It is not controversial to say that England is a nation of beer drinkers. Our culture has long and deep links with the production of fermented hops drinking, with all of its rituals, associations and social implications.
Over the centuries, some of the finer points of the differences in types of beer have been lost. These days, for example, beer and ale are interchangeable words, but this was not always the case. In fact, ale was originally a drink made with malted barley, and flavoured with herbs and spices but without hops, while beer was the word for a malted barley drink with added hops for a refreshing bitterness, consumed widely in continental Europe.
The first evidence of hopped beer being drunk in England was around 1362 when the drink was imported from Amsterdam into Great Yarmouth. By 1412, there was evidence that beer made from imported hops was being made in Colchester.
It was a while before the domestic cultivation of hops began, but in 1520, the first examples of hops were planted in Kent. Ale brewing and drinking continued to be popular among English people, and both beer and ale were enjoyed as distinctive drinks. Eventually though, perhaps by the 18th century, hopped beer had begun to dominate, and gradually, the distinctions between ale and beer were forgotten.
The increasing influence of England overseas from the 17th century and the country’s vast trading network led to the spreading in demand for beer and introduced it to parts of the world that had never previously tried it.
Much of this spreading of beer was accidental and not entirely a trading practice. Ships carried beer on long journeys as a source of drinking water and as daily rations to keep the crew happy. In fact, the preference for beer over drinking water in English society made a lot of sense in the centuries before effective public sanitation, as the alcohol in the beer killed most of the harmful bacteria to be found in public drinking water.
Beer drinking, and the associated inn and public house culture, slowly became an essential part of English life. For many decades in the 20th century, the beer business was dominated by a few powerful breweries, but all of this changed in 2002, when the Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown made dramatic changes to the taxes on beer duty.
The result has been an explosion in small, artisanal and craft breweries, and a rainbow of inventive styles and flavours, that has seen England become one of the world’s leading producers of innovative beers, ales, porters and stouts. To help you explore the wonderful world of English beer, here are ten of the most notable styles you are likely to come across:
This is a classic English beer style that refers to cask-conditioned ales, popular throughout the English pub landscape. When it comes to style, bitters can be quite versatile and include brews of different colours, strengths, and flavours, but one thing that most bitters have in common is a malty essence, a bite of hop bitterness, light or medium body, and a relatively low alcohol content. Bitter is often graded in ascending order of alcoholic content, from ordinary bitter to best bitter and finally strong or extra special bitter.
This is an old and versatile style of beer whose origins lie in the depths of the English brewing tradition. Back in the Victorian era, the name ‘brown ale’ was used as a generic term that referred to various types of beers made from brown malt. The arrival of pale malt meant that the brown ale style of beer nearly died out completely, although it was revived and began to regain some ground in the 1920s.
Newcastle Brown is perhaps the most famous of the English brown ales, and it formed the foundation of the revival of brown ale, although these days the brown ale name incorporates a variety of different styles and flavours.
Although the name pale ale probably originated in 18th-century England, it was originally mainly used for those brews that were produced with pale barley malt and which were a little lighter than the standard dark and brown beers. It was also used interchangeably with the term bitter, leading to further confusion that continues to this day.
Over the following centuries however, the style developed in new directions that were driven by different brewing practices as well as the choice of hops, leading to a diverse style with a broad range of strength, colour and flavour, though most pale ales are malty, dominated by hops and range in colour from gold to amber.
India pale ale
India pale ale or IPA is one of the most interesting beer styles with origins that are widely disputed, though it seems that the style developed from the need to transport pale ale brews to distant colonies, particularly India, because the climate there was too hot to brew beer.
IPA was produced by raising alcohol levels and adding more hops, helping to preserve the beer on long journeys. The first reference to India pale ale was noted in the 1830s, though it is likely that the style long predated this period. These days, IPAs are at the heart of the craft beer revolution, particularly in the US.
This is a beer style that was developed in London sometime in the 18th century, although the array of well-balanced and aromatic modern versions has little in common with the original. Porter is a versatile dark ale that is made from dark malted barley along with a hefty helping of hops, leading to roasted, malty flavours and medium bitterness.
Stout is a top-fermented beer that is usually dark, with a deep, roasted flavour. It is believed that the stout was developed as an adaptation of porter, at some point during the 18th century, when brewers were aiming to produce a stronger and fuller porter.
This drink is best known for its aromas of roasted barley and roasted malt that can even be reminiscent of coffee, chocolate, or cocoa. Traditional dry stouts can be black or deep brown in colour and are in the medium-light to medium-full range when it comes to body, while being smooth, creamy, and silky with a long dry finish.
This stout variant is a strong and opaque dark beer that was first produced in London, but which is also associated with Russia, Baltic countries, and in recent years, with the US. Modern imperial stouts range from deep red to dark brown and are full-bodied, rich, complex, and intense drinks, with flavours that can include roasted malt, dark and dried fruit, chocolate, and coffee. Most varieties will be high in alcohol and bitter hops.
This is another variant of stout that is usually brewed with the addition of milk sugar. It is also sometimes known as cream or milk stout, and it emerged in England sometime in the early 1900s. Sweet stouts are usually dark and full-bodied beers that offer grainy malt flavours and aromas, which often hint at coffee and chocolate.
Sweet stouts provide medium hop bitterness, and their malty character is well-balanced with medium to high sweetness. They can make an ideal pairing with chocolate desserts, but they can also work well alongside creamy cheese, spicy dishes, game, and rich sauces.
This is yet another take on stout, this time with the addition of oatmeal. The style first became popular in England, sometime in the late 19th century. Oatmeal stouts are usually dark and smooth, with a distinct roasted malt character and coffee aromas.
By adding oatmeal, the stout will take on subtle sweetness and sometimes earthy, grainy, and nutty flavour, while the bitterness can vary, but it is usually low to moderate. Oatmeal stouts goes well with roasted meat, rich and spicy sauces, chocolate and caramel.
Despite the name, English barley wine is actually a style of beer that is often considered the ancestor of all beers. It is a strong, rich, and usually moderately hoppy style with pronounced malt flavours, along with aromas of bread, toast, toffee, dried fruit, and molasses.
If aged for longer periods, barley win can take on similar characteristics to port and sherry wines, and though these beers usually have high alcohol content, the alcohol is not usually overpowering as the drink mellows with age. In terms of colour, there is a variety of tones from deep gold and brown to lighter shades. Barley win is typically smooth and velvety in body, with a distinctive taste.