Craft and Brewing English

In my last post, dealing with a particularly good Canadian example of Czech pilsner beer, I mentioned en passant that craft brewing might pay closer attention to mastering the palate of English ale.

By this I meant mainly bitter or pale ale, but mild ale included, and strong ale. I’m talking about fidelity to style, not technical brewing results, as for the most part the craft examples are good, even excellent beers.

Craft porter and stout, which are not ale but share its top-fermentation quality, have done better here. I would argue for a time they trumped beers of that name in the UK and Ireland, but that is another subject.

Recently on Twitter Jeff Alworth made the point that English ales often seem outside the comfort zone of craft brewers. Many chimed in with their view, largely in agreement from my survey, but offering different takes.

First, I should state the obvious, of course sometimes you will run into an excellent example of North American, English-style beer. I recall an exemplary pint at Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, California, another in San Francisco at Magnolia Brewing.

A few craft brewers specialize in producing English-style beers, and their beers can be expected to shine. I recall one such example in Quebec province, outside Montreal a few years ago.


(Pictured is the 1975 Beers of Britain by Warren Knock and Conal Gregory).

But setting these cases apart, as well as historical recreations with their studied approach, craft brewing seems to prefer (American) India Pale Ales, Helles and pilsner, saisons and wheat styles, sours and wild beers, etc., all to a high degree of authenticity – not invariably of course, but frequently.

Lisa Grimm noted how British ales were popular at an early stage of craft brewing development. I’d agree with that, often these were called amber, a term that has returned to the UK to designate traditional bitter ales.

These for the most part, in my view, did not taste really English, but were “craft” in nature, at best sometimes with a “trans-Atlantic” note.

In one sense, the best accolade craft beer ever accorded to English brewing was India Pale Ale, and pale ale before. The nomenclature derives from English brewing, and of course top-fermentation is used.

But from the get-go, exemplars like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Anchor’s Liberty Ale, and Stone India Pale Ale charted their own path, indeed have been influential in the UK and around the world. This resulted mainly from the unique taste of American hop types released since the early 1970s, Cascade was the first with its grapefruit signature.

What are the reasons the English taste is relatively rare on the ground? I would list these factors:

  1. English ales shine best when cask-conditioned. That way of dispensing beer has never greatly appealed to North American drinkers. It has its devotees, but it is hardly typical of beer dispense here.
  2. English hop culture has declined in recent decades, so the famous local varieties, especially Kent Goldings and Fuggles, while still available, aren’t as widespread in use as the fashionable American citric or tropical-tasting hops, Germany’s famous productions, or fine Czech hops.
  3. English ales became to a degree an amorphous category when fizzy, chilled, restrained-in-taste keg beer emerged in the UK. This muddied the category, which increased when distinctive North American hop flavours started to appear in English beers.
  4. Whether bottled, cask, or keg, hop rates in Britain in the last generation, speaking generally, are relatively modest. Even in the 1970s craft pioneer Fritz Maytag was struck for example by the modest quantities used for dry-hopping bitter ale.
  5. Such beers, when emulated in craft conditions and served cold and fizzy, do not show to best advantage. In contrast, Helles and pilsener retained a unity of style, so the path of emulation was clearer.
  6. Traditional English ale may be harder to brew than first seems the case. In the Twitter chat Hugh Huish made that point, and retired Fuller brewer John Keeling emphasized the importance of yeast and fermentation.

I think it’s a case of “all the above” but this very discussion is useful to point up what many feel is a lacuna in craft brewing today.

Craft brewing is ever nimble. The time is nigh to brew a wave of high-quality, traditional English-tasting brews, and extend where possible the cask-conditioning tradition. On pure palate grounds, the development is justified.

There is no taste in the world like the yeasty-mineral or flowery swoosh of a good English ale, with all its various sub-divisions of Burton and so forth. On gastronomic grounds alone their widespread availability here is well-justified.





7 thoughts on “Craft and Brewing English”

  1. Hi Gary,

    I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently. When I first started homebrewing, I did so to try and (re)create some beers that I wasn’t readily finding here in Toronto. Milds in particular. This turned out to be quite the challenge to do well and I quickly gravitated to the relatively easy and enjoyable west coast IPA style! Once I had improved my chops, I started on continental lagers as a new challenge and early success at Helles, Marzans and Kellerbiers, that I not only enjoy, but also am proud of, has lead me away from conquest of a good English bitter. I think I should revisit.

    I obviously don’t need to remind you that Granite has been a stalwart of these styles, albeit using their distinctive Ringwood yeast. However, if you haven’t been tipped off, L’Amère à Boire in Montreal has for ages had a really good cask bitter on regular offer that is worth seeking out. At least they did before the plague. I hope they are still around when I get to go out and play again…

    Also, to your other posts on local lagers. I’m finding Great Lakes’ Stage 17 pretty impressive. It’s a very straight up and clean, but balanced IMHO ‘Pilsner’. I think it’s a limited release though. I suggest you seek it out soon. I’d be interested in your thoughts on it.

    • Hi Rein:

      Thanks for these thoughts, and the various tips. I’ll revisit/check these as the chance presents. I didn’t intend to make an exhaustive list of the most authentic North American examples of craft including in Ontario. I haven’t tried them all for one thing. But speaking generally, I would say a certain English taste, particularly as I associated it with formerly dominant breweries in UK like Courage, or in the surviving family breweries which often still use multi-strain yeasts, proprietary ones in effect, hasn’t usually been encountered here. Most English-style craft here in my experience – and they can be fine beers – would fall more into the trans-Atlantic camp.

      I’m talking about emulation at a level, say, Godspeed gets for its Czech-style lager and some other examples I’ve been discussing.

      Of course too, these are matters of opinion, and I offer mine, fwiw, but it seems many took a similar view in the Twitter discussion I mentioned. Thanks again.


  2. I think you are right about #1, and to dig more deeply, pulling cask ale is a skill that needs to be taught.

    Guinness has spent millions teaching even small bars in the US how to serve their stout correctly, but I don’t know who would go to a 20 seat bar in Fargo Nirth Dakota to teach about serving cask ale.

    • A challenge certainly, maybe impossible. But two points. Cask does not have to become widespread for a truly English-tasting ale tradition to grow. Bottled/canned and keg beer can do it along with that, if well-hopped with the correct malts, to taste good cold in other words.

      The other thing is, in my time I’ve seen sour beers reach acceptance I’d never have dreamed possible 30 and 40 years ago. Kind of ditto for cloudy beer, so …

      But point taken. American hops are so well-accepted too, it may be difficult to swerve away in any meaningful way.

  3. For me it’s the yeast that makes the difference. There needs a be a yeast with character. English style beers should be balanced. None of the ingredients (water, malt hops, yeast) will dominate but all of them need to add something. Craft brewers tend to use clean tasting yeasts or go the other way and use yeasts that provide most of the flavour.


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