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Some of the great ales of Britain.
Some of the great ales of Britain.
Some of the great ales of Britain.

Let’s get the most common gripes about temperature and foam out of the way. British beer (which should more correctly be called ale, to ensure no one confuses it with lager) works best at a temperature that is not going to make the outside of a glass all sweaty. That’s how you get the full flavor of the drink, much like with red wine, and that can be a surprise for anyone expecting an icy glass of cold suds.

And it’s not supposed to be fizzy either. The secondary fermentation of an ale takes place in the barrel from which it is served, without the need to artificially pep it up with carbon dioxide, so any bubbles and effervescence come from the fermentation process. Naturally brewers are quite proud of this quality, hence the name Real Ale.

The other nasty shock for any unwary traveler entering a British pub is that there are so many varieties, so many different kinds of ale, that it’s hard to wander in, ask for a pint and know that you’re getting a representative sample of top quality British booze.

So, leaving aside the great history of India Pale Ales because they’re already an American institution, here are the other categories of ale you’ll need to be aware of, and some commonly-agreed brands to watch out for. This represents a tiny, weenie tip of a flipping enormous iceberg:

For drinkers of lager, the golden ales are those that will seem the most familiar, being yellowish in hue (or rather amber and golden, if you like your drinks to be more poetical) and kind of, y’know, lagery. They’re a recent innovation in real ale circles, and are having to fight their corner against some stiff opposition from the older and more established beers. Typically their percentage of alcohol by volume is around 4 to 5.5%.

Keep an eye out for:

One of the qualities ale-drinkers prize in a beer is a decent tang or bite to the flavor. So while these ales are traditionally quite light, hoppy and malty, they also have a bit of a kick to them. Bitters vary in color from dark brown to light copper, and tend not to be too dense or alcoholic, with an ABV of around 3.5 to 4.5%.

Keep an eye out for:

Best bitter
Basically like bitter, but more so. So it’s more robust, stronger, and with more of a malty tang. This does not mean that bitter is considered an inferior drink, however. Typical ABV of best is from 4-4.5%, with strong bitters (similar but even more so) going up as high as 4.5–5.5%

Keep an eye out for: 

These names have little connection to the strength of the beer itself (typically around the same as a bitter), but the flavor, which tends to be a lot smoother and sweeter than bitter, with the distinct aroma of hops and a deeply roasted flavor, especially in the darker varieties. The term mild simply describes younger beers than bitters, having not been aged in the barrel, and is often used interchangeably with the term brown ale.

Keep an eye out for:

Stout is black, black like a goth’s unused swimsuit, and has a particularly bitter taste—created by roasting barley—that is offset by the creaminess of the head. It’s closely related to porter—the most famous example of which is Guinness—which tends to have maltier overtones and is usually either black or dark brown. ABV can range from 4% up to 8%.

Keep an eye out for:

See more:
Junk Food Day: 5 Salty British Snacks Every American Should Try
Five British Rockers Who Have Their Own Beer
Sunday Roast in a Bottle
Mint Julep Day: Five Foods the British Only Consume Once a Year

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By Fraser McAlpine