The unique fingerprint of draught ale in the UK is cask-conditioning, a technique that rose to prominence between 1860 and 1885, due to a variety of changes affecting the UK brewing industry and legislation affecting the licensing of pubs and the ways that beer was taxed.
In cask-conditioning, a partially filtered draught beer is racked into a barrel, or cask, at the brewery and delivered to the pub cellar with some live yeast still working the ale within. By convention, such conditioning is regulated to ensure that the CO2 in the beer is kept at a level just above saturation, creating a beer that is low carbonation. For best results it should lie undisturbed for a week or more. Once opened, the cask should be emptied within 48 hours.
Beers design for cask-conditioning are generally malt-driven, with hop combinations that complement the grain flavours rather than dominating them.
English Pale Ale
The earliest spotting of term Pale Ale is 1704, in a British newspaper. By the 19th century Pale Ale was of regular strength (4.5-6.0% ABV) and might be bottled or draught. Classically, the style showcased English hops in a beer mashed from 100% pale ale malt. Its flavour by repute was clean and assertive, grassy but perfectly balanced, lacking the cruder hop kick of its more fêted sibling, India Pale Ale (IPA) . It remained the favoured beer of gentlefolk well into the 20th century, served in an iconic stemmed and tapered balloon glass that showed off its polished appearance. By 1960 it had virtually disappeared. Its recent revival comes on the coat tails of American IPA, and current usage is more associated with craft-end Bitter, or paler ales with an English hop profile.
The flagship beers of the late 20th century British pub were called Bitter. The term first appeared in the early 1800s, when it was used interchangeably with Pale Ale, though restricted to draught beers. Right up until the 1960s, it was less popular than Mild and often the preserve of middle-class drinkers. Its lightest form (3.3-4.1% ABV) first appeared during the First World War. The best are easy-drinking, hop-leaning but not hop-forward session beers, typically served in pint (568 ml) measures. Brewed from pale ale and crystal malts, flavoured with English hop varieties such as Fuggles and Goldings, it should be both fermented and conditioned by an English ale yeast. Invariably best when cask-conditioned, its USP is the amount of flavour packed into such a low-alcohol beer.
The slightly stronger form of Bitter (4.0-5.0% ABV) is nowadays sold as the premium form of cask ale, with dabs of caramel, biscuit, fruitiness or lightly toasted malt. In the past few decades it has experienced style creep, as “Blond”, “Golden” and “Amber” forms have appeared that can be indistinguishable if tasted blind. Bitterness sometimes reaches 40 IBU and non-English hops appear more often than in regular Bitter. Invariably best when cask-conditioned, its key feature should be drinkability. Paler draught beers of this strength did exist before the First World War but were not mainstream.
Strong Bitter (or Extra Special Bitter)
In the UK, ESB is a trademark for a fuller sort of beer made by Asahi. Meanwhile in the rest of the world a style often termed Extra Special Bitter, or ESB where trademark issues allow, is growing in popularity. Balanced and drinkable despite its higher strength (5.1-6.2% ABV), it should showcase English hopping and impresses most when there is a background taste of dark, thick cut marmalade. It reflects more accurately the nature of Bitter beers in the 19th century.
Malt-focussed and usually quite sweet, these relatively rare beers tend nowadays to be light in alcohol (3.0-4.0% ABV), though a few stronger examples remain. In the time before the vogue for cask-conditioning, when most beer was left to mature in oak tuns for up to three years before release, the term “mild” mean “young”. By the end of the 19th century Mild Ale meant a draught beer, usually brown, with relatively low hop content and typically around 4.8-5.6% ABV. The alcohol content halved in the First World War and never fully recovered.
Sweeter than porter or stout and lacking their roasted character, or the hop presence of its American cousins, an English brown ale tends to major on caramel flavours. Until recent years these were mostly bottled beers, some a residual form of the brewery’s dark Mild. More characterful brown ales are starting to appear that have more in common with early 20th century Mild (4.0-5.4% ABV).