Dave McLean on English Ales

Dave McLean fell in love with craft beer 20 years ago in Boston. He still remembers his first, eye-opening pint of cask-conditioned beer at the now-defunct Commonwealth Brewing Co. The resulting home-brewing hobby mushroomed into an obsession and he completed the Master Brewers Program at UC Davis, under the tutelage of Dr. Michael Lewis, in 1994. He built and opened Magnolia Pub & Brewery in 1997 and Alembic in 2006. He continues to explore his obsession with brewing cask-conditioned beer and English bitters at Magnolia, and supplements that by sourcing a few bottle-conditioned examples from across the pond at Alembic.

English Ales: A (Quixotic) Quest for the Perfect Pint

Artisan beer has entered a Golden Age in this country. There's a beer for every occasion, from the most thirst-quenching "lawnmower beer" to the most complex, assertive, and envelope-pushing expressions from the cutting edge of craft brewing.

As usual, the American melting pot has afforded us a unique opportunity to draw from multiple inspirational traditions without being restricted by firm adherence to any one of them. It's a lively time in the craft beer world, with regional styles emerging and creativity explored through barrel-aging, unusual fermentation regimes, and a surprising array of ingredients. This dovetails nicely with the rapidly exploding appreciation of beer as a versatile pairing beverage, presenting an always-growing set of possibilities.

But this is an ode to a family of beers that sometimes gets overlooked among the powerful, bracing hop monsters and mind-boggling, Belgian-inspired curiosities--the humble British bitter, and its cousins, mild and brown ales.

Despite the name, bitters aren't so bitter, especially when compared to modern pales and IPAs. Hop character, including some bitterness, is indeed evident, but never out-of-balance or harsh. A pint of bitter is a window into the heart and soul of British brewing, which includes the use of heirloom malts like the legendary Maris Otter, earthy hops from Kent, warm fermentations with estery, fruity yeasts, and mineral-rich water that adds a crisp snap to the mouthfeel. All of these components are interpreted through a lens of subtlety and balance-a bitter is about nuanced complexity and tasting everything.

Brewers work within a range of subcategories to produce many different expressions of bitters, milds, and browns. So-called "ordinary" bitters range from gold to copper in color and present medium bitterness, light body, and medium residual malt sweetness. This is the smooth, refreshing, granddaddy of session beers. They go down easy and you can drink more than two without thinking much about what you're doing next.

Special or Best bitters are more robust, with medium body and residual malt sweetness, and with a little more hop bitterness and aroma evident. Extra Special Bitters feature medium to strong hop characteristics, rich flavor, and full body. They range from pale amber to deep copper in color. Malt flavor dominates the flavor profile of Mild ales, whether pale or dark, pushing hop notes into the backseat. The same is true of Brown ales, in which roast, toast, and caramel notes show up more prominently.

Amazingly, every beer we're talking about here lands somewhere between 3-5% alcohol. British brewers (and those inspired by them) do so much with so little, crafting delightful conversations by showing some restraint with ingredient amounts. This is the opposite of beating the drinker over the head with a bale of hops (not that there's anything wrong with that).

All of these English ale expressions beg to be served in their traditional manner: cask-conditioned. Naturally carbonated to a lower level than most beer (through a re-fermentation in the cask) and then served at a cellar temperature, cask-conditioned bitters are sublime. Served directly from such a cask, or pulled to the bar through a hand pump, these beers are smooth, pleasantly refreshing, and surprisingly complex. They are often "dry-hopped" right before the cask is sealed, delivering an unparalleled, bright, fresh hop aroma to dance expertly with the other flavor notes.

But freshness is paramount in cask-conditioned bitters. Cask beer is alive and dynamic. A meter starts ticking as soon as the cask is pierced and there are only a handful of days from that point in which to find the beer at its peak of quality. Some cask ales are best the day they are tapped, others bloom on Day Two, ever-so-slightly oxidized. The unsold portion of a four-day-old cask might be facing a date with the drain.

Saddled with an inaccurate name that scares people away and a fragile nature that depends on knowledgeable and careful dispense (and a bit of luck), it seems like the deck is stacked against our friend, cask bitter. No matter, this workhorse of the beer pantheon, keeper of the flame of the ale brewing tradition, original inspiration for the American craft beer renaissance, soldiers on, richly rewarding all who seek its charms.