Beer history Beer styles

Crunching the Numbers on British Beer Styles

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:

StyleNo. BrandsColourMin-MaxBitternessMin-Max
Light Mild543
Dark Mild12117
Best Bitter1928
Strong Bitter1633
Old Ale464

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 replies on “Crunching the Numbers on British Beer Styles”

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’!

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.

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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