At its heart, making beer is simple: mix crushed grain with water and boil it; cool it and add yeast; allow it to ferment; and then drink it. However, as is often the way, it's a bit more complicated than that...
The brewing process has been refined in different ways to give numerous different styles, and combined with the addition of hops and a variety of other ingredients, the potential for different beers is practically infinite.
We're fortunate enough to be based in London, which has become a hub for beer making. From the hundred-plus brewers to great festivals like London Beer Week, we've had the chance to try and choose a range of excellent beers for you to try,
The large range of styles can be a bit confusing, so here's a breakdown to help you tell saisons from best bitters.
Once a term for any beer brewed with hops, these days ale refers to warm-fermented beers as opposed to cold-fermented lagers. Within the category lie almost all of the traditional British beers, as well as manys from around the world. They are often distinguished by their colour, which varies based on the mix of malted grain used.
Here are a few of the most common types:
Golden/Blonde/Amber/Red/Brown/Dark – ales brewed with increasing amounts of darker malts. These grains have been roasted for longer to give a darker colour and flavour. Within each band you can get a wide variation of flavour based on the brewing techniques, from light and hoppy to sweet and nutty with every combination in between. Check the flavour profile and description of these beers and you'll easily be able to find one that fits your taste.
Bitter – once this was synonymous with pale ale, but these days it generally refers to a mid brown ale, the mainstay of recent British brewing tradition. Best Bitter is usually the flagship of a brewery's bitter range, if they have more than one.
Mild – once a very popular style, mild has become unfashionable in recent years. Fortunately, both the new wave of brewers and traditional stalwarts are discovering that good milds can be fantastic beers, and more are now appearing. Normally dark in colour and lower in alcohol, although there are many exceptions, they vary from dry to sweet, but are almost all easy-drinking beers.
Scottish – a stronger, amber/red ale with lots of malt influence. Scotland is now taking its rightful place as a powerhouse of British brewing again, but until recently the only traditional beers you could find north of the border were a handful of Scottish ales.
Pale – initially this was a generic term used to describe beers using malt that was dried with coke. Using smokeless fuel allowed the maltsters to create a very lightly coloured malt, which in turn led to a significantly paler beer. These generally fit into the colour spectrum of ales, but some brewers use the term to refer to a less strong take on IPA (see below). This is especially the case with APAs, which are pale ales brewed in an American style, normally higher in alcohol and using more hops.
IPA aka India Pale ale – a style with a long history and a recent resurgence. They were initially a more heavily hopped pale ale which could be kept for a long time, making them ideal for export to British colonies, especially India. However, the style was popular enough that much stayed in the UK, sometimes dropping the 'India', helping to create the hoppier style of pale ale that is still popular today. However, as the influence of American brewers has grown over the past few decades, a distinctive US style of IPA has arisen, becoming dominant around the world. These usually use hops from the US and New Zealand to create very hoppy beers, with fresh and fruity flavours as well as bitterness. This style has helped popularise craft beer and many modern breweries showcase their skills with their IPA.
Now the most popular style of beer in the world, Lager is a relatively recent invention. Brewed at lower temperatures than ale, the most common style is a crisp and light-tasting pale beer. However, despite its relative youth there are as many styles as there are ales, and they are becoming more popular all the time. We've only got a few pale lagers at the moment, but keep an eye out for more...
While devotees of stout and porter will claim that they are different styles, they are almost always interchangeable these days. They are dark beers, usually with a weighty mouthfeel and a higher ABV – Imperial Stouts can get break the 10% barrier on occasion and should be approached with care.
Most beer uses malted barley, but there are other grains that appear in recipes around the world. Here are a few of the most popular.
Rye – A very difficult grain to work with, rye produces very thick, sticky and porridge-like mashes that are notoriously hard to turn into beer. However, the effort is worth it, with lots of spicy and fruity notes appearing in the finished product. Look out for a touch of banana...
Wheat/Wit/Weizen – popular across Europe – leading to the Dutch and German names often being used – these are usually cloudy thanks to suspended particles of grain in yeast in the beer, giving them a distinctively yeasty and wheaty flavour, and a weightier mouthfeel. They are also sometimes flavoured with fruit and spice, so make sure to check the description carefully before buying – coriander is a common flavouring that is not for everyone.
Thanks to the worldwide explosion of craft beer, some lesser-known styles have more recently been picking up fans. Here are a few examples:
Saison – originally a beer brewed by farmers to keep their workers hydrated and happy while they worked in the fields, the modern version is normally brewed in the tradition of Saison Dupont: a cloudy pale beer with lots of fizz and fruity flavour. You can find them at low and high strengths, with and without spice and fruit added to the recipe. It's a style that modern brewers like to play with, so expect some weird and wonderful beers.
Altbier – a German ale that originated in Düsseldorf. It's a crisp beer with some fruitiness that normally sits between a more traditional British bitter and dark German lager in flavour. It's a refreshing style that's perfect for Autumn evenings and cooler summer days.
Cask-aged – at one time, most beer was aged before serving – lager is German for 'storeroom' – and the standard container for storing the beer was a wooden cask or vat. While the practise fell out of favour, it has more recently reappeared, with the types of cask often chosen to add flavour to the beer. Generally dark ales fare better in wood, but experiments with cask-aging of lager have produced some excellent beers.
Smoked/Rauchbier – before the days of smokeless coal, almost all beer would have a tinge of smoke from burning fuel used to dry the malt. These days, some brewers add smokiness to their beers as another flavour. Expect everything from roasty notes to bbq and bacon – if you like smoky whisky, then you need to try a smoked beer.