Before we start, let me convince you to take absolutely no notice of the idiotic middle class “beer tasting” sites, books and so on. These people plainly have no idea what goes into English beers, how beer is made, and have no idea at all that English beers are regional and therefore vary enormously. These people blather on about “citrus notes” and “hop finishes”, despite the fact that they do not know that if you really taste citrus flavours in your beer, it has almost certainly got them from the same place as the “hop finish”, i.e. from the hops.
Comparisons with wine are futile and degrade our own art of brewing. As for chocolate stouts and other middle class affectations: treat them with the contempt they deserve. These are marketing man’s gimmicks.
So, that’s that.
English- and, indeed, Scottish, Welsh and Irish- beers have localised character. The Irish favour dry stouts, but it’s by no means the only beer they traditionally brewed. Irish bitters were rather sweeter than English ones. London bitters were traditionally more sour than some. East Anglian beers were traditionally rather dark and headless. Cotswold beers were quite dark and malty. Northern bitters using true Northern yeast are, in my opinion, the peak of the brewer’s art, especially when taking into account the trouble this yeast creates. But northern bitters are drier, more crisp and slightly more carbonated with an obligatory creamy head. A true northerner wants at least 3/4 inch of head on his beer: don’t listen to CAMRA: the head is essential on northern beers.
Scottish beers are full bodied and often dark. And Scotsmen tend to go ballistic if there’s even a few bubbles floating on their beer. Kentish beers, (another excellent example of brewing art), are beautifully hopped and balanced. And, of course, the Burton style beers are unsurpassed, despite the efforts of the big brewers to ruin them. If you can get hold of a proper pint of Burton Ale, or Marstons Pedigree, you are drinking highly individual ales with a long history. Both are beautifully clear and bright, clean tasting and perfectly balanced. Real brewing history.
The South Wales Valleys tended to prefer lighter ales, such as light ale or mild. All preferences and styles derive from recent and, sometimes, distant history. Welsh coal miners and steel workers wanted a refreshing ale, which light ale is. Burton ale is where Pale Ale took off, but their brewers already had a famous history of making fine, strong, brown coloured ales and even Russian Imperial Stout, made especially for the Russian market and to take advantage of cheap shipping to Russia. (There was a lot of importing of timber from the Ukraine, but our ships were empty on the outbound journey. Brewers like Bass took advantage of this, until the Crimean war).
London had many huge breweries, and THE beer in London at one time was a dark, heavy and well hopped- and somewhat sour- beer called “Porter”. Porter was soured by long maturation, often in vast maturing tanks, tanks so large that dances and parties were held in them to celebrate their opening. When Pale Ale arrived, the London brewers took a long time to catch up, and hence carried on brewing dark, sourer ales. One enterprising London brewer upped sticks and went to Ireland and continued brewing Porter, taking advantage of the Irish water and lack of competition. Guinness eventually became Europe’s largest brewery.
Central to ALL brewing endeavours were the skills learnt the hard way by monks from the Middle Ages up until the dissolution. To this day, some of the best beers in the world are brewed by European monastic orders, such as Chimay, brewed by Trappist monks. When Henry VIII broke up the monasteries, many former brewing monks went on to brew for the local lord, and he often built his own brewhouse and sold beer to his tenants. Hence the plethora of ecclesiastical names for beers (Old Peculier, Bishop’s Finger, Abbot Ale etc.), and the habit of referring to the man who runs a pub as “Landlord”. At one time, he probably would have been your landlord.
So, hopefully you can see that different localised styles came about, depending on local tastes, local circumstances, local water and yeast and just good old fashioned local tradition. So, next time you’re in Kent, don’t drink Tetleys or Bass, drink something local, like Shepherd Neame. And next time you’re in the Cotswolds, drink Adnams or other local beer. There are plenty.
And for God’s sake, don’t listen to those who know nothing about beer tell you about “tasting notes”. Buy it. Drink it. If you like, buy another. It’s as simple as that, and what these fools do not realise is that ALL English beer has remarkably similar recipes, but it doesn’t take much to create a very different beer just by using a different variety of hops, or by adding a little black malt or whatever.
Beer has no room for the pretentious. It always was a discerning working man’s drink, above all, and people in the past really knew their beers. You could pay them very little, condemn them to hard work and very little else: but you could not make them drink poor beer. And they knew what was good, without the help of clueless “beer buffs” and their “tasting notes”. It’s like being told how to see or smell.