About English Beer

Britain: Home of Real Ale

Britain’s brewing history is so long that the notion of what “beer” is has undergone numerous transformations. “Ale” was first a fermented malt beverage seasoned with herbs, until the 15th century when English brewers—influenced by the Dutch—introduced hops as a preservative and began creating “beer.” The 1600s saw a surge in commercially brewed beer, making brewing a major business activity in the country. Darker ales such as stouts and porters were the mainstays of the industry until the advent of pale ales in the 1700s, which supplanted dark beers in public favor.

Even the latter half of the 20th century saw changes in Britain’s brewing industry. Despite the dominance of major breweries, “real ale” continued to survive and prosper. In a British context, “real ale” refers to living ale that is hand-pumped at the bar from cooled cellars below where casks of unfiltered, unpasteurized, natural beer reside peacefully. It is served at room temperature and requires a skilled pub owner to serve properly.

It is hard for a U.S. consumer to understand British beer without tasting a good British ale. These are generally fruitier, softer and more delicate than their U.S. counterparts and often have a more nuanced hop character. In many major U.S. markets there are thriving niches supported by small importers of bottle-conditioned British ales. Adnams, Young & Co., JW Lees and Fuller’s are examples of independent British brewers with bottle-conditioned products represented in the U.S. market. Some enterprising importers have even successfully managed to air-freight cask-conditioned real ale to a select handful of American bars. An increasing selection of canned and bottled English ales are also available to U.S. consumers, as in the case of the Yorkshire brewer Samuel Smith’s.
Top Picks for England
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery
Cherry Ale
Dark ruby amber color. Rich aromas and flavors of cherry pie filling and fresh marzipan with a velvety, tangy, effervescent, fruity medium-to-full body and a seamless, complex, medium-long finish with notes of wafer and dried sour cherry. Nice vibrancy and balance of cherry flavor with great mouthwatering acidity for the table.
Date Tasted: 9/4/2014 in our Chicago tasting lab
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery
Imperial Stout
Dark brown color. Aromas and flavors of honeyed cherries, nut brittle, and toasted grain with a silky, fruity-yet-dry medium-to-full body and a long, rich, chocolate, spice, greens, and beet root accented finish. A robust and exquisitely balanced imperial stout with a great earthy grain foundation and flourish of fruit.
Date Tasted: 1/9/2014 in our Chicago tasting lab
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery
Oatmeal Stout
Dark brown color. Aromas of dried sour cherry, honeycomb, and buttery roasted nuts with a silky, fruity-yet-dry medium body and a long, stone fruit, tonka bean, latte, milled grain, and clay finish. Great flavor and style.
Date Tasted: 1/9/2014 in our Chicago tasting lab
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery
Organic Apricot Ale
Cloudy pale amber color. Richly dimensional dried apricot and apricot pastry aromas and flavors with a tangy fruity-yet-dry medium-to-full body and a zesty peach vinaigrette on mesclun and citrus marmalade on biscuit finish. Delicious and balanced with great tangy apricot flavor.
Date Tasted: 9/6/2012 in our Chicago tasting lab
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery
Organic Pale Ale
Deep copper color with a manilla head. Inviting aromas of honeyed toasted English muffin and lemon curd with a crisp, dry-yet-fruity medium body and a satiny, exceptionally well balanced finish with the emphasis on herb bread and grassy, earthy hops. Very true to style and a pleasure to drink.
Date Tasted: 3/13/2013 in our Chicago tasting lab
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery
Organic Chocolate Stout
Opaque brown color with tan gray head. Bright chocolate brownie a la mode aroma with a silky fruity sweet medium-to-full body and a chocolate cherry mousse and pumpernickel bread pudding finish with a dash of grassy peppery hops. Very tasty, pure and super drinkable.
Date Tasted: 3/13/2013 in our Chicago tasting lab
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery
Taddy Porter
Opaque brown black color. Aromas of chocolate raisin muffin, caramelized nuts, leather, and horsehair brush are earthy and attractive with a supple, dry-yet-fruity medium body and a long, tangy dried fruit, coffee, and roasted chestnut finish. Excellent flavor and poise.
Date Tasted: 1/8/2014 in our Chicago tasting lab
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery
Nut Brown Ale
Copper brown color. Aromas of fruitcake, roasted nuts and molasses with a chewy, dryish medium body and a lettuce, radish, spiced dried fruit, and earth accented finish. Tasty and very well balanced.
Date Tasted: 10/9/2013 in our Chicago tasting lab
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery
Winter Welcome Ale
Dull amber color. Earthy aromas of clay, hay, waxy honeycomb, spiced pear and dates with a supple, dry-yet-fruity medium-to-full body and a long, toasty grain and nut driven finish with accents of grass, herb frittata, and kale. A comforting, table friendly offering.
Date Tasted: 1/10/2014 in our Chicago tasting lab
English Imperial Cider
Pale amber color. Bold apple cider and balsamic vinegar, grilled apple, baked lemon, cheese, and barnyard hay aromas with a tart, lightly carbonated, dry-yet-fruity medium body and a tart caramelized green apple, molasses and earth nuanced finish. Rich and rustic with a great smoky German riesling wine-like table appeal.
Date Tasted: 10/17/2012 in our Chicago tasting lab