The British pub is a special place. Try to picture it, and you’ll likely imagine a quirky spot filled with well-used but comfortable chairs, wooden accents and a few cask handles behind the bar. The beer in this scenario should be a proper mild ale or an extra special bitter—the choice of a filled dimpled mug or imperial pint is up to the individual drinker.
Once ubiquitous, these classic styles are hard to come by today, especially in the United States where flashier beers, like full-throttled, hop-forward IPAs or gooey imperial stouts rule the roost. But there is pleasure in the simplicity of low-alcohol ales with simple malt bills and legacy hops. Finding one on draft or on cask, or even a can for at-home enjoyment is a pleasant deviation from the norm.
For milds, the aroma is largely malt-focused and can present as nutty and caramel-driven, with occasional coffee, chocolate or a roasted character. Hop aromas are often muted but can be slightly earthy or woody, floral and grassy.
A hint of bitterness on the finish is welcome. The real draw is the sessionability of these beers, often landing in the 3% alcohol range, meaning a few are easy to have or a quick pint won’t quickly put you under.
Despite its name, the extra special bitter is not actually that harsh. It is, however, special, and the London brewer Fullers makes the best-known example of the style. Malt is again at the center of flavor here, with biscuit or bread flavors along with floral and resin-forward hop accents.
In both cases look for hop varieties like Fuggle and Goldings to be used. Modern hop varieties sometimes show up in avant-garde recreations of the styles, but those can distract from the welcome simplicity and skill of traditional recipes.
The American brewers making these traditional English styles have a respect for history. These won’t be the next big thing but are a welcome island of relaxation among a sea of strong hops and big alcohol.