Bitters, Ales and Beers: A Guide to Britain’s Pub Favourites

by - Tuesday, May 07, 2013

If there’s one thing Brits take seriously, it’s pub drinks. From bitters to beers, knowing exactly what to enjoy when you pop down the pub is important. Not only will ordering the wrong type lead to an unpleasant surprise, but ordering an ale when everyone else is enjoying a lager or a bitter will probably make you the butt of jokes for the rest of the evening.

“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy” - Benjamin Franklin

In general, there are three types of libations served in pubs: bitter, ale and lager. While the differences between them are subtle, as any beer connoisseur will tell you, they are significant.


Bitter gets its name from the slightly bitter aftertaste and feeling it leaves on the tongue after drinking. Also known as pale ale, bitter is a common pub drink. It tends to have a lower alcohol content than other styles and the flavours don’t generally blend well with food. Hops play a starring role in a bitter, giving it the distinctive light and bitter flavour.

Bitter falls into one of several categories: ordinary, best, premium, pale ale and India pale ale. There are no standard definitions for each category other than determined by the brewer, although it’s largely considered that premium bitter has a stronger flavour and contains more alcohol than ordinary or best. Pale ales were created to compete with lighter lager ales; they tend to be lighter in colour and contain more hops than malt. This imparts a citrusy flavour to the drink. India pale ales only differ from other ales with their higher alcohol content.


On the sweeter end of the spectrum, ales are brewed with malted barley and brewer’s yeast, giving it a lighter, sweeter and fruitier flavour. Most contain a small amount of hops to impart a slight bitterness and prevent the ale from being too sweet.

Like bitters, there are multiple categories of ales. The most common ales are brown ales. These vary in appearance and flavour depending on where they’re from. Ales from southern England tend to be the darkest and sweetest, but northern ales, with a reddish-brown colour and drier taste have more alcohol. The darkest ales are known as stout, and feature a deep brown colour and a rich flavour with hints of coffee or chocolate. Stouts originated in England, but are largely associated with Ireland at this point.


Lager is what many people think of when they hear the term “beer.” Often sold in bottles and cans, lager is a bottom-fermented beer with a light colour and an even mix of barley and hops. Although ale is the most traditionally English drink, lager holds a lock on almost half of the English beer market, thanks largely to popular imports like Stella Artois and Kronenbourg.

How a Beer Is Best Enjoyed

Some of the best drinks come from mixing different beers together. For example, a black and tan is a mix of Guinness stout and a lager or bitter, while a shandy is any type of beer mixed with lemonade to create a lower-alcohol beverage. In some cases, a dash of lemonade is mixed with lager or bitter to improve the drink’s taste or effervescence.

Of course, one of the pleasures of having so many styles of beer is the chance to try them to see the ones you prefer. Don’t be afraid to try something new when you head to the pub; not all beers are created equally and dismissing an entire style after one bad pint means you’re missing out.

About the Author: Confirmed beer connoisseur Jim Stickler has made it his life’s mission to try as many varieties of beer as possible. A food writer, he’s planning a summer trip to York. Click here to search for hotels in York and plan your own beer adventure.

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