British Beer Guide

Britain, the land of warm, flat, weak beer and served in a pub from hand pulled pumps. Where the brewing industry still works in pints despite the introduction of the metric system in 1965, where it's acceptible to order your beer to be topped up with lemonade, where beers are still given 'amusing' names like 'Bishop's Finger' or 'Piddle In The Hole' and where lagers still haven't quite crushed the traditional and historic brewing styles.

Beer has been brewed in Britain for a couple of thousand years. Attempts to introduce wine had slight success with Port and Claret but the climate isn't really suited to it's production. Before the 15th century herbs and spices were used to flavour the beers before hops started to take over (not a universally popular choice at the time). With the industrial revolution brewing became mechanised with a scientific approach applied to measure the temperatures of the brewing process and the strength of the resulting beers.

World War 1 has had a lasting legacy on beer culture in Britain, During the war liberal prime minister Lloyd George brought in a range of policies that brought many breweries under state control or closed them outright, reduced the amount of beer that was produced as well as it's strength, significantly increased taxes and duties on alcohol and severly reduced opening hours for pubs.

The Defence Of The Realm act stipulated opening hours of 12noon–2.30pm and 6.30pm–9.30pm. By 1921 pubs could only open for a maximum of 8 hours, had to be closed for at least 2 hours during the afternoon and could open no later than 10pm. These licencing laws have slowly been reduced or ignored by local councils from the 1960s onwards. In 2005 there was an attempt to embrace continental cafe culture by introducing a new set of licencing laws that, in theory would allow 24 hour drinking. In practice not much has changed with most pubs still closing at 11pm on weekdays and staying open a few hours later on Fridays and Saturdays.

Despite the longer drinking hours Britain still retains a drinking mentality of drinking against the clock before last orders is called. When Bitter was the most popular drink in the country this acted as a brake on the dangers of this approach due to it's low alcohol content and the bitter flavour slowing progress through the evening somewhat. However the introduction of stronger continental lagers from Hofmeister through to Stella Artois gave drinkers blander beverages which seemed ideally suited to faster consumption that were at the same time more intoxicating. This not only led to more public order offences at closing time but contributed to a downward spiral in sales and production of traditional styles of British beers.

There has been a steady grassroots movement to try and preserve traditional British ales that has been championed by the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) since the 1970s. There definition of real ale is beer that is either cask or bottle conditioned. This means the beer still has live yeast in it when it leaves the brewery and so it continues to ferment. These beers usually have more complex flavours, but consistency is harder to achieve as the brewer no longer control over the entire brewing process. From CAMRAs point of view a world of constantly changing, complex beers is ideal - for marketing teams the idea of selling a volatile producy is more of a challenge. These beers are the heart of Britain's beer culture.

Alongside CAMRA the Cask Marque organisation works to assure that beer is served properly in pubs. They review the storage of casks, quality of pouring and cleanness of glassware before awarding am establishment Cask Marque status. The scheme is voluntary and pubs who meet the standards and pay the relevant fees will have a Cask Marque sign on the door. Until recently both CAMRA and real ale were stereotypically thought of as things for beardy old men. However with the rise of locally grown, organic produce and the growth of the foodie movement in general, real ale has been able to position itself as a boutique product that can sold alongside homemade chutney in smart Kensington foodhalls. It's also encouraged supermarkets to look beyond discounted 24 packs of continental lager.

The upshot of this is that the pub chains that dominate Britain such as Wetherspoons, Ember Inns and Chef & Brewer now stock a regularly changing selection of guest ales. This allows small brewers scope to get their product to more drinkers. However the quantities the big chain require mean you will only find beers from true microbreweries at independent pubs who are content to buy a few barrels at a time. The beer festivals organised by CAMRA in pubs and function houses across the UK will bring together individual barrels of ale from all corners of the land. This offers a perfect oppourtinty to try beers that would otherwise be hard to find - if you can fight your way through the scrum.

This resurgence of interest in craft beer has led to microbreweries springing up all over the country. Most of these breweries focus on traditional British ales that are easier to get pubs and off licenses to sell. Some are more adventurous. Brewdog have made their reputation selling strong, highly flavoured beers like Dogma and Punk IPA. They have a range of stouts aged in whisky casks that clock in at over 10% abv and seem to make regular attempts to brew the worlds strongest beer. The most famous attempt being Tactical Nuclear Penguin which was over 30% abv. What is clear is that there is a big market for craft beer in the UK and that means there is a huge choice of quality beers on offer.

The reason why Britain is infamous for serving "warm beer" is because of the relative popularity of bitters and ales with an alcohol by volume of less than 5%. These beers, at their best, have subtle, well balanced flavours that are at their best if served cool. Lagers on the other hand usually need to served ice cold otherwise they feel a bit skunky and undistinguished. To put it bluntly, British beers are served warmer than most because they actually taste of something and aren't ridiculously strong. Maybe that's something to thank the wartime restrictions for.

Five British Beers To Try -

1. Innis & Gunn Rum cask Oak Aged Beer: Syrup coloured beer with a huge taste of stewed fruits and spices topped with a hit of rum. It has been matured in rum casks and wooden casks for 107 days. It's taste is like a lighter Westvleteren 12 and almost feels like drinking an aged spirit. A superb beer of rare quality - only available in limited runs.

2. JW Lees Supernova: Gentle beer with a surprisingly dark colour for it's taste. Very smooth with biscuit and bitter hoppy flavours lingering in a creamy body. With time it becomes slightly chewy with a faint hint of coffee grounds. At 3.5% a great session beer for winter night if you are after something light but with a bit of flavour to it.

3. St Austell Tribute: This is an everyday beer in the finest sense - a beer you could happily drink everyday. It has a light brown colour and a gentle malty taste that is never bland but is not overpowering either. It is almost elusive with each mouthful calling for another to try and tease out another subtlety in the taste. They say it's "moreishly drinkable", I just say more!

4. Thornbridge Jaipur: India Pale Ale with big fruit flavours that combine beautifully with the traditional hoppy taste of IPA. The overall taste is fairly heavy but it still provides refreshment and can balance well with food. The only reservation is that it becomes a tad too dry and bitter towards the end of a bottle.

5. Ridgeway Foreign Extra Stout: Dark with a faint head. Burnt soy sauce, coffee and liquorice lightened by a hint of apple and a crisp fizziness. More like a porter than a stout. Strong but easy drinking at 8% and well balanced. Smooth and superb with Raisins coming through when warmer.