British beer – things have changed a lot since half of England’s brewers headed for Burton-upon-Trent in Staffordshire in the late eighteenth century in search of the perfect brewing water, and although some of the more familiar brewers have disappeared – Whitbread and Bass, for example, both morphed into hotels and leisure – and crap pubs are closing by the thousand, craft brewing in the UK is in the rudest health with over 700 producers – three times as many by population as in the USA.
For all the dangerously swinging big-beer business dicks, the British beer drinker, like the wine drinker, has never had it so good.
British styles of beer, now widely replicated (and often revived) wherever microbrewers ply their trade include:
- barley wine – extra strong ale (JW Lees), up to 11% abv, and now big in the USA. ‘Two valium and a barley wine . . .’ more a way of life than just a quote from Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 film O Lucky Man! but poor preparation for an interview at Balliol.
- bitter – well-hopped English ale. Best bitter is the brewer’s stronger version; ESB is ‘extra special’ and HSB ‘Horndean Special Bitter’, now brewed by Fuller’s in Chiswick, London, where they still use former brewers Gale’s yeast, which is ‘alive and well’.
- blonde ale – (aka summer ale) the fastest-growing style, being a lighter, brighter version of bitter;
- brown ale – dark-malted, sweeter, stronger bottled style of mild and just as unfashionable;
- heavy – Scottish term for bitter;
- India pale ale (aka IPA) – wellhopped, bottled bitter robust enough to stand the sea voyage to India (pre-Suez Canal). The best and bitterest now made in the USA where it has been embraced with enthusiasm;
- light ale – bottled bitter; mild ale – making a bit of a comeback as brewers update the unfashionable sudsy, low-alcohol, lightly hopped version of yore;
- Morocco ale – spiced ginger-cakey winter warmer revived by Daleside breweries;
- oatmeal stout – oats added to the mash and thought to be nourishing (Maclay’s);
- old ale – as in old-fashioned, rather than long-aged, and in essence a strong version of mild (Theakston’s Old Peculier sets the standard);
- porter – the first mass-produced beer, well-hopped and dark (using chocolate malt), ubiquitous in eighteenth-century London. Stout is its stronger, modern form although the original has been revived in US microbreweries;
- stout – family of black, well-hopped ales made familiar the world over by Guinness. Milk and cream stouts use some lactose sugar (Mackeson);
- Imperial Russian stout is an extra strong (7–10% abv) version. The name originates from its popularity with the Russian nobility (Harvey’s, Samuel Smith’s). Chocolate stout is named for the dark colour and bitterness derived from heavily roasted chocolate malt, but sometimes a little chocolate is also added.
Regional differences still affect taste although the boundaries are blurring as adventurous and well-trained brewers experiment with every style and the roll-call of excellence is too long to list here for well-deserved praise but I’ll list a few of my favourites. Deep breath:
Adnam’s – for Broadside; Anglo Dutch – partly but not only for naming a beer Tabatha the Knackered; Archers – for making nearly 200 different beers in a year; Arkells for 2B – a 3.2% abv beer that tastes good; Arundel – for Sussex Mild; Badger – for Tanglefoot;Banks’s – for keeping mild alive; Bateman’s – for experiments like Combined Harvest multigrain ale; Belhaven – for Wee Heavy; Black Sheep – for Riggwelter; Brains – for keeping Welsh brewing alive; Brakspear – for staying alive and Special; Brewdog – for making a 41% abv beer called Sink the Bismarck; Cains – for brains; Caledonian – for Deuchar’s IPA (don’t pronounce the ‘ch’) and keeping the ‘shilling’ naming tradition; Camerons – for Strongarm; Crouch Vale – for Brewers Gold; Durham – for Evensong;Everard’s – for Original; Exmoor – for Wild Cat; Felinfoel – for Double Dragon; Freeminer – for Deep Shaft; Fuller, Smith & Turner– for the complex, dark amber stuff of dried orange peel, spices and caramel that is London Pride, named for the saxifrage that colonised many of the bombsites of the Blitz, and for continuing to brew HSB after they took over Gales even though it’s better than Pride; Greene King – for Old Speckled Hen, which flies the flag for good bitter, creeping in at number twenty of the bestselling beers, and proving that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs; Harvey’s – for weaning me off my mother’s milk; Harviestoun – for Ola Dubh; Hook Norton – for Old Hooky; Hop Back – for Summer Lightning, what else?; Hydes – for mild; Itchen Valley – for Fagins; Marston’s – for scintillating, super-dry, Seville orange marmalade Double Drop; Meantime Brewery – for everything;Moorhouse’s – for Black Cat; O’Hanlon’s – for Firefly; Porterhouse Brewery – for good bars; Ringwood – for Old Thumper;Robinson’s – for Old Tom; Roosters – for not compromising; St Austell – for austere, almost astringent dryness and for leaving some sweetness down in there too; St Peter’s – for purity; Samuel Smith’s – for its big, creamy northern head with a southern hoppiness, well-balanced with sweet malt (in some of the most characterful pub buildings in London); Shepherd Neame – England’s oldest brewer and another formative one for me, for Spitfire a soft, amber pillow of toasty maltiness with a curacao nightcap and Whitstable Bay’s peanut brittle hoppiness the bottle can barely contain; Thwaites – for Lancaster Bomber; Timothy Taylor – for celebrated Landlord, the best all-rounder: light but never ‘lite’, dry but never harsh, a harmonious thing of dried fruits like a fine sercial Madeira; Traquair House – for Jacobite; Wadworth – for quality in quantity; Williams Bros – for Froach Heather Ale; Wychwood – for Hobgoblin.
And praise to all of them for keeping the great tradition of cask conditioned draught beer – Britain’s dowry to the world of beer – not only alive and well but also in the rudest of health.