British and North American ales represent a diverse range of styles ranging from milds to barley wines and bitters to imperial IPAs. All of the styles in this category originated in England but have since been adopted by American brewers, with noticeable differences between English and American versions. While English examples of these beers typically feature a subtle English hop and malt balance, American examples in this category are more hop-forward and feature the complexity of American hop varietals.
British ale styles captured the imagination of the craft brewing revolution in the US more than those of any other country. Much of this may owe to the close cultural ties between the US and Great Britain, though a large factor is undoubtedly that British ales lend themselves relatively easily to home brewing, the starting point for many now successful brewers. High quality home brewed Germanic or Bohemian lagers are a rare species. We formally separate these styles out from the dark Stouts and Porters, which are also British and North American ale styles.
Major British and North American Ale Styles
Many North American brewers are now producing ales that are identified by the term "Amber Ale." This is a more modern, non-traditional style, and many of these beers borrow heavily from the characteristics associated with more classical styles such as "Pale Ales" or "Bitters." Amber ales are light to medium bodied and can be anywhere from light copper to light brown in hue. Flavorwise they can vary from generic and quaffable to serious craft brewed styles with extravagant hoppy aromas and full malt character. Typically amber ales are quite malty but not heavily caramelized in flavor. For our purposes amber ales will also include ales commonly identified as "Red Ales," and "American Ales" as, from the consumers viewpoint, the dividing line between these styles can often be a more a marketing concern than a consistently observed brewing convention.
American Golden Ale
These brews are golden to light copper in color with a more subtle overall character and lighter body than typical Pale Ales. English ale fruitiness will probably not be observed. However, the most important qualification is that they are brewed domestically and will have less body and hop and malt character than a pale ale from the same brewery.
"Barley wine" is the evocative name coined by British brewers to describe an extremely potent ale that can range from golden copper to dark brown in color. They are characterized by extravagant caramel malt flavors and bittering hops that prevent the malt sweetness from cloying. Rich and viscous, they can have in their most complex manifestations winey flavor profiles, with a hint of sweetness. Some examples are vintage dated and can improve with extended bottle age. These powerful brews are classically sold in small "nip" bottles and can be consumed after dinner or with dessert. The style has become popular among US craft brewers who often produce them as winter specialties.
Black & Tan
Black & Tan was originally conceived as British pub concoction of Stout and IPA mixed in a pint pot. Variations on the similar are still blended in some English pubs but in the US the term is used by a small number of brands to loosely refer to a dark amber to brown colored beer with a malt accent, relatively light in alcohol and low in hop character.
Bitter and ESB
Bitter is an English specialty, and very much an English term, generally denoting the standard ale--the "session" beer --in a English brewers range. They are characterized by a fruitiness, light to medium body and an accent on hop aromas more than hop bitters. Colors range from golden to copper. Despite the name they are not particularly bitter. Indeed, British brewed "bitters" will often be less bitter than US craft brewed amber ales. A fuller bodied bitter is labeled as "Extra Special Bitter" (ESB). These weightier versions of bitter often stand up better to the rigors of travel overseas than the lower gravity standard versions. An important element of faithful bitters are English yeast cultures used in fermentation. These impart a fruity, mildly estery character that should be noted in examples of the style. Bitters are now widely emulated in North America, sometimes with domestically grown hops imparting a rather more assertive character than seen in traditional English bitters.
Cream Ale is a North American specialty that is somewhat of a hybrid in style. Despite the name, many brewers use both ale and lager yeasts for fermentation, or more often just lager yeasts. This style of beer is fermented like an ale at warm temperatures, but then stored at cold temperatures for a period of time, much as a lager would be. The resultant brew has the unchallenging crisp characteristics of a light pale lager, but is endowed with a hint of the aromatic complexities that ales provide. Pale in color, they are generally more heavily carbonated and more heavily hopped than light lagers.
English-Style Brown Ale
The precise definition of English Brown Ale would depend on where you are in England. It is nowadays much more closely associated with Northern England, specifically Tadcaster and Newcastle, home to Newcastle Brown Ale. These medium-bodied reddish-brown beers are malt accented with a nutty character, a gentle fruitiness, and low bitterness. Alcohol is moderate, a maximum of 5%ABV. The much less prevalent Southern English style, not seen abroad, is much darker in color, sweeter on the palate, and made in a lighter style. English style brown ales of the former type have become very popular with US brewers, no doubt for the same reason as they took hold in England. Namely they offer great drinkability.
India Pale Ale (IPA)
India Pale Ales are deep gold to amber in color, and are usually characterized by floral hop aromas and a distinctive hop bitterness on the finish. India Pale Ales were originally brewed by British brewers in the 19th Century, when British troops and colonizers depended upon supplies of beer shipped from England. Standard ales did not survive the journey, hence brewers developed high gravity, highly hopped ales that survived shipment in casks to their largest market, India. This style, probably not anywhere near as bitter as it was when destined for India, continues to be brewed in a toned down manner in the UK and is undergoing a mini-revival at present. However, US craft brewers have claimed the style as their own, and often brew them with assertive Pacific Northwestern hop varieties that give such examples a hugely aromatic hop accent.
Irish Style Ale
Irish ales are characterized by their reddish color, malt accents, slightly sweet palate, and low hopping. They are not generally bitter if true to style and in this they reflect the historical fact that the Irish have never taken to huge amounts of hops in their traditional beers. In their native land they have long played second fiddle to stout, and prior to that porter. Lacking a truly indigenous character, many versions being revived in the USA owe more to Celtic marketing than to a distinct character, although the color and high drinkability are the usual reference point.
Mild ale is a traditional style of English ale that is characterized by darker colors, sweetish malt flavors, subtle hopping levels all within a lower alcohol frame (typically 3.5%). Their purpose is to allow the drinker to get a full quotient of flavor in a "session" beer--a trick to which English ale brewing lends itself readily. In the 1940’s Mild was more popular than bitter in English pubs, though it is less common now. US craft brewers occasionally pay homage to this style.
Pale ales tend to be fuller-bodied with a more assertive character on the palate the standard bitter in a English brewers portfolio. In England it is generally a bottled, as opposed to being sold on draft. Despite the name, pale ales are not pale but, in fact, more of an amber hue. The original designation was in reference to this style of beer being paler than the brown and black beers which were more popular at the time of the styles inception. In the US pale ale styles have become one of the benchmarks by which craft brewers are judged. The US version of pale ale is crisper and generally much more hoppy. Indeed this style is well suited to assertive domestic Pacific Northwestern hop varieties that give the US examples inimitable character. A good US example should be available on tap in any bar worth frequenting for its beer selection.
Scottish ales are typically full-bodied and malty, with some of the classic examples being dark brown in color. They are more lowly hopped than the English counterparts and often have a slightly viscous and sweet caramel malt character due to incomplete fermentation. Scottish style ales can be found in far flung corners of the world where faithful versions are brewed, this being a legacy of its popularity in the British Empire. In the US many craft brewers produce a Scottish style ale.The "Export" versions produced by Scottish brewers, the type mostly encountered in the US, are considerably stronger and more malty than the standard versions made available to Scottish beer drinkers. Some Scottish ales feature a slight, peat like smokiness, but this is not a defining characteristic of the style.
Strong Ales are sometimes referred to as old ales, stock ales or winter warmers. These beers are higher alcohol versions (typically between 5.5-7%ABV) of pale ales, though not as robust or alcoholic as barley wines. Usually a deep amber color, these brews generally have a sweet malty palate and a degree of fruitiness. If "bottled conditioned," strong ales can improve for some years in bottle, in some cases eventually obtaining Sherry-like notes.
Winter Ales. Spiced winter ales are popular hybrids among US craft brewers. Typically they are strong ales that have had some spice added during the brewing process. True to their name, they make ideal sipping beers with which to ward off winters chill and get a dose of seasonal spices. This style is usually brewed before Christmas and brewers frequently make annual adjustments to their often secret recipes in an effort to obtain that perfect symbiosis between spices, hops and malt.
Imperial or Double IPA
Imperial IPAs or Double IPAs are distinguished by their prominent hop cone aromas, flavors, and bitterness that is intense and assertive. Colors range from deep gold to deep amber. These intense hop characteristics should be balanced by a rich malt backbone, mid-to-high levels notes, and fruity esters. The are medium-to-full bodied in weight and notes of astringency and hop haze are accepted. Depending on the varieties of hops being used, the drinker can experience a wide range of hop flavors including tart citrus peels, pepper, and earthy pine-like notes. Imperial IPA’s have an ABV between 7.5 and 10.5%. These ales represent an extreme use of the hop flower in brewing and a challenge to the brewer in terms of balance and drinkability.
Barrel Aged Ales
Any classic or hybrid top fermenting ale that has spent time in a new or used Sherry, bourbon, Scotch, port, wine, or other barrels to impart the specific flavors of the chosen wood or liquid that was contained previously to the ale. The intention of barrel aging is to create a more unique and complex ale from the marriage of liquid and wood while maintaining a balance of flavor, mouthfeel and aroma. Color ranges from deep golden to deep mahogany and alcohol can range anywhere from 6% to 9.0% and higher depending on the initial style of the ale.
Black IPA or American-style Black Ale
American style black ales are dark brown to black in color and range in alcohol from 6-8%. This style is also known as Cascadian dark ale. These beers feature an intense hop aroma and flavor that is balanced by roasted chocolate and caramel malt notes. Originating in the Pacific Northwest, this relatively new style has quickly gained popularity amongst US craft brewers and IPA fans alike.
White IPAs are clear or hazy, golden-colored beers that are a hybrid of the hop-forward American India Pale Ale style and the traditional Belgian wit style. The flavors and aromas of these beers feature both the yeasty spice profile of Belgian wits and the citrusy and/or resinous aromatic hop profile of American IPAs, with medium-to-high hop bitterness. They are usually available only in summer months, but many more are becoming year-round brews as this style grows in popularity.