As the world slowly returns to normal, one of the most significant moments in the end of England’s lockdown has been the reopening of our pubs.
It is not too controversial to describe England as a nation of beer and lager drinkers, and the pub has been at the heart of it for centuries. Our culture has become entwined with the production and consumption of fermented hops, around which have grown a host of rituals, associations and social etiquette. At the same time, the pub has become a centre of social interaction, a key component in many communities, not just a place to drink, but a place to catch up, unwind and celebrate.
The English beer landscape has changed over time and some ancient distinctions are no longer applicable, while new differences in beer types have taken their place. For example, originally, ale was the world used to describe a drink made with malted barley, which was then flavoured with herbs and spice though no hops content, while beer was a continental European drink made form malted barley to which hops had been added, creating a refreshing bitterness.
The first evidence we have of hopped beer rather than old fashioned ale being drunk in England was in the 14th century, when beer was imported from the Netherlands to Great Yarmouth. It soon caught on! Evidence indicates that by 1412, beer produced from imported hops was being made in Colchester, Essex as the country began to develop a taste for the drink.
It took some time for domestic cultivation of hops to get underway but in 1520, there is evidence of the first hops plants being cultivated in Kent. At the same time, ale brewing and drinking continued to be popular in England, and both beer and ale were enjoyed as distinctive drink, but by the 18th century, hopped beer was in the ascendancy and the distinctions between beer and ale were gradually forgotten.
The growing influence of England around the world from the 17th century onwards, along with the country’s huge trading network resulted in the spread of beer around the world. Much of this was
accidental and not entirely down to trade. English ships carried beer on long journeys both as a source of drinking water and as part of the crew’s daily rations to keep them happy.
At the same time, back in England, there was even a health argument for drinking beer. The preference for beer over water made sense at a time when there was no public sanitation. The process of brewing beer killed much of the harmful bacteria that was found in public drinking water.
Beer drinking, and the culture of inns and public houses had become an essential part of English life long before the 20th century, but by then, mass production of beer was beginning to threaten smaller breweries, a trend that continued throughout the 20th century as the beer industry was dominated by a small number of powerful breweries.
That changed in the early years of the 21st century, when the Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown made dramatic alterations to the taxes on beer duty. The result was a proliferation of small, artisanal and craft breweries, leading to a rainbow of inventive styles and flavours, that has seen England once again become one of the world’s leading beer centres. So as we celebrate the gradual easing of the lockdown and a return to normal, here are some of the top beers to sample in 2021:
Potholer – Cheddar Ales
This golden ale is a perfect representative of the South West of England, and the glorious summers that many English people enjoy in the region. The Cheddar Brewery, based in Somerset, produces some of England’s finest beers and this golden drink is one of the most refreshing you will find. The beer has a light, grainy malt character, while the bitter hops add a slightly fruity and zesty edge, and there is a lovely smooth finish. The perfect beer to go with the best Cheddar cheese.
The Porter – Ansbach and Hodbay
Porter is a style of beer named for its popularity among the street and river porters of London’s in the 18th century and at one time, it was the country’s most popular form of beer. Ansbach and Hobday’s porter is the beer that laid the platform for their success, and it is still at the heart of their range of beers and ales today. This is a carefully brewed black porter, that packs in plenty of rich, roasted malt flavour, along with hints of coffee and chocolate, and a distinctive tang.
First Chop Hop – First Chop
For vegans and those who prefer gluten free foods, First Chop are the go-to brand. They are one of England’s most famous vegan and gluten free breweries, and have expanded rapidly from their starting base as a small brewery located under a Manchester railway arch. They initially turned out 400 litres of beer per month, but have now expanded to a third brewhouse, based in Salford, which produces 30,000 litres a week. First Chop Hop is one of their most sought after products and is a refreshing pale ale that can be enjoyed by vegans and meat-eaters alike.
Axe Edge – Buxton Brewery
The Midlands has long been regarded as one of the best places to brew beer, thanks to the distinctive qualities of the water in that region, which makes it possible to produce some of the best IPAs and milds that you will find. Within the Midlands, the heart of the brewing industry was Burton-on-Trent, which is perfectly situated just an hour’s drive south of the spa town of Buxton, which is famous for its pure drinking water. The Buxton Brewery have turned out some remarkable beers, including this IPA, which is packed with pine-influenced bitterness, a dash of fresh fruit and a crisp, dry finish.
Red Top – The Old Dairy Brewery
The East of England is famous for its hop growing, and one of the best examples of the English bitter style comes from this region. Red Top is packed with the flavour of locally grown East Kent Golding, English Cascade and Challenger hops, which give it plenty of bitterness, along with a slight citrus twist, and a dash of sweetness and cream from the underlining malt flavour.
Mary Jane – Ilkley Brewery
Yorkshire has made many fine contributions to the English beer scene, and one of the most popular recent examples is Mary Jane, produced by the Ilkley Brewery. This is a relatively low alcohol pale ale that has become the beer of choice for many drinkers, thanks to easy to drink, soft style, which is full of fruity flavour and a delightful grassy bitterness.
Allendale Wolf – Allendale Brewery
The city of Newcastle is perhaps best known for its famous Brown Ale, although that product is now owned by the Dutch brand Heineken. There are plenty of other contenders to consider from the city, however, including this delightful brown beer from the Allendale Brewery in the west of the city. The malt in the Allendale Wolf is toasty and caramel flavoured, while the Target and Bramling Cross hops bring another dimension of earthy bitterness and fruit.
Mobberly Playback – Mobberly Brewhouse
With Manchester as its centre, the north west’s brewing scene has been one of the most successful in the modern craft ale movement, and among the many fascinating beers to be sampled in this part of the world is Mobberly Playback, an impressive and punchy IPA. This drink is full of fruity and fresh American hops and has a strong malty quality for a mighty overall taste.
Jaipur – Thornbridge
Our final beer is another from the Midlands and is one of the best known of the modern craft beer varieties. Known as one of the world’s best IPAs, Jaipur is produced by Thornbridge of Bakewell in Derbyshire. It has landed over 100 awards around the world, including the prestigious gold medal at the World Beer Awards. Jaipur is a perfect combination of six hop varieties, including Centennial and Cascade and is the archetypal IPA blend of aroma, bitterness and flavour.