale also has a fruity note (non-tropical), probably from an English yeast used. Every element, in sum, was in perfect synch.
Montreal is not ideal to visit at the moment. Pandemic restrictions. As soon as I can get back I will get more Irish Red, in fact all of the brewery’s English Series. Au fur et à mesure…
N.B. Mille Iles, run by two brothers, was founded only three years ago. It has definitely made a mark with brewing of this quality.
*See Comment added which clarifies some points re the hops.