How British and American beers compare

Belladonna Took wrote to say, “I would like to know about beer. Is it indeed served at room temperature in Britain? And is it real beer with hops and lifeforms in it, and not the chemically scrubbed cat piss that passes for beer over here [in the U.S.]? (I’m not referring to the good stuff one can get from a microbrewery, of course, but the stuff sold in supermarkets.) What about alcohol content? I’m pretty sure it’s lower here.”

Gee, Belladonna, I wish you’d tell how you really feel. Don’t be hold back.

I had to ask around, because it’s been so many years since I ingested alcohol that I don’t remember if it comes in a solid or a gaseous form.

Beer at sundown. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Beer at sundown. Photo by Ida Swearingen

First I asked Google about alcohol content and read that British beer is weaker than American—below 5%, although that will vary from brand to brand and from time to time. I also learned that British brewers, or at least some of them, began making their beer weaker in 2012 because it’s cheaper that way. For them, of course, not for the customer. They probably figured nobody would notice, and since nobody’s burned down the breweries they were probably right. Then I read a list of the alcohol content of American beers and it ranged all place, but some of it was below 5%. So the definitive answer is that it’s complicated and you should never trust me with numbers. But the British stuff is probably weaker.

Sorry, Belladonna. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Next, I asked M., who’s tasted both American and British beer. She said that beer is definitely served at room temperature in the U.K., as is ale, and that they have a richer taste than American beer, so I’m guessing that takes them out of the cat piss category.

A brief interruption here: I have an elderly cat who’s asked me to put it on the record that her piss is nothing at all like American beer and is altogether lovely. She was offended, but if you’d offer a bit of fish by way of apology, Belladonna, I’m sure the incident would be forgotten.

M. also said that lager is more like American beer and is served cold.

And hops? I didn’t ask anyone about this, but yes, hops are involved in both countries. You can’t summon beer out of thin air, even when the beer in question tastes like you did..

Finally, since I was at singers’ night at the pub anyway, I raised the subject there and learned why beer’s served at room temperature and lager’s served cold: Beer’s brewed at room temperature, so its taste develops and is at its best at that temperature. Lager’s brewed in cool cellars and its taste etc. So—unlike so much in life—there’s actually a reason for this and it all makes sense.

Who’d’ve thunk?

And finally a note: This is a bonus post. I usually post twice a week, but I’m working my way through the questions people asked and, I dunno, it seemed like a good idea. Since I’m having a good time with this, I’m still accepting questions about either the U.S. or the U.K.

51 thoughts on “How British and American beers compare

        • Hmm. Not sure if this is true, and less sure how to find out without doing first-hand research, which presents a few minor difficulties, since I’ve been in a monogamous relationship for the past 38 years. But I’ll see where this takes me–as long as it doesn’t take me anyplace too interesting. (Do keep in mind that I’m now 603 years old and likely to scare off even the kinkiest of the kinksters.)

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  1. You didn’t mention mild beer. This is much weaker than bitter, less taste but designed for a working man to quench his thirst after a day down t’pit, or at t’mill, without getting intoxicated. It is darker, from toasting the malt and this gives it a chocolatey taste.

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    • You’re the second person who’s mentioned a chocolatey taste. My head can’t hold the thoughts beer and chocolate at the same time, but back when I drank beer I drank the very unadventurous American stuff–with the occasional Mexican Dos Equis tossed in for the sake of thinking I was cool.

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  2. I work at a brewery and here’s what we do.
    Beer in a fermenting vessel is kept at 22degrees – which is at a temperature the yeast works best at. After so long it is cooled to 13d and then a few days later to 5d for a couple of days. Yeast for beer ferments at the top – hence the slow temperature drop to help the yeast settle at the bottom of the vat. This is so when we draw it off there hopefully is little yeast in the casks. In the casks a product is added to make sure in 2 days time the remaining yeast has settled to the bottom and you don’t get cloudy beer or floating yeast (which can be bitter to taste). Some bottled beers have this in, to keep the beer alive and maybe taste fresher. These are called Bottle Conditioned. Never pour a full bottle of these out into the glass.

    Lager is cool fermented and requires a different yeast that is active at lower temperatures.

    Now serving temperatures, there could be an argument here. We live in the 21century and therefore we have central heating and insulation so our homes are much warmer. Back in the day a home was a lot cooler. Pub landlords when keeping casks have to have good cellar conditions in order to be able to serve a perfect pint. Our brewery suggests with all our beers to pop it in the fridge. However we know some beer lovers prefare ‘room temperature’ so we suggest 1 bottle in the fridge the other not, so they can decide for themselves. Try it next time you have a bottle of your favourite (even if its a Porter or Stout) don’t drink it too quick let it gradually warm up and you will start to taste different things. From this you will roughly know how you like your beer.

    As for percentage – ours range from 3.8% – 9.1%. I’ve had some British beers that are over 12%. Infact quite a few forward thinking micro breweries usually have a range like ours or above. British beers are on the up.
    Now Hops- Flower hops are the natural state – which is what we use in all our brews. Every hop is different in smell and taste. The hops are put in when the mash (malt/barley/oats juice – whatever you’ve used) in the kettle is boiling. If you put it in at the start of the brew it gives it is flavour and bitterness. The later you put it in through that boiling hour the more aroma and less bitterness it gives off. Each beer is different for us in the quantity and timing. The other type is pellets. We use these in two brews and only put these in when the beer is a few days away from being put in casks, gives it a nicer wiff and a little extra taste.

    Wow you didn’t want a sermon or lecture did you lol. Everyday is a learning day lol

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    • Actually, I did want a lecture, and that was a good one. I think I’ll copy it out of the comments and send it out as a post, because a fair number of people seem to be genuinely interested. Thanks.

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    • I had to look this one up, because outside of what I was told I’m basically clueless about beers: Ale’s a specific type of beer. WiseGeek writes, “There are many different types of beer, although they are usually broken up into two basic categories: ale and lager. The term lager is often interchanged with ‘beer’, especially outside of Germany, which is why some consumers make a distinction between beer and ale, rather than lager and ale. The difference between beer and ale has to do with the way in which is it brewed, and how the yeast ferments.

      “Before hops became widespread in Europe, ale was a beer created without the use of hops, while lager combined hops with the other ingredients. As hops began to pervade breweries, however, this distinction between beer and ale no longer applied. Brewers began to differentiate between beer and ale on the basis of where the yeast fermented in the cask: ale uses yeast that gathers on the top, and lager uses yeast that ferments on the bottom.”

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    • The last time I had a Canadian beer must’ve been in 19-aught-four. Actually, it might have been 1965, but either way it was a long time ago. I’d probably be better off leaving the topic to someone a touch closer to it.

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  3. I always joke with my American friends that the beer here needs to be ice cold to deaden your palate because otherwise no one would want to drink it. ;) With this I’m talking of the mass-produced “CP”. There are only a few brews from big(ger) breweries that are drinkable, e.g. MGD [fairly good] and Shiner Bock [really good]. I’m really happy that here in Fredericksburg I can get some excellent German beers, even on draught, and also some great local beers, as we have 2 microbreweries here.
    Next weekend, btw, I’m planning to ride my bicycle in the “Real Ale Ride”, sponsored by the Real Ale Brewery in Blanco/TX. Their beers are great, too.

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  4. I never remember these facts about beer at the exact moment I am expected to say something intelligent about craft brews while I choose one that will impress my fellow drinkers so I am still a frustrated beer consumer with an inferiority complex. We have loads of small craft breweries along the west coast of the U.S. I just like them all, pretty much equally. I’m visiting Astoria, Oregon right now so I’m having some Buoy beer.Quite delicious. When I was last in London I had a small glass of bitters that really was fabulous but I was all alone and suffering from a virus so I didn’t have a second. I feared being unable to navigate out of Trafalgar Square down to the Thames to get on the Clipper boat back to where I was staying with a wonderful couple in the Royal Arsenal near Woolwich. I drink on, hoping to see the light and develop some kind of intelligent beer drinking habits. In the meantime, I’m just a happy occasional drinker of the hoppy brew. And yes, beer makes me want to sing, whether it is British or American, but the American junk in cans just makes me want to sob. Who drinks that stuff??

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  5. Pingback: How British beer is brewed: an expert speaks | Notes from the U.K.

  6. Reblogged this on American Soustannie and commented:
    The redoubtable Ellen, of Notes from the UK, wrote this specially for ME! (Well, in response to my question, which I sent her in response to her solicitation for questions – but let’s not get too technical here.) Anyway … if you like beer (or cats) you will find this both interesting and entertaining. If you are really inquisitive about beer, read the comments.

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  7. So interesting. My father, a Scot, brewed his own beer for years, here in South Africa. Actually, with hindsight (and a little [and probably dangerous) knowledge about beer], it was probably a lager. He drank his beer warm – acquired the taste for it because his stomach rebelled, with the advance of age, to his ingesting too cold foods and drinks. The husband can tell a story of an entire weekend of presenting my father with cold beer and then, on our last day, being told off for having done so. Humph! Make of that what you will!

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  8. Couple of things… I LOVED Halfpint’s sermon above! I live about half a mile from Marlow Brewery, so what he said is true so far as I know. Frankly, I’m a lager girl myself, in part because I prefer the slight bitter fizz of it. I will drink ales and stouts, but given my choice, I like a bit of fizz. Not fizz like the cotton candy fizz of Budweiser, but the more subtle fizz of… say Stella, Staropramen, or some of the Belgian wheat beers. Marlow Brewery does an awesome Blonde that is pretty much a perfect beer, and is served cold. They also do a fab IPA that everyone around here raves about…
    As for expecting Belladonna Took to be anything other than absolutely blunt, frank and honest, well, she is what she is! :-) I love her. She just cuts straight through the cr** and gets to the point. American micros are nice for the most part – I love the steamy taste some of them have. I can’t explain that taste in any other term, really. But taste a Fat Tire, and you’ll get my point. Also, Texas does some nice ones as well. Shiner Black is a very nice American “Stout” type beer. Overall, though, I would agree with halfpint… British beer is typically a bit stronger, but it depends on what you choose. The famous Hedgerley White Horse Beer Fest is coming up at the end of the month… we’ll go as we always do. It’s worth suffering through the Morris Dancing just to taste the weird and wonderful micros and ciders,,, :-) Cheers! Mother Hen

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        • I’m not going to defend myself on this one. When I lived in Minnesota, I was infected by an overwhelming urge to make fun of North and South Dakota and Iowa. For no good reason, Wisconsin seemed to be exempt. These urges are catching–and horribly tempting.

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        • I’m not going to defend myself on this one. When I lived in Minnesota, I was infected by an overwhelming urge to make fun of North and South Dakota and Iowa. For no good reason, Wisconsin seemed to be exempt. These urges are catching–and horribly tempting.

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  9. I think it should all be cold, to varying degrees anyway, English Beer (ales, bitters are what I call beer) I am not a massive fan of but I wouldn’t want it room temp, that would be like drinking washing up water (I’d imagine) I’d want it slightly chilled, lagers and Belgian stuff (my favourite) I prefer cold.

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  10. My DIL(2B) and my oldest son are seriously beer-spoiled, as her father brews his own and shares out with family members. He’s got quite the touch with wines, too.

    They call the commercially-available American beers ‘canoe sex.’ (f***ing close to water)

    I never developed a taste for any beer, so I have to take their word for it.

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  11. I didn’t didn’t know that about the alcohol content being lower in UK beer than U.S., I always assumed the opposite. Oh well, after a beer or two everything makes sense. ;)

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  12. I see!! I didn’t realise there was such a difference between beer and lager. Which leads me to the question I’ve been asking myself: are beer and lager the same thing? I assumed so, but obviously I have been wrong.

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  13. Pingback: Strange stuff non-Brits want to know about Britain | Notes from the U.K.

  14. Pingback: How people find a blog, part 5ish | Notes from the U.K.

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