Who added the “Great” to “Britain”? The brewers, of course! Americans hear about “a pint of bitter” and have not a clue what that means (much less what “real ale” means.) I imagine that “the local” is under siege by the big companies, and those local brews would never be available outside, much less west of the Atlantic. There is not that much ale from Great Britain that makes it over here, certainly nothing like the variety that bewilders tourists who enter a pub. It’s much easier to get good German lager and good Belgian ale.
Bass has been around forever, but I think it’s but a shadow of real ale, perhaps even less so since it became an AB-InBev product. Newcastle Brown has been on shelves for a long time, but tended to stay on those shelves long enough to risk getting skunked. Now the stock turns over faster. Boddingtons is a more recent arrival that has gained wide distribution. It might or might not be a step up from Bass, but it’s certainly a step up from yellow fizz.
However, some really good stuff makes it here with reasonable availability. One I’ve written about before is Wells & Young, but really only their “dessert” side.
For me, the biggest turnaround was Samuel Smith. Their beers have been here in good variety for a long time but suffered even more than Newcastle from lingering on the shelves too long. That problem has been banished.
Tadcaster, Yorkshire, England
Brown as the name with a brief, foamy off-white head, a reminder that most British ale shouldn’t have a lofty head. This starts with a roasty malt nose with spicy sweetness and a hint of coffee. It has a rich brandy-like flavor, full bodied with dark malt and a touch of the namesake nut. The finish is not at all bitter but rather has a bit of toffee that carries on for some time. 5.0% ABV
Hillfoots Village, Scotland
For me this is a pint of bitter or a very close relative thereof. Pours pale gold with a brief slightly bubbly off-white head. The nose is grainy, slightly pruny malt with underlying sweet and underlying bitterness with hops blending in, subtly woody with floral touches. This has a nice medium mouthfeel showing full body and slightly silky texture. There’s a hint of molasses and a citrus note on a malt backbone and then moderate hop bitterness and oakiness comes in and lingers into the finish. The full body belies the low 4.2% ABV. That makes it sessionable but would easily stand up to stews and savory dishes.
Inky black, and from a distance only the rich foamy tan head shows that it’s not in fact engine oil. This leads with a delightful roasty toffee aroma with a teasing hint of spicy hops. It is rich and mouth filling with the flavor of toast and toffee with a savory note. It suggests sweetness without becoming so. Roasted goodness continues into a long dry finish. 6% ABV.
Lewes, Sussex, England
Pours dark brown with a skin of bubbles rather than a head. The nose is like a whiskey barrel with fermenting dark fruit and packed with heavy pruny malt. The flavor continues the dark fruit character and gives some heat and caramel as if spiked with a bit of whiskey. The fruit fades quickly into a dark malt finish with a hint of hops drying things out. A bit too heavy for my taste right now, and could use some dry roastiness to offset that. This bottle was possibly over age–or even skunked–but I saw no end date on the bottle cap. This deserves another try. 8.1% ABV
Innerleithen, Peeblesshire, Scotland
Very dark brown in the glass with a moderate fine-grained vanilla-colored head. You could practically chew the aroma, it’s so rich with spice and biscuity malt and oak. The flavor starts with vanilla from the oak then fills with big malt carried on a creamy mouth filling body, with coriander playing at the edges. There’s a crispy hop accent. The flavor becomes the finish fading ever so slowly and lingering long. Put this way up on my list of favorites. I want more, Right Now. 8.0% ABV