The British pub is a special place. Try to picture it, and you’ll likely imagine a quirky spot filled with well-used but comfortable chairs, wooden accents and a few cask handles behind the bar. The beer in this scenario should be a proper mild ale or an extra special bitter—the choice of a filled dimpled mug or imperial pint is up to the individual drinker.
Once ubiquitous, these classic styles are hard to come by today, especially in the United States where flashier beers, like full-throttled, hop-forward IPAs or gooey imperial stouts rule the roost. But there is pleasure in the simplicity of low-alcohol ales with simple malt bills and legacy hops. Finding one on draft or on cask, or even a can for at-home enjoyment is a pleasant deviation from the norm.
For milds, the aroma is largely malt-focused and can present as nutty and caramel-driven, with occasional coffee, chocolate or a roasted character. Hop aromas are often muted but can be slightly earthy or woody, floral and grassy.
A hint of bitterness on the finish is welcome. The real draw is the sessionability of these beers, often landing in the 3% alcohol range, meaning a few are easy to have or a quick pint won’t quickly put you under.
Despite its name, the extra special bitter is not actually that harsh. It is, however, special, and the London brewer Fullers makes the best-known example of the style. Malt is again at the center of flavor here, with biscuit or bread flavors along with floral and resin-forward hop accents.
In both cases look for hop varieties like Fuggle and Goldings to be used. Modern hop varieties sometimes show up in avant-garde recreations of the styles, but those can distract from the welcome simplicity and skill of traditional recipes.
The American brewers making these traditional English styles have a respect for history. These won’t be the next big thing but are a welcome island of relaxation among a sea of strong hops and big alcohol.
Bonn Place Mooey Pub Ale; $15/16oz 4 pack, 95 points. The beauty of this medium-bodied beer is its simplicity. It has all the necessary components of a traditional grain bill, a soft hand on the hops and a clean fermenting yeast, so it won’t overwhelm the senses with bells and whistles. By the third pint you know this is a friend for life.
Good Word Analog Life; $13/16oz 4 pack, 95 points. Big on roast without the bitterness, this leans heavily into floral and low herbal hops that give it a bit of a perfumy essence. It finishes dry and readies the tastebuds for the next sip.
Wallenpaupack English Pale Mild Ale; $10/16oz 4 pack, 95 points. The world needs more beers like this and always served in a dimpled mug. It’s best enjoyed standing at a worn wood bar top that is slightly warped from countless pints put down upon it. Or wherever you can conjure up that thought. This beer carries tradition well, it is not trying to reinvent the wheel, but spins perfectly.
Small Change The Future is Unwritten; $12/16oz 4 pack, 94 points. Roasty and mild, with a nutty coffee flavor that has cola undertones, this ale has a smart roast that wants to be paired with a burger at a good place in town or a steak cooked perfectly at home. It’s a porter with distinction that honors the English tradition without letting American influence muck it up.
Calusa Ravenhold; $14/16oz 4 pack, 89 points. With a hint of spice, this ale has some life to it that is accented by earthy and slightly bitter hops. Sweet on the finish, it’s delicious out of a can but would sparkle on cask.
Wellspent Spice of Life; $9/16oz 4 pack, 89 points. There is a lot going on with this floral, earthy, hopped beer, including flavors of baked sugar and vanilla, spicy pipe tobacco, leather and a twinge of funk.
Bull & Bear Better Year Bitter; $20/16oz 4 pack, 88 points. This is an ale with light toffee and roast aromas and flavor, followed by sweet caramel and slight hop bitterness on the finish. It’s a reliable go-to pub ale.
Ferment Brewing ESB; $5/500ml, 87 points. This is a fun, easy-drinking little bitter, with a caramel roast, a touch of nuttiness and a sweet finish. This is a pleasing pub ale that brings a bit of London sensibility to your home bar.
Last Updated: July 12, 2023