Asa beer-loving, well-travelled American, I’ve ordered a strictly 5% ABV beer at the Salt Lake City airport, tallboy cans from a dive bar in South Carolina and an expansive variety of different brews in my (famously drunk) hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. Yet, unsurprisingly, ordering a cask ale certainly distinguished itself from any American drinking experience.
As with accents and slang, the regional differences between distinct cultures within America always pale in comparison to any transatlantic dissimilarities. These contradictions are exactly why the first few months of living and traveling in England as an American are equal parts captivating and tiring. Between everyone driving on the wrong side of the road and the dearth of decent Mexican food, it seems like many of the most fundamental comforts of America are over-complicated, if not completely unavailable in England. Simply ordering a beer shouldn’t have to be one of those discomforts. Thankfully, this guide seeks to break down some of the basics of the English beer scene so that American tourists, expats and dummies can navigate their way without confusion, faux pas or disappointment.
The first thing anyone should know about beer in England is the history and taste of the cask ale. Cask ale, also known as real ale, is a term coined by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) in the 1970s to describe a slightly warmer and less carbonated ale than what’s common in America.
“That is Britain’s traditional drink. That’s how it’s been made for hundreds of years and served from a cask. To serve it from a keg, you take out the CO2 and artificially inject it with CO2 instead of letting the yeast do its work naturally within the container,” Katie Wiles, the head of communications at Camra, tells me.
The term “cask ale” was coined by Camra during the organisation’s effort in the 1970s to reinvigorate England’s beer heritage. At the time, there were few independent breweries left and Camra felt as if most of the English beer served to consumers was mediocre keg beer. Since then, the campaign has worked to restore the historic legacy of real ales and provide English beer drinkers with high quality ale.
“You get quite a strong flavor profile because of that natural process of carbonation, having the yeast stay within the container. All of those flavors come out a lot more at slightly warmer temperatures than beer in other places in the world, which makes it a really unique drink,” Wiles says.
In addition to its warmer temperature and stronger flavor profile, the hops in cask ale might taste less familiar to Americans.
“British brewers often use British hops which have a different flavor profile and character to those of American hops, ie earthy, woody, floral for British hops versus citrus, pine, resin for American hops,” Lotte Peplow, the Brewers Association’s American craft beer ambassador to Europe, says.
Undoubtedly, a pint of cask ale is a must for any American looking to be fully immersed in the English beer experience.
Recently, craft beer has become all the rage in America so understandably Americans might want to check out the scene in England. However, in America the term “craft beer” meets a very specific definition set by the Brewers Association, whereas in England the term is less clear cut.
“Craft beer has become more of a marketing term. A beer will put on some fancy artwork and say, ‘this is craft beer,’ but it can actually be from Heineken and we wouldn’t consider them a craft brewer,” Wiles says.
Nonetheless, the lack of a clear definition of what’s officially considered a craft beer does not mean that there is at all a lack of small, independent breweries in England. In fact, remove the opposite is true.
Neil Walker works as a beer sommelier, the head of communications and marketing at the Society of Independent Brewers and a director of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Walker’s job titles alone point to the of artisan beers in England and he sees that prevalence prevails as a unique strength in England’s beer scene.
“I think Americans coming to the UK will be surprised at how small our breweries are,” Walker says. Many of America’s best known craft breweries, like Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head, are much larger than England’s breweries, says Walker.
At the end of the day, both Walker and Wiles agree that drinking local is one of the best ways to navigate the preponderance of fantastic English beer.
“What I want to drink is what the locals are drinking, what’s going to be fresh. And I honestly think that’s a good rule of thumb wherever you are drinking,” Walker says.
Pub is short for public house and that phrase belies the importance of pubs; in 2019 there were over 47,000 public houses in the UK, according to the British Beer and Pub Association. Unlike in America, where bars are typically reserved for only drinking and often associated with some level of debauchery, pubs play a more central role in the neighbourhood. Birthday parties, after-work gatherings, and a much wider variety of social events in general occur at pubs than in American bars.
On the flip side of the coin, American bars are also known as places for strangers to meet, agree and vent to one another in an openhearted way that’s harder to come by in English pubs.
This socialization difference is one of the first things that American expat JP Teti noticed upon his arrival in England. Now working as the founder of Passyunk Avenue, a Philadelphia dive bar-themed restaurant chain in London, Teti continues to miss all the gregarious strangers one can meet at American bars, especially in contrast to the more reticent nature of the English pub crowd.
“I think there’s something culturally among the English where you are actually seen as imposing. Whereas Americans seem a bit less inhibited in that regard,” Teti says.
If one thing Teti wishes he could bring from American bars to English pubs is convivial drifters then it’s the reverent woodwork and design of classic English pubs that he wishes could be brought back to America.
“The one thing you can say about English pubs is that they are, by-and-large, beautiful structures. Externally, internally stunning structures, the fittings are amazing. Dive bars are cool places but they’re often just hobbles,” Teti says.
All in all, if you’ve got a good group of friends or family to go with, then hitting up your local pub for a pint during your time in England is the kind of quintessentially English experience Americans won’t want to miss out on .
Americans might be caught by surprise at how tipsy they feel after a few too many pints. That added buzz isn’t because the beer’s stronger (most beer in England actually has a lower ABV) but because the beer’s bigger. The size difference isn’t usually visually noticeable but Brits drink imperial pints, which are a little more than 90ml (3 fluid ounces) larger than the standard 16oz American pint.
“Americans tend to come over and they’re drinking imperial pints and before they know it they can’t walk,” Teti says.
Conversely, Americans might find themselves handling an onslaught of shots and mixed drinks better due to some legal guidelines. The Weights and Measures Act of 1985 prohibits what American bartenders call “free pouring” and instructs British bartenders to limit each single shot to no more than 25ml. Double shot mixed drinks (50ml) are also commonplace but still, pretty much every hard liquor drink served in Britain needs to be measured out in multiples of 25ml.
In the States, you’ll attract some well-deserved animosity if you’re not tipping at least 20 per cent on every drink and meal. In England, tipping’s not expected in the same way. Customers will sometimes tip 10 per cent if they know their order was arduous or they had some superb service but otherwise, even though it might feel extremely wrong at first, you don’t need to tip in England. Bartenders and servers make a higher hourly wage in England than in America so their livelihood does not depend as immensely on tips.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.