Pub ale or pub Bitter?

Just Make it Proper

There has been discussion in social media recently about a pub ale phenomenon that is, well, brewing in the United States. Some say a trend is manifest to sell an English-style, lower gravity (c. 4%) ale as “pub ale”. Some feel the term will be used to describe a pub’s basic ale offering, whether an English brewing approach is followed or not.

If the trend centres on an all-English malt and hopped brew I’m all for it, but I’ve had too many tepid examples – including in the U.K. – to be much excited.

I don’t mind the low ABV, but too many such beers show excessive caution both for hopping level and final gravity.* One may think this odd given the vigorous hopping evident in IPA over the years including in West Coast, latter-day East Coast, and Black IPA, but the idea is widespread in craft culture here that traditional English beer is “mild” in taste.

This idea derives, in fairness, from modern-day English brewing particularly export “keg” examples (filtered, pasteurised) and bottled or canned UK beer, which is a form of keg beer. This reflects to be a sure a world-wide trend in industrial brewing to reduce hop levels, which craft brewing has only partially corrected.

So all to say, if the trend bruited results in hopping with an eye more to historical levels, especially 19th and early 20th century, and finishing to a gravity where you can taste the malts, I’m in favour. I’ve called for it repeatedly over the years in these pages, most recently a few months ago.

On the marketing level, a discussion continues why the term “bitter” and its variants, such as special bitter, need replacement by euphemistic formulations such as pub ale. Once again the UK has lead the way with its “amber ale” phenomenon: most of the old-line, bitter-labeled brands have been replaced by amber formulations.

(This is not quite the same as the anodyne “pub ale”, as “amber ale” or “amber beer” have a long, intermittent history in British brewing usage, but it’s broadly the same issue).

Certainly in export markets, British brewers were alert early on to attune names to market expectations. Boddington’s Pub Ale, a good seller in many markets, is a stronger version of Boddington’s Bitter marketed for export since 1993.

Back in the 1980s the now defunct regional brewer Greenall Whitley sold a Cheshire English Pub Beer in the U.S. I recall it especially in the Northeastern market.

My recollection is of a good solid brew, yet I notice in his 1982 The Pocket Guide to Beer, legendary beer author Michael Jackson gave it a low score, adding the beer “has little to do with the resonance of its name”.

In the recess of my mind, something suggests the Cheshire English Pub Beer may have been a lager, but I cannot find any substantiation. I suspect Jackson wrote up the beer in the also-now-defunct American beer magazine All About Beer, but its archive is no longer extant, or at least publicly available I understand.

Certainly in the 1980s Greenall’s marketed an ale as such in the U.S., Chester Golden Ale. It is mentioned in the 1988 Analysis of Beer prepared for assay purposes by the State of Connecticut. The Cheshire English Pub Beer is there too.

 

 

Were these the same beer, differently branded? Their abv was not quite the same. The Golden Ale was 5.43% and the English Pub Beer, 5%. They may have been different ales, or the same with the Pub Beer lowered to 5% for that branding.

Or possibly again, the Pub Beer may have been a lager, a version of cleverly-named Grünhalle Lager, brewed by Warrington-based Greenall’s at the time. The self-descriptive Beer-Coasters site has a fine collection of Grünhalle labels and coasters.

Included is an amusing series in comedic pidgin (Germanified) English. Either way, lager or ale, the Cheshire English Pub beer had a fine, evocative label, as you see in this Untappd page.

It sold plenty of units, I recall seeing the beer for years in specialty retailers. I’d buy it again just for the label, pace St. Michael of beer writing.

Whether pub bitter, pub ale, pub beer, is down to marketing needs. I defer to the business call of the brewers on that. Just make it taste right, proper, if you will.

*Often too low, for my taste.

 

 

 

 

9 thoughts on “Pub ale or pub Bitter?”

  1. Happy New Year to you.

    I think a piece of the blandness is due to a fair share of craft brewers having a pretty neutral house yeast that might work well with beers with a lot of hop and/or malt flavor. But neutral yeast doesn’t do much to enhance and contribute flavors to a Bitter the way a more complex British yeast will.

    Reply
    • Same to you Clark, thanks. Yeast could be part of it, not just here but there, for the many small independent brewers. I tasted many bitters from them at two CAMRA events and felt the beers generally unassertive in hop character (with some notable exceptions). The family brewers may get more mileage from the heritage yeasts, but finally too I had a similar impression – in general. The exceptional beers I did have, and know UK brewing is capable of with ditto here, encourage me to think more character will emerge in years to come. Historical brewing is one path. That Fuller Double Stout I think it was called issued some years ago was amazing, a c. 1900 recreation. Just one example.

      Reply
  2. “too many such beers show excessive caution both for hopping level and final gravity.”

    I can understand that as a matter of personal preference, but to some extent it’s wanting British bitters to be something they’re not. They have an alcoholic strength of 4% or below because they arose from a culture of pint drinking and sessions and, at least in the post-WW2 era, most never have been particularly bitter, although they do have a wide variety of flavours. That’s just how they are – they’re meant for quaffing, not sipping and savouring.

    Reply
    • I think it’s two different things we are talking though. The fact that they are this way now, does not mean this is or should be forever. It is not a fixed datum or baseline. British beer has always evolved, as beer historians generally agree. I think if the beers evolved further, or back, closer to their roots they would attract new adherents including those enthralled with American craft beer. The 1870 AK Bitter’s I brewed with Amsterdam Brewing in Toronto showed how impactful a traditional English taste could be. I have read similar impressions by other beer historians tasting their own or another’s recreations.

      Reply
      • Just to add, the decline in sales of the cask ale category in recent years suggests to me it is caught between the rock of mass market lager and hard place of craft. If cask beer, meaning generally cask bitter, was returned more to its roots it might well revive the category.

        Reply
  3. If there is a nascent trend of offering more English style ales (whatever they call them) in America, I’m all for it, and not just because English styles are my favorite. We need more diversity in beer, with the morass of NEIPAs and American IPAs dominating the scene.

    That said, when I lived in England my experience with beer flavors (this was in the mid-2000s so just before Greene King shut down a lot of extremely good local beers) suggested a gamut of hopping rates, with many beers being bitter and hoppy and others not so much.
    Frustratingly, several bitters were anything but and a few pale ales were very bitter–the complicated history of beer naming in England made beer styles kind of useless as a guide for a new beer.
    But I’d say the real key difference between English beers and American is in the type of hops used more than the hop schedules per se–with a few exceptions (Green King’s East Coast, St Austell for instance), most of the beers stuck with domestic hops, and that’s where the real difference comes in: more earthy, floral, berry notes with the English hops compared to the citrusy notes of American hops. Not too fond of oranges and grapefruits, the English hops really spoke to me–it was really tasting those with the light oxidation from cask ale that turned me into a beer drinker.

    Reply
    • Thanks, I agree about the keynote flavours of domestic English hops (landrace varieties or long established hybrids like Target). But both in craft and the few family or regional brewers left often this flavour, while present, seemed insufficiently forward, is my main point. Ditto for craft emulations here even where such English hops are used – and often they aren’t, a North American hop might be used as substitute to a greater or lesser degree of fidelity.

      This results (in UK) from a long evolution but would benefit from being rolled back to historically higher levels, imo. I think the beers would stand much better against the NEIPAS and IPAs in that light, which themselves represent more accurately the hop levels of former times but not the hop types, as Cascade and the various New World hops popular today were developed mostly since about 1970.

      There are exceptions in the UK, I recall one craft “strong bitter” at GBBF that was perfect – but most struck me as rather timid on the hops even in cask form (so not filtered or pasteurised, where lower hop levels tend to show better than in keg of bottled and canned beers).

      I’m sure their clientele like them well enough, and I’m not saying they are bad beers, but from the point of an English revival especially here, a greater emphasis should be placed on (traditional, again) hop aroma, flavour and bitterness. The current profiles are fine but a greater intensity or impact is needed, in other words, and generally higher finishing gravities.

      The results can be superb as I know from historical recreations tasted and a few current examples as mentioned. If I might be more specific, the level of hop aroma and taste in Pilsner Urquell, say, is a good model. If one combines Fuggles and Golding, or Target and Golding, or some other trad combination of hops to that level (at least) of hop intensity (aroma, taste, finish) the results would be superb.

      Reply
  4. Another label for insipid ale is “Smooth”. I first noticed it (Tetley Smooth, possibly) on a billboard when viewing a televised English Premier League match (unusual now to see an ale advertised in the Premier League).

    The difference in the alcohol content for the Greenall ale (5.35%) and beer (5%) at that time might have been due to some US state laws (OR, for example) limiting alcohol content to 4% wt. (about 5% vol.) in malt beverages labeled beer , with ales, stouts, malt liquors allowed more.

    I think your analysis of the trend toward more highly attenuated beer is correct, and I don’t like to results either. These days I’m regularly drinking a mainstream American pale ale (Sierra Nevada) that, 30 years ago, I thought was too dry. Today, when compared to most of the products available, it seems relatively full bodied.

    Reply
    • Thanks Arnold. Chester Ale was actually 5.43% but point taken still. Possibly too tolerance levels permitted variation up to .5% abv, although I would need to check that.

      The attenuation thing is a kind of chicken and egg. A brewer once told me, who had worked for an industrial brewery, that attenuations lengthened initially as a way to save money. They got the same abv from less fermentable material. And then, consumers get used to that, so…

      Although clearly a point will be reached where many consumers stand up finally to protest. One can argue this prompted, in part at least, the craft beer revival Interesting point about Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I will buy one soon and give opinion.

      Happy New Year, and to Clark, Michael, and all our commenters.

      Gary

      Reply

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