Just like Pale Ales versus India Pale Ales, when I began learning about beer, these two styles confused me. The simple answer to the difference is hops.
American Pale Ales have a bitterness level similar to that of English Bitters, except they are used with American hops, usually Cascade, which gives the beer a nice citrusy quality. Most of the Pale Ales available in the United States sit anywhere between 4.5% and 6% ABV, allowing it to be enjoyed in many different situations. It is a very refreshing beer to have on a hot summer day, and also goes very well with almost any food. It tends to enhance the hotness of spicy foods, so it goes particularly well with hot wings or grilled foods. The prototypical example of an American Pale Ale is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
English bitters tend to be a bit weaker (alcohol-wise) than the American counterparts, and use European hops, usually Kent Golding and Fuggles types, which give the beer a more earthy and slightly spicy hop character. The bitterness tends to be the same level as the typical American Pale Ale, but this depends on if the beer is a Bitter, Best Bitter, or Extra Special Bitter (ESB). The difference among these styles is from Bitter to ESB, the beer tends to be stronger and have more hops.
A lot of times, the Bitter family of styles are the ones favored by CAMRA, a group that thinks ale should not be served with additional carbon dioxide, and instead should be served naturally, which tends to lead to a beer that’s slightly warmer (55 degree F, a.k.a. cellar temperature), and less fizzy (because it only uses natural carbonation). This lends itself to allowing the true flavor of the ale to shine through. An excellent example of an ESB would be Fuller’s ESB.
What’s your experience with American Pale Ales and Bitters? What’s your favorite?