Pale Ale - Pale Mild, Bitter, Best Bitter, ESB

BritishPaleAlePale Ales are the quintessential British Ale. They are normally served by the pint or the half-pint either in Cask Conditioned form with very little carbonation, in keg form under CO2, or, recently, with nitrogen pressure known as Smooth. Virtually every pub in the U.K. has one or more Pale Ales on tap.

The basic style originated over 200 years ago when glass drinking vessels became affordable and popular. Before that, dark, murky ales were acceptable. The brewers quickly learned that "Burtonized" water, which is fairly high in sulphur, made a better pale ale.

The famous "Burton Union" open-fermenting vats used at Burton upon Trent are given much credit for popularizing the style. They work by connecting wooden fermenting casks to a trough through piping. Foaming action forces the yeast up to the square rather than let it stay in the wort. The only system left is at Marston's Brewery and only used to make Pedigree. reference

Fuggles and East Kent Goldings hops are the backbone of the bitterness. Fuggles gives a particular earthy aroma and flavor and the EKG give a fragrant bitter aroma. Both are relatively low-acidic hops which results in an ale which allows your nose to appreciate the bitterness without attacking your tongue.

Top-fermenting yeast is, of course, necessary and many strains of yeast have been developed by the older, bigger breweries to give a distinct flavor to their beer.

When buying in bottled form, be very aware of the sensitive nature of the ale as it will easily be damaged by poor storage. Heat and especially light can skunk Pale Ales and transportation overseas is usually not in refrigerated containers. Check sell-by dates rigorously. Bottled examples and even keg versions may not be the same as cask versions sold in the U.K.

There are several degrees of Pale Ale such as (weak to strong) Pale Mild, Session Ale, Ordinary Bitter, Pale Ale, Bitter, Best Bitter, Special Bitter, Strong Bitter, Extra Special Bitter (ESB), and Strong Bitter. The main difference may be solely the alcoholic content (ABV) which may overlap quite a bit.

Sometimes the name or style given by the brewing company doesn't relate very well to the strength of the beer. That said, here's a chart of the probable range.

Style OG
(Original Gravity)
(Final Gravity)
(Alcohol %)
Pale Mild
1030 - 1036 1004 - 1008 3.0 - 3.6 15 - 25 8 - 17
Ordinary Bitter 1032 - 1040 1007 - 1011 3.2 - 3.8 25 - 35 8 - 12
Best Bitter
1040 - 1048
1008 - 1012 3.6 - 4.6
30 - 45
8 - 14
1048 - 1060 1010 - 1016 4.4 - 6.0 35 - 50 8 - 18

BritishPaleAle-MarstonsStrongAlthough very popular shortly after WWII, Milds are now one of the rarer styles of ale in Britain (and virtually unknown elsewhere). Pale Milds are not as hard to find as Dark Milds though. Both Milds are also known as Session Ales because they can be enjoyed during a full session in a British pub - 4 hours in the afternoon or 5 hours in the evening. Pale Milds have a light color but still copper rather than yellow or golden. Dark Milds are really a form of Brown Ale. Neither usually lacks for taste even though the alcoholic content is lighter than a Bitter.

When in England looking for a Pale Mild, you might consider a beer called an IPA. There has been an unfortunate marketing aberration in the last 20 years to use the term IPA on a brewery's least alcoholic and least hoppy beer. Go figure.

The Ordinary Bitter is the normal ale found in British pubs and the beer most often enjoyed by in Real Ale form every right-thinking CAMRA member in Britain.

Best Bitter and Extra Special Bitter are stronger versions with more alcohol, more malt, and more balancing hops giving a more bitter taste, though not usually a more bitter aroma. They often have a thicker body also due to a higher Final Gravity. These are also often darker than Pale Milds and Ordinary Bitters.

Of course there are variations on these themes you can find. Marston's Strong Pale Ale, for instance, has been made since before WWI from Maris Otter barley, Fuggles and Goldings hops and comes in at 6.2% ABV. It seems like an Ordinary Bitter with 75% more alcohol. Available only in bottles - clear ones at that so beware of light-struck beers if improperly stored.


Native Territory: Central England.

Color (SRM): See table above. Amber, light copper through dark copper. The color is not directly related to the strength. (8 - 18).

Head: Head is not a big matter in British ales. Cask conditioned ales are notably low in head, just the foam created by the dispense.
Nitro dispense beers have a dense white head that stays a long time.

Aromas: Malt. Caramel. Fruit. Hoppy bitterness more prevalent in the stronger styles.

Flavors: Malt. Low bitterness from UK hops which increases with the strength to balance the malt.

Finish: Some bitter dryness.

Mouthfeel: Light to medium. Fairly warm - acceptable at almost room temperature.

Carbonation: Usually quite low. Cask Conditioned forms use no CO2.

Alcohol: See table above. Ranges from very light in milds to quite strong in ESBs. (3.0 - 6.0% ABV)

Bitterness (IBU): See table above. Bitterness should be very present at all levels. (15 - 50 IBU)

Serving: Pint or half-pint English straight-side glass or handled mug. Serve cool, rather than room temperature - 45°F or a bit less.

Malts: Pale, Amber, Crystal. Maris Otter malt can completely replace the Pale malt. Some Biscuit malt can add toasty, bready notes. Often a sugar adjunct. Maybe a touch of wheat for head retention - needed due to low carbonation.

Hops: East Kent Goldings. Fuggles.

Yeast: British Ale Yeast, London Ale Yeast.

Related Styles:
British Dark Mild - Using more specialty malts.
British Golden Ale - Using purely Pale Malt.
British IPA – Lighter than Pale Ales.

American IPA - Using more and stronger hops.
American Pale Ale - Using US Northwest hops.

Notes: Water may need to be "Burtonized" by addition of sulfates.
ESB is a trademark of Fuller's in the UK but a generic style name elsewhere.


Bob's Picks:


Pale Mild - Banks's Original - Wolverhampton, England regional brewery -  Fairly weak but well balanced. 3.5%.

Ordinary Bitter: Adnams Bitter - Suffolk, England regional brewery - Sulfury, hops come through strong. 3.7%

Best Bitter: Marston's Pedigree - Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, England regional brewery - Fruity, bitter, and some sulfur. 4.5%

ESB: Exe Valley Devon Glory - Exeter, Devon, England regional brewery - Sweetish with fruit coming on late. 4.7%.

Rare Gems:


Pale Mild: Hexhamshire Devil's Elbow - Northumberland, England microbrewery - Amber color. Full hops and fruity goodness. 3.6%.

Ordinary Bitter: St. Austell Tinners Ale - Cornwall, England microbrewery - Thick rich pale session ale. Caramel comes through. 3.7%

Best Bitter: Badger's Bitter - Dorset, England regional brewery - Good body and lots of earthy First Gold hops. 4.0%

ESB: Ramsbury Deer Hunter - Wiltshire, England regional brewery - Quite dark. Strong alcohol balanced against lots of hops. 5.0%

Widely Available:


Pale Mild:

McMullen AK - Hertfordshire, England regional brewery - Dry finish. 3.7%.

Greene King IPA - Bury St. Edmonds, England megabrewer - Simple session ale with little bitterness. 3.6%

Ordinary Bitter:

Brakspear Bitter - Oxfordshire, England regional brewery - Hoppy and spicy citric orange. 3.4%

Cotleigh Tawny Bitter - Somerset, England regional brewery - Hop nose. Malt/fruit start and long bitter finish. 3.8%

Young's Bitter - Bedford, England megabrewery - Light colored. Lots of bitter hoppiness. 3.7%

Best Bitter:

Fuller's London Pride - London, England megabrewer - Brownish color. Citric dryness. 4.1%.

Greene King Ruddles County - Bury St. Edmonds, England megabrewer - Rich, dark. Sweet fruit start and a dry finish. 4.3%

Goose Island Honkers Ale - Chicago, USA regional brewery - Crisp ale that uses mostly English hops. 5.0%.


Black Sheep Special Ale - North Yorkshire, England regional brewery - Rich, nutty. Hoppy finish. 4.4%.

Fuller's ESB - London, England megabrewer - Full bodied. Roast and sweet orange. 5.5%.

Ringwood Old Thumper - Hampshire, UK regional brewery and also made in the US under license by Shipyard Brewing of Portland, ME - Brownish color. Fruit aroma. Sweet malt taste with quite hoppy finish. 5.6%

Shepard Neame Bishop's Finger - Kent, England regional brewery - Strong malty brew. 5.0%

Typical 5-gallon (US) recipe (Ordinary Bitter):

Grains: 5.5 lb Maris Otter Pale malt. .1 lb Crystal 55L malt (that’s point 1 pounds, 1.6 ounces.

Adjuncts, Fruit, Spices: .6 lb Cane Sugar

Hops: 1 oz East Kent Goldings hops at start of boil. 1 oz Fuggles hops for 15 minutes of boil

Yeast: London Ale yeast

Mash: Infusion

Boil time: 60 minutes

OG / FG: 1040 / 1009

Typical 5-gallon (US) recipe (ESB)

Grains: 10.0 lb Maris Otter Pale malt. .1 lb Crystal  55L malt

Adjuncts, Fruit, Spices: .2 lb Cane Sugar

Hops: 2 oz East Kent Goldings hops for 60 minutes of boil

Yeast: London Ale yeast

Mash: Infusion.

Boil time: 90 minutes

OG / FG: 1058 / 1013

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