Tuesday 16 March 2021

How many 'styles' can one beer have - and what is Amber Ale anyhow?

Beer styles are a perennial topic for discussion among beer geeks - sorry, I mean 'aficionados'! I was in just such a debate last week, discussing whether a particular brew should be classed as Bitter, Pale Ale or Golden Ale. 

Over on sites such as Ratebeer and Untappd, and among the BCJP beer judges, it's even worse - does this particular Amber/Red Ale meet the specs for Irish Red or would it be better listed as American Amber? Is this Pale Ale - English, Pale Ale - American or Pale Ale - International? And how do we differentiate between Lager - Strong and Bock - Helles?

So when the news came through that Asahi has refreshed* the branding for Fuller's London Pride I was struck not so much by the new imagery - very nice though it is, with an impressively subtle combination of modernity and continuity of tradition - but by the fascinating image they published alongside the news, showing how Pride's branding has changed over time. 

The name's unchanged of course, and the griffin is always there, but just look at how the description changes!

* Distinctive Best Bitter 
* Special Pale Ale
* Outstanding Premium Ale (superlative overload...)
* Original Ale, and now...
* Outstanding Amber Ale

London Pride branding

So one beer has at various times in its history been Best Bitter, Pale Ale, Premium Ale, whatever that is, and today it's Amber Ale. OK, so now tell me what you reckon the difference is between Bitter and Pale Ale? 🤔

It also confirms something I've been saying for a while now: Amber Ale is just another word for Bitter. (And yes, American Amber Ale is just American Bitter!)

It's the same thing that happened with Mild. Marketing types decided that Mild was no longer an attractive word to use, that it didn't describe the beer accurately (and to be fair, they're right - Mild originally meant un-aged, not Mild in flavour) and that it put consumers off. So they renamed it Dark Ale - I'm guessing the marketeers were probably lager drinkers, so weren't aware of pale Milds...

Now it's the turn of Bitter. In recent years more and more brown bitters have been renamed Amber Ale, or in some cases Ruby Ale (although we are crossing into Brown Ale territory here, as well). 

Let me say it again then: 

Amber Ale is just Bitter under a new name.

Dark Ale is just Mild under a new name

Oh, and historically at least, Bitter was synonymous with Pale Ale - and by the look of it, for many brewers it still is. Or am I wrong?? 

*Well, I say 'refreshed', they say 'unveiled a striking new brand identity' 😉


  1. I'm wary of this sort of convergence of style terminology. That English brewers like Fuller's, and Marston's before them, have started to call their brown bitters "Amber Ale" *does not* mean they have anything in common with Fat Tire or Troeg's HopBack. In this instance I feel we (the nerds) are obliged to reject the brewery's new terminology.

    There are other examples. Diageo, for instance, now badges Kilkenny as a "Cream Ale", because it's an an ale and it's creamy. But Cream Ale is a particular style with particular characteristics which Kilkenny does not share, so we must reject what the can says and classify it as an Irish Red.

    Going further back, Ind Coope Draught Burton Ale was one of the last mainstream beers to carry "Burton Ale" in its brewery-given description, but it is absolutely not one, it is an English IPA and bears no resemblance to the established, but largely extinct, Burton Ale style.

    Pedigree and Pride are Bitters which, as you say, is a form of Pale Ale. They are not Amber Ale in the formal stylistic sense and should not be confused with same. Further, Amber Ale cannot be considered a synonym for Bitter as Fat Tire and Timothy Taylor Landlord are archetypes which match one of the terms but not the other.

    1. All valid points! But surely, just because English "Amber Ale" is different from "American Amber Ale", that doesn't stop them both being synonyms - for English Bitter and what we'd otherwise know as American Bitter, respectively. 😏

    2. I guess what I'm saying is that the Yanks got their "people don't like the word Bitter" adjustment in early!

    3. Yes, I'll accept that there is now a thing called "English Amber Ale" which is a synonym for brown bitter. Doesn't mean I like it :P

    4. If it's any help, I'm also not keen on it - ditto for Dark Ale. Not least because its colour is often not the most useful or accurate guide to what a beer's going to taste like.

  2. Newcastle Brewery used to make a beer called Newcastle Amber Ale (70s to early 90s, I think). I recall it being a thin(er) version of Exhibition, so basically a pale mild

    1. Interesting, description by colour is a long-standing thing, I guess, otherwise we'd not have Pale Ale and Brown Ale.