Crunching the Numbers on British Beer Styles

Illustration: style -- the numbers.

Rather than relying on interpretations of tasting notes and faulty memories, wouldn’t it be good to know for sure if and how British beer has changed in the past 20 years? Well, there is a way.

In the November/December issue of UK brew­ing indus­try mag­a­zine The Grist Kei­th Thomas pro­vid­ed a tech­ni­cal break­down of the typ­i­cal strength, colour and bit­ter­ness of British beer styles. It is full of fas­ci­nat­ing jew­els of infor­ma­tion but the most inter­est­ing parts are this graph…

A graph showing beers clustered around the same bitterness and colour.

… and this table which shows the mea­sured colour (EBC) and bit­ter­ness (EBU) of a hun­dred beers with the num­bers pre­scribed by CAMRA’s style guide­lines beneath in brack­ets:

Style No. Brands Colour Min-Max Bit­ter­ness Min-Max
Light Mild 5 43
(44)
15–29
(39–47)
23
(21)
15–29
(21–23)
Dark Mild 12 117
(94)
64–223
(39–223)
22
(21)
13–28
(12–28)
Bit­ter 27 25
(27)
15–66
(16–38)
25
(25)
18–39
(9–48)
Best Bit­ter 19 28
(27)
13–71
(13–65)
28
(30)
22–43
(16–52)
Strong Bit­ter 16 33
(33)
16–49
(10–109)
33
(30)
21–37
(20–52)
Porter 6 150
(157)
69–305
(97–249)
30
(36)
21–37
(18–45)
Old Ale 4 64
(95)
48–75
(27–114)
28
(28)
25–31
(18–45)

These offer a fair­ly pre­cise snap­shot of the real­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion in 1995–96 and that is some­what inter­est­ing in its own right, but it becomes a lot more so when you dis­cov­er that Dr Thomas and his col­leagues at BrewLab in Sun­der­land have been check­ing in on these stats ever since.

They pub­lished a detailed report in 2006, sad­ly locked away behind pay­walls (British Food Jour­nal, Vol. 108, in case any­one has access) and have an update in the works. In the mean­time, though, they have released a sort of trail­er in the form of a press release, which states (our empha­sis)…

[The] fea­tures of many styles remained sim­i­lar to the para­me­ters sum­ma­rized in 2006.  How­ev­er, when con­sid­ered over­all some dif­fer­ences are evi­dent.  Aver­age alco­hol lev­els are down by 3% on aver­age.  This did vary by style and was main­ly due to old ales being weak­er.  More exten­sive dif­fer­ences are evi­dent in beer colour and bit­ter­ness.  While bit­ter­ness over­all has increased by 5% colour has decreased by 18%.  This is par­tic­u­lar­ly evi­dent in the dark­er beers – milds, porters and stouts.  In gen­er­al, it appears that beers are becom­ing lighter but more bit­ter.… It was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing to see that stan­dard beers are retain­ing their char­ac­ter but also that dark­er beers appear to be evolv­ing.  The intro­duc­tion of blond and gold­en beers has had an impact on the mar­ket and pos­si­bly influ­enced changes in oth­er styles.

It also comes with a use­ful info­graph­ic (believe it or not such things do exist) from which we’ve snipped these details:

There’s lots of inter­est­ing stuff to chew on there:

  • What’s the dif­fer­ence between porter and stout? Noth­ing, says his­to­ry. About 15 points in colour and 7 points of bit­ter­ness, say these real world obser­va­tions.
  • Dark mild has got more bit­ter since 1995–96… or is it just that the more bit­ter, char­ac­ter­ful exam­ples have proven resilient dur­ing the ongo­ing extinc­tion event?
  • What’s the dif­fer­ence between old ale and bar­ley wine? Not much, says his­to­ry. About 65 points in colour and six or sev­en points of bit­ter­ness, sez this.

3 thoughts on “Crunching the Numbers on British Beer Styles”

  1. Some very odd results in there. I would nev­er have said that ‘gold­en ales’ in gen­er­al were bit­ter­er than pales, which in turn were bit­ter­er than IPAs – and that plac­ing of ‘bar­ley wine’ is down­right bizarre. Also, ‘ordi­nary bit­ter’ is appar­ent­ly paler than lager – and ‘dark mild’ is paler than ‘mild ale’!

  2. If this was 1996 data in the info­graph­ic, fine; you have to con­sid­er what were typ­i­cal beers of each style at that time. There were pre­cious few IPAs about – chances are those results rep­re­sent not much more than GK IPA, for instance, which would explain the lack of bit­ter­ness and colour, where­as Gold­en Ales were prob­a­bly heav­i­ly influ­enced by the likes of Sum­mer Lign­ing. Bar­ley Wine was prob­a­bly Bass No 1 and/or Whit­bread Gold Lable, with the Old Ales the like of Gales Prize Old Ale, Robin­sons Old Tom etc.
    If it’s now, it makes lit­tle sense.

  3. Expand­ing on Nick’s com­ments, I’m wor­ried about “bar­ley wine”, since as he hints, it’s a cat­e­go­ry that, today, falls into two rather dif­fer­ent styles, the Gold Label influ­enced pale sort, and the old­er Bass No 1 influ­enced dark brown sort. If you lump the fig­ures for those togeth­er, you’re going to end up with an “aver­age” bar­ley wine, espe­cial­ly for colour, that is not going to reflect the real­i­ties of either ver­sion.

    I note that in the “strength” table, which you don’t repro­duce, “porter” today was found to be mar­gin­al­ly stronger than “stout” (5% abv against 4.9% abv), which is more or less what I found in 2009 (thanks for the link!), except that aver­age strengths for both drinks seem to have risen slight­ly.

    Inteesting that mod­ern “porters” seem to be so much less bit­ter than “stouts”, and less bit­ter even than mod­ern dark mild – his­tor­i­cal­ly, of course, porter was much more bit­ter than ales. I would love to hear from a brew­er as to why she/he is not mak­ing porter as bit­ter as stout. I won­der if this is con­nect­ed with the rise of “flavoured” porters – although anec­do­tal­ly, “flavoured” stouts seem to be at least as com­mon, if not more so.

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