Craft beer: the expert guide
Read our guide and discover the best craft beers you should be drinking. From session and fruit beers to dark beers such as stouts and porters
Vibrant, diverse and experimental, the craft beer scene has never been more exciting, but it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how much there is to explore. That’s where we step in – from decoding the jargon to celebrating the beers we really love, here’s our primer on the brews we think you should be drinking right now.
Want to find the best beers? Check out our favourite British beers, IPAs beers, lagers, sour beers and our guide to winter and summer beers here. We also have our best stouts, or for cocktail lovers, check out our best beer cocktails.
IPA (India pale ale) and Pale ale
These two types of pale ale are quite different in style. IPA was traditionally brewed with more hops and at a much higher ABV than standard pale ale in order to survive the journey from the UK to India during the time of the Raj – hops and alcohol are preserving agents. Modern IPAs remain hoppier but often cut the alcohol down to session level (though there are still a lot of 7-8% beasts out there). The last few years have seen brewers go even further by doubling or even tripling amount of hops used. These DIPAs and TIPAs are typically very rich in character, with hefty ABVs.
Pale ale started out in Britain more than 300 years ago, and was then adopted as a beer style in the US by brewers using more citrussy, piney, indigenous hops. These American pale ales will have distinct citrus, pine, resin and tropical fruit flavours. English pale ales, in comparison, have a maltier character, with floral, earthy, grassy notes.
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Lagunitas IPA (6.2%), £1.90/355ml, Waitrose
A West Coast-style IPA with green hop and malt flavours.
Meantime London Pale Ale (4.3%), £20/12 pack, ocado.com
Hops and citrus flavours, and a subtle bitterness.
Ultra-strong beers are popular right now but if you drank 8%-strength IPAs all the time your liver would soon find itself in trouble. The answer is a so-called session beer, a high-quality but lower-ABV beer that’s very easy to drink. Craft breweries have wised up to this gap in the market, with many of them releasing weaker but super-drinkable styles.
Beavertown Neck Oil Session IPA (4.3%), £7.50/pack of 4, ocado.com
Crisp, light and hoppy with a subtle citrus edge.
If your palate favours the lip-smackingly tart, then make sour beer your new best friend. Unlike the bitter, hop-driven beers that most people drink, sours are more similar in taste to ciders or dry white wines. Whereas most commercial beers are brewed using specific yeasts, sour beers use a mixture of different yeasts and bacteria that results in a distinctively sour taste. Styles and methods vary – some brewers will use cultivated varieties, while Belgian lambics are left in large open vats and rely on microorganisms in the surrounding air to spontaneously ferment the beer. Bear in mind that sour beers are a broad category and flavours will vary hugely depending on the style of beer, from the briny tang of gose and light tartness of a Berliner weisse to the fruitiness of a Flanders red ale, or the bone dry tanginess and champagne-like fizz of a gueze.
Oude Gauze Vieille Oud Beersel 6%, £6.43/375ml, The Belgian Beer Company
A blend of lambics, this has great effervescence and a fruity, complex tartness.
Wild Beer Co Modus Operandi (7.7%), £6.50/500ml, Wild Beer Co
A barrel-aged sour red with lots of berry flavours.
These beers take a regular beer style – such as IPA, wheat, pale ale, sour or stout – and add fruit to the brewing process. Commonly used are raspberries, citrus fruits such as lemon and grapefruit, tropicals including mangoes and pineapples, and stone fruits such as peaches and apricots. The fruit can be added in different stages of the brewing process as extract, fresh, frozen or dried, and can vary in intensity. They’ve been brewing this way for years in Belgium, where adding raspberry and cherry to lambics is traditional and produces a deep fruity flavour (such as Lindemans’ framboise or kriek– both widely available). In modern brewing, the fruit can often be just a hint or backnote. The main thing to remember is the base beer will retain its style, so if you’re not a huge fan of wheat or sour then the fruit version might not be for you either. But it’s a good entry point for people trying craft beer for the first time, as the fruit can disguise some of the hoppier or more bitter notes in a beer.
Tiny Rebel Clwb Tropica Tropical IPA (5.5%), £24/12 pack, Beer Hawk
A lighter IPA brewed with citrussy American hops and packed with passion fruit, pineapple and mango.
Although these would probably come under a wider ‘sour beer’ umbrella, it’s worth seeking them out for their own unique characteristics. Gose is a traditional style from Germany and is brewed with the addition of salt and coriander. The sourness isn’t extreme, more of a tartness. This style of beer is often called a kettle sour or quick sour, as they don’t use ageing or open fermentation as they would on sours, and can be turned around a lot quicker.
Magic Rock Salty Kiss Gooseberry Gose (4.1%), £2.19/330ml, Honest Brew
Lightly sour and tart with a briny edge and juicy gooseberry flavours. Check out more sour beers to try.
First things first, what’s the difference? The answer is – which some may think controversial – not much. While there are differences in how each are made and, traditionally, how they taste (stouts tend to be stronger, with more of a bitter, roasted character), in reality as each category is so broad there’s now quite a bit of overlap. Both are long-established styles that have recently seen an uptick in interest. No surprise considering the versatility and depth of flavour that these dark beers offer – with appealing biscuit, cocoa, nut, coffee and dark-fruit flavours that make them a great match for meat or hearty vegetable dishes, or caramel or chocolate-based desserts.
Pastry stouts are stouts brewed on the sweeter side with sugary ingredients for a decadent, dessert-like drink. It's an increasingly popular style, albeit one that can go overboard with the sugar. Luckily, this balanced stout does nothing of the sort, with a rich, creamy mouthfeel and delicious chocolate and vanilla notes.
Craft beer: a brief history by Meantime brew master Ciaran Giblin
Craft beer is a relatively new idea in Britain but it has been around in the States for much longer; they’ve been experimenting with beer styles since the mid-60s. My definition of craft beer is ‘modern interpretations of traditional European beer’.
Given that the US has a much shorter history of brewing than most of Europe, they tend to be much more likely to experiment as they don’t have a wealth of tradition holding them back. Imagine asking a monk to change the recipe of the beer his monastery has been making for 500 years – I doubt he’d dignify that with an answer.
In Britain, Meantime is one of the founders of the craft beer movement. Meantime started brewing in 2000 when, inspired by both European and modern American brewing, our brewmaster and founder Alastair Hook wanted to shake up the relatively dull brewing scene in this country. 2000 doesn’t seem long ago, but when Meantime started there were fewer than 10 breweries in London – a city which was once the brewing capital of the world. Now there are close to 100.
So what's brewing?
According to the 500-year-old German purity law, reinheitsgebot, there must only ever be four ingredients in beer; cereal (grain), hops, yeast and water. Hops haven’t always been a key ingredient in beer – they were introduced in the 15th century from Belgium and used as a preservative.
Being the stubborn cluster of islanders we are, the British didn’t take to them straight away. Hops have revolutionised beer for the drinker who wants to try a wide variety of flavours. They can be compared to grapes in wine, where the biodynamics of their growing environment dramatically affects flavour.
Most craft beers tend to favour hops from the West Coast of America, but there are amazing flavours on offer all over the world. When describing hops, I refer to them as the ‘seasoning’ in beer.
How to pair beer with food:
My top tip for beer and food matching is to remember the three C’s; complement, contrast and cut...
To complement, think about how big the flavours are and try to keep it a similar flavour size. For example, hot curry probably needs a big beer to match the flavours. As much as it’s what we’ve been taught, pale lager isn’t really the beer for a curry: instead pour an IPA to complement the curry rather than washing it out.
To contrast, think about two flavours that might not obviously go together but could be appealing; a great example is blue cheese and dark beer. The roasted notes of the beer contrast with cloying notes in the cheese, almost like a wholegrain cracker would.
To cut, think about scrubbing your palate. For example, wheat beer with risotto – the esters and light carbonation will clear your palate of the starch coating your mouth.