As recently as a decade ago, going for a beer was a straightforward matter. You’d simply pick a mid-range, 4.5%-ish lager for after work drinks. Stella to impress the lads, Guinness to impress your dad, or Hoegaarden to impress your date. Two or three down, you’d be tipsy whatever you ordered, and nobody would judge you.
Nowadays, thanks to the rise of the UK craft beer scene, we baffled old socks are compelled to navigate a minefield of terminology every time we approach the pumps. What’s a porter, or a stout? What’s the difference between a pilsner and a larger? Can I just grimace and go ‘ooh, bit hoppy’ to ensure the barmaid will think I’m a debonair sophisticate?
Here’s our rough guide to a few of the main varieties of craft beer you’ll encounter at the bar, a bit of the history, some food pairings and our favourite spots to enjoy them. Remember many of these styles, such as the IPA, are also brewed and distributed by big, non-craft breweries. While there’s no fixed definition, essentially to qualify as a ‘craft’ beer it should be manufactured on a small scale by independent brewers, with an emphasis on strong flavour and a rigorous sourcing of ingredients. Cheers to that!
India Pale Ale was first brewed in the 18th century for British imperialists stationed on the subcontinent. It is characterised by a hoppy flavour and amber-appearance, due to a high hop content. This style was originally formulated to guarantee the brew could survive a long sea voyage from England. British IPA is moderately bitter with what experts call a ‘caramel sweetness’. American IPA is a little more citrusy, and more drinkable for the craft beer newbie. IPA loves strong food, particularly curry.
In the more laissez-faire nineteenth century it was considered perfectly acceptable to be steaming drunk at work. Health and safety wasn’t invented (nor breathalysers) so why not? One group somewhat frowned upon by polite society for getting smashed on the job were the guys who carried luggage or parcels around bustling Victorian London. So a special, lower-alcohol beer was developed specially for these ‘porters’. It became know as (you guessed it) ‘porter.’
Interestingly, by modern standards, the porter they drank was still a rather pokey 6.6% ABV. Today, porters are often chocolatey with roasted grains, with undertones of coffee or occasionally liquorice.
Food pairing-wise, porters are perfectly flavoursome by themselves, or lovely with meat dishes.
Beer Emporium in Bristol usually have one or two gorgeous examples of porter on tap, such as the rich deep-bodied espresso porter from Gloucester Brewery - they also serve succulent pizzas from Pepenero to soak up the boozy goodness. Elsewhere, Cardiff’s lovely Lansdowne promises a strong Porter line up - look out for the Jackdaw Porter from The Flying Monk Brewery. In Brighton pop into the North Laine Brewery for a Laine's Porter - creamy and smoky with hints of fruit and coffee.
A variation on porter, stout (meaning ‘strong’) traditionally referred to more heady porters, up and around the 8% ABV mark. Guinness draught is the most famous, an example of a dry stout. Once believed to be something of a health drink, stout was recommended to blood donors, port-operative patients and even pregnant women as a revitalising tonic. This stuff is surprisingly good to savour with chocolate.
Pair your oysters at Riddle & Finns with a strong stout. In Bristol, get your bout of stout from The Hope & Anchor. Look out for Crafty Devil Brewing Co's Coffee Milk Stout in Cardiff - this brilliant Brewery is on the rise, they recently launched a kickstarter campaign to bring canned craft beer to the city.
The WHEAT BEER
Divided into the equally highfalutin’, continental-sounding ‘Witbier’ and ‘Weissbier’ categories, this wheat-based beer is thought to be the oldest variety of beer still commonly available. Hailing from Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, the most famous non-craft brand is Hoegaarden, which is fairly representative of the aromatic, fruity, full-flavour experience of craft wheat beer.
When in Brighton, pop in to the guys at Bison Beer, or visit their crowdfunded The Bison Arms venue, to see what wheat they have in store - the hoppy American from Dream Brother is lush.
In Bristol, Moor Beer serve an incredibly morish wheat beer called Claudia.
Most right-thinking wreckheads associate Germany with the finest quality beer. Well it wasn’t always so. Back in the 1830s, drinkers appalled by the cloudy, uneven potency of brews on offer ditched whole barrel loads of the stuff in protest. Enter master brewer Josef Groll who, working from the city of Pilsen, developed the crisp, light, clear lager we still demolish by the gallon to this day.
As a cool historical side-note, it was also around this time that glass drinking vessels became widely available, further advancing the reputation of Groll and his delicious zesty brainchild.
Light, crisp and as near as you could wish to the big-name lagers (all of which are essentially based on it), pilsner cuts right through rich, fatty food.
In Cardiff, Pipes Beer do Bohemian Pilsner, widely available in stockists across the city and sometimes available at the brewery tap. In Brighton, look out for bottled Wingtip beer at The Dorset - a fresh floral pilsner with grassy notes and a clean, crisp finish. Old-age favourite Krusovice pilsner is always on tap at Aviator Bar - perfect for warm summer days. If you’re lucky, you’ll find Marston's citrus-infused Revisionist Craft Lager. Our new favourite brewery in Bristol, Good Chemistry, do a wacky cherry pilsner called Morello, well worth tracking down.
- Click here to find the best Craft Beer Pubs in Brighton.
- Click here to find out about the Welsh craft breweries changing the Cardiff beer scene.