There’s a lot more to English beer than India Pale Ales (IPAs), and some of that expansive tradition is felt on the craft beer scene in the United States. English-style ales like dark milds, extra special bitters (ESB), English-style pale ales and even cask ales are finding a place in the rotation of American craft brewers. Some breweries are fully embracing the trend by focusing entirely on English beer culture, serving British-inspired pub fare to accompany their ales.
“These are the perfect beers for hanging out with your friends at the bar,” says Matt Levy, the head brewer at Threes in Brooklyn, who has started brewing several English-style beers. He thinks Out of Focus, one of Threes’ ESBs, is “full of hoppy character without being hoppy” and expresses its malty character without being too malty.
“When it’s done well, [ESBs have] a slight hint of yeast that adds to the hop and malt character without being “yeasty,” he says. “For us, it’s a style that stands out thanks to the soft touch of each component, which makes for a really pleasant and easy-to-drink pint.”
Mary Izett, co-owner of Fifth Hammer, a Queens-based brewery, says her brewery’s deposit is billed like an English-style lager, though by style it’s more of a an ESB – she just thinks the old name better translates to taproom consumers. It’s available in cans, but at his tavern it’s served on tap, a classic English approach that results in beer at a warmer temperature than your stereotypical “cold” and with more discreet carbonation.
Some breweries are running at full capacity with beer on tap. Seattle’s Machine House has only offered draft beers since opening in 2013. “The reception has been incredibly positive,” says owner Bill Arnott. “Our consumer base in the Pacific Northwest has embraced our commitment to making these styles right and not giving in to obvious market trends.”
Arnott thinks the American audience for English-style ales is growing. “More and more, over the years, there seems to be a growing appreciation for simple, classic styles executed well and authentically, and we’ve both driven that locally and benefited from it.”
Betsy Lay, co-founder, head brewer and owner of Lady Justice Brewing Company in Aurora, Colorado, says her own passion for these styles has customers coming on board.
“I’ve always been a fan of English-style ales and tend to lean more towards beers that have a strong malt profile,” she says. “I started brewing BSE in 2019 after wishing I could find more of it in nature. This is one of my favorites to brew. It has since become one of our most popular beers, and it also won bronze at the US Beer Open last year.
A passion for cask ales also inspired Bradley Gillett. The owner of Seneca Lake Brewing in New York’s Finger Lakes region grew up in England and was a big fan of the weekend tradition of going to a pub. When he moved to the United States in 2004, however, he found few beers on tap.
So in 2012 he launched Seneca Lake Brewing and a nearby pub, The Beerocracy, which serves British fare such as meat pies, homemade pies and bangers and mash. He believes the beers’ popularity has helped sustain the brewery and pub during the pandemic, although at first his staff had to educate consumers about the idiosyncrasies of cask beer. “My team is good at educating them on style, temperature and natural carbonation, so before they even take their first sip, they understand that our beers aren’t your typical carbonated draft beers.”
New American craft breweries are embracing English-style ales in a variety of ways. John Liakas, co-founder of Return Brewing in Hudson, New York, uses Scandinavian-style kveik yeast to brew Found Art, the brewery’s dark mild.
“We’re inspired by Scandinavian brewing techniques,” he says, citing the brewery’s use of local juniper. “We foraged the juniper branches and infused the brewing water. This strain of yeast was also a good choice because it produces chocolate/tobacco/woody flavors that worked well with the base, a mild dark beer.
The growing popularity of English-style ales among American craft beer professionals and consumers might be somewhat reactive. After years of IPA-laden tap lists at popular craft breweries, some drinkers may just be curious to try different styles.
“I think a lot of people want to explore beer beyond the IPA roller coaster that we’ve had in the past few years and want to come back or try malt-based beers for the first time,” Lay says.
It’s easy to read part of the appeal of these beers as an element of hop fatigue. Classic English styles are lower in alcohol than most craft IPAs and offer more nuanced and subtle flavors unlike the bold flavors and high alcohol content of double dry hopped IPAs that have become the signature of many American breweries. With ABVs as low as 3%, these are beers that can be enjoyed just as easily during lunchtime as during happy hour. They take beer back to its roots.
Lay relishes the chance to share his enthusiasm for English-style beer with visitors to Lady Justice’s bar. “Every time I get the chance to serve it, I talk about the history of the style and why I’m so meticulous about the water and so picky about the malt choices in the recipe,” she says.
“Many of our customers love learning more about how these affect the depth of flavor and perceived bitterness of the final product. Having an understanding of a style’s story, or having a story to connect with, makes for a more enjoyable consumer experience, and that’s a pretty easy thing to deliver with ESB. It’s a beautiful style of beer with a rich history that I do my best to honor.