A mix of hops, water, yeast and roasted barley, beer is fascinating, diverse and — most importantly delicious. It can be cold, gold and extremely refreshing or it can be dark, complex and challenging. It can be spicy, elegant and just the thing to go with excellent food, or it can be gently satisfying, the perfect accompaniment to time spent with friends.

Pick a style to learn more

Style & Taste

Dark ales can be remarkably complex. Much of the flavour of these beers (which include brown and mild ales) derives from the malt used, which means you can expect nutty, caramel and sometimes roasted flavours. Hops take a back seat, except when we’re talking about American versions which tend to have an assertive bitterness.

Brown ale is an interesting style in that so much of British beer is, well, brown. So what sets brown ale apart? It’s not clear-cut, but in this country at least, brown ales are more likely to be served from a bottle than on draught – as it is with Newcastle Brown Ale, the most famous example.

Brown ales have been in existence for many centuries, but the modern story begins in London at the start of the 20th century. This is when the sweet style (more common in the south) began. Newcastle Brown Ale was brewed for the first time in 1928; its great Sunderland rival, Double Maxim, appeared in 1938.

But Newcastle actually only represents one tradition – that of the North East, where brown ales are medium/strong (between 4% and 5% ABV) and boast a nutty, moderately bitter, caramel infused character. There is another tradition, though, of weaker, sweeter brown ales, with restrained chocolate and roast characteristics. Mann’s Brown Ale, at 2.8% ABV, represents the last of this thread. Brown ale made the leap across the Atlantic early during the United States’ craft beer revolution, perhaps due to the popularity of Sam Smiths’ Nut Brown Ale.

And then there’s mild, a beer sometimes associated with brown ale, although it has an entirely separate history. The meaning of mild has changed over the years, but it’s now generally a dark, low-ABV ale, often with roasted and chocolate characters. Until the 1960s it was Britain’s preferred beer, but it now exists only in a few strongholds, such as parts of the West Midlands.

food pairings

It’s a beer that can wonderfully complement barbecued or roast meats, depending on the caramel and roast character of the beer itself. Mushrooms are a natural partner. Used in a red meat stew, it can be delicious.

Serving

Brown ale and mild have a down-to-earth reputation in the UK, so serving it in a pint glass seems natural. Traditionally, bottled Newcastle Brown Ale was poured into a half pint. Like most beers, however, it will benefit from a more elegant vessel, like a stemmed tulip glass.

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Style & Taste

Pale ale is a remarkably diverse beer style. Loosely speaking, the term denotes a beer that is golden to copper in colour, bitter, and brewed using an ‘ale yeast’. It includes a variety of different types of beer, including bitter, extra special bitter (ESB), golden ale, saison and India pale ale (IPA), and, of course, those beers simply labeled pale ale. Many of the world’s most popular pale ales are made in the United States (like Sierra Nevada) or inspired by the American craft beer movement. These beers tend to have a bold hop character and subdued malt. They’ll have pine, citrus and tropical fruit flavours, and will be between 4.5% and 5.5% in alcoholic strength.

And then there’s India pale ale, a type of beer first developed during the 18th century in London for export to India, where it was drunk by the British colonialists. Nowadays, most IPAs – but not all – take their cues from the West Coast of America and have similar characteristics to American pale ales. They’re stronger and more aromatic, though they’re hugely bitter, they also exhibit some sweetness due to the amount of malt used. They’re thrilling, sometimes challenging beers – Lagunitas IPA or Goose Island IPA are both good examples of the style.

British bitter – sometimes referred to as pale ale, especially in a bottle – is far more subtle. It’s not as bitter and the hop aroma is more subdued. There’s a finer balance between the bitter hops and sweet, biscuit malt. The hops used are often English, so you should expect hedgerow flavours rather than tropical fruit. It’s copper in colour and between 2.8% and 5% ABV. Classic bitter ales include Timothy Taylor’s Landlord and Fuller’s London Pride. Fuller’s are also the inventors of ESB, a stronger form of bitter that has spawned a whole host of imitators on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s a fruity, marmalade-heavy beer with a dry finish of about 5.5% ABV.

Golden ales, meanwhile, are often heavily-hopped to make them bitter and aromatic, and a similar strength to bitter. Another brightly goldencoloured ale style is a saison, a Belgian style of beer, and a different kettle of fish entirely: they tend to be bitter, certainly, but it’s the spicy, tangy yeast character that makes the running here. The classic example is Saison Dupont, but many British breweries also make this kind of beer now.

food pairings

Pale ale’s diversity means that there are few foods it cannot happily partner. Hamburgers and Mexican food are wonderfully complemented by hop-forward American-style pale ales and IPAs, while the more balanced British versions have enough biscuit malt to complement fish and chips and roast beef. Belgian versions – such as saison – are even more food friendly. A beer like Saison Dupont will complement everything from aged goats’ cheese to fried fish to spicy sausages.

Serving

In England, pale ales have traditionally been served in pint glasses, a vessel that is more about no-nonsense drinking than tasting. A stemmed tulip glass is better for appreciating the aroma.

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Style & Taste

Stout, along with its cousin porter, is the darkest beer of them all. The colour and flavour derives from the dark grain used to make them – sometimes roasted malt, sometimes roasted barley, sometimes other dark grains. These ingredients produce bold flavours – expect espresso, chocolate and roastiness – but only make up 10% of the final malt lineup.

Porter is actually an older style than stout. The latter is a shortening of ‘stout porter’, which meant a strong porter. Stouts are not necessarily stronger than porters, and, indeed, it can be hard to pick them apart. Are stouts darker? Sometimes. Are they more often made with roasted barley? Perhaps, perhaps not. Are they more bitter? Not necessarily. In truth, the terms have become interchangeable, with the recent rise of porter having as much to do with fashion as anything else.

Stouts and porters come in a variety of forms. Some, like Fuller’s London Porter, are smooth, while others, such as The Kernel’s 1890 Export Stout, offer intense espresso and beguiling complexity. Both are delicious. In terms of colour, these beers are not all as black as you might expect – hold a glass of Guinness up to the light and you’ll undoubtedly see its red tinge. Others might be very deep brown. The flavour of these darker beers relies to a great extent on the malts used, with hops playing a significant supporting role. The colour, roastiness and bitterness comes from the grain (generally chocolate or black malt). Both roasted barley and roasted malt are used, with the former more common in beers labelled stouts rather than porters.

food pairings

Stouts have long been considered a fine partner for oysters. An old tradition at the now-closed Courage Brewery beside Tower Bridge in London was to serve Black Velvet (made with vintage champagne and vintage Russian imperial stout) with oysters on Christmas Eve. Rich, unctuous stews are perfectly complemented by some of the more complex dark beers, while grilled meat and sausages — with their smoky, charred character — are a natural companion. Chocolate desserts are beautifully complemented by these dark beers. Try a really rich chocolate cake with a Russian imperial stout.

Serving

Aesthetically, it’s hard to beat the sight of a white-topped pint of stout in a straight sided pint glass. Stronger versions can be served in stemmed tulip glasses, whilst Russian imperial stouts — the biggest, most complex of the lot — benefit from a brandy balloon. Most porters and stouts are perfect at cellar temperature (12°C) but Russian imperial stouts benefit from being a little warmer.

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Style & Taste

Wheat beer, as the name suggests, is beer made from wheat. The two most famous versions are weissbier (German for white beer), which originates in Bavaria, and witbier (Flemish for white beer), which comes from Belgium. There are also other beers that use wheat – for example, sour beers like Berliner weisse and lambic. Weissbier is made with malted wheat, which generally makes up around 70% of the grain used to make the beer.

It is cloudy, with a prominent fluffywhite head, and is often served in a tall, wide-lipped glass. The most famous version of Bavarian weissbier is hefeweizen, an unfiltered, golden version. The flavour is dominated by banana, bubblegum and cloves (courtesy of the traditional Bavarian yeast) and the beer is smooth and creamy in the mouth. Dark weissbiers (dunkelweiss or dunkelweizen) and, indeed, filtered weissbiers (kristal) exist but they are much less common, particularly in the UK.

The classic examples of weissbier are all made in Bavaria, with those produced by Schneider and Weihenstephan generally thought to be the best. In the UK, Thornbridge made an excellent hefeweiss (Versa), as does West in Glasgow. Hefeweisse tend to be around 5% ABV, although weizenbocks are much stronger (between 6.5% and 8%). Witbier boasts similar characteristics to its Bavarian cousin, but there are important differences. Here, unmalted wheat is used, and it generally makes up less than 50% of the overall grain. It is cloudy and golden, but the flavour is very different. It’s dominated by spices like coriander and orange peel, and there’s often a strong tang to the beer too. They vary between 4.5% and 5.5% in strength. The most well-known brand is Hoegaarden, and St Bernardus Blanche is another well-regarded example of the style.

Food Pairings

Both these types of beer are excellent with food. In Munich, you can find weisswurst (white sausage) being served with weissbierat. It’s an excellent combination, but weissbier is more versatile than that.

Weissbier is an excellent companion to spicy food, including Indian and Thai, with its sweetness complementing the sweet aromatics in the food and also tempering the chilli heat. The light texture of these beers alleviates the heaviness of the dish and complements many classic ingredients, like avocado and coriander. It’s also the best alcoholic accompaniment to eggs in existence. Witbier is similarly versatile at the dinner table. It also works with Mexican food (where the coriander seed finds a direct match), but comes into its own with a salad or fish.

Serving

Weissbier is unimaginable without its tall, elegant serving vessel, but there is probably a better partner for witbier than the thick, wide-mouthed glasses it is sometimes served in – try a stemmed tulip glass.

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Style & Taste

Strong ales are the beer world’s heavyweights. British styles display strong malt character, with dried fruit and sherry-like characteristics. And the Belgian classics offer a huge range of flavours, making them among the most revered beers around.

Despite the name, there’s no grapes or other fruit in barley wines. The term refers to the drink’s strength rather than its contents. Flavour-wise, stronger beers such as barley wines (and their close cousins, old ales, which tend to be slightly lighter in alcohol, although not always) are remarkable. They’re rich and sweet, and full of character.

Barley wines come in all shades, from the relatively pale — like Fuller’s Golden Pride — to something much darker, like Moor’s Old Freddy Walker. In terms of alcoholic strength, they start at about 7% ABV and can go up to 13%. Vintage ales are similar, but they’re explicitly designed for ageing, like wine. The classic British version is Fuller’s Vintage Ale, first produced in 1997.

Strong beers, of course, have been made for millennia, but the first to be regarded as a barley wine was Bass No.1, originally produced in 1854. It was discontinued in the 1990s.

A robust tradition of strong beers exists in Belgium. There, dubbels (dark brown in colour with herbal, burnt sugar and clove characteristics, and between 6.5% and 8% ABV) and tripels (gold to light amber and soft, dry, full of spice and fruit character, and between 8% and 10% ABV) are staples of the Trappist tradition.

Those made by Westmalle and St Bernadus (an Abbey brewery) are well worth seeking out, while Leffe produce great, widely available examples too. Trappist beers are made by monks at a small number of accredited breweries inside monasteries, while abbey beers are those made in traditional Trappist styles, but not actually brewed within the walls of a monastery.

food pairings

The strength and sweetness of barley wines makes them a perfect match for a number of foods, particularly cheese. The combination of JW Lee’s Harvest Ale and Colston Bassett Stilton, for example, is well known, while any number of barley wines will work with a strong farmhouse cheddar, complementing and lifting the fruity notes of the cheese. They’re also a great partner to richer meat such as lamb, venison or wild boar, while lighter versions, such as Fuller’s Vintage Ale, provide an excellent partner to duck.

Serving

Given their strength, it would be unwise to serve these beers from a pint glass. To be able to appreciate and savour them, the best option is probably a brandy balloon. Not only does it allow you to fully enjoy the aroma of the beer, it’s a useful reminder to treat the contents with the respect it deserves. Trappist beers, of course, have their own glassware – chalices.

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Style & Taste

Lager is the world’s favourite type of beer. All the biggest beer brands are lagers, from Budweiser to Carling to Pilsner Urquell, which is the original pale lager. There are other kinds of lagers, though: bock, dortmunder, dunkel, helles, rauchbier, Vienna lager and more. Some of these — like Vienna or dunkel — are far from golden, too. There are dark lagers as well as pale lagers.

So what sets lager apart from ale? Two things. Lagers are fermented with a slow-acting yeast that is able to do its work at very low temperatures. It’s also traditionally conditioned for longer than ale, and at a very low temperature, before being released for sale (‘lagern’ is a German verb meaning ‘to store’). The Czech Budweiser (called Budvar in the UK) makes great play of the fact that it is conditioned for 90 days, although 28 days is more common.

In terms of flavour, lager has more to offer than most drinkers appreciate. A classic Czech pale lager like Pilsner Urquell has an insistent, growing peppery bitterness laid over a rich, malty caramel base. German pilsners (generally called pils, such as Jever Pils) tend to be more hop-focused, with a lemony, herbal bitterness evident in the best examples, although modern German pils can be rather more restrained. Then there’s helles (such as Augustiner Helles, from Munich), which is even lighter in colour than pilsner.

Dark lagers are equally interesting: Vienna lagers are red-brown in colour, like Sam Adams Boston Lager, and offer toastiness, some sweetness and a dry finish, while a rauchbier — such as Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen, which is very dark — bursts with smoked beech character. It’s a real love-it-or-hate it beer, but most drinkers learn to appreciate its unique character.

The ingredients used to make lager vary. Soft, rounded pilsner malt is vital to pilsners; Czech golden lagers use Saaz hops — from the Bohemian northwest of the country, in the main — and Moravian malt, from the southeast. German lagers are made with German hops (such as Hallertauer and Tettnang) and German malt. Perhaps the world’s most famous maltsters, Weyermann, is based in Bamberg in Franconia.

food pairings

Given lager’s diversity, it’s no surprise that it can accompany a huge range of different foods. A bitter, peppery pils will complement shellfish or fried fish, while a Czech pilsner has enough depth to accompany heartier dishes like pork knuckle or a wiener schnitzel. Pale lagers also do a good job with such staples as pizza and tandoori chicken, with the carbonation cutting through the richness and cleansing the palate. Dark lager, meanwhile, complements most sausages and rauchbier is a natural partner for smoked meat and fish.

Serving

Pale lagers are best drunk out of something tall and slender. If not, a white wine glass will do the job. Dark lagers can be presented in stemmed goblets. All lagers should be served between 2 and 8°C. They should be noticeably chilled, but not so that it will impair the flavour.

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Style & Taste

Sour beer sounds like a bad thing initially, but there is a group of beers where sourness is an important component of a delicious, often hugely complex drink. Beers that fit into this category include gueuze, kriek and framboise from Belgium, and Berliner weisse, originally from Germany.

Lambics, such as those made by Cantillon in Brussels, are among the most revered and loved beers among connoisseurs. They’re complex, delicious, undeniably challenging. Not everyone falls in love with lambic and gueuze (a blend of one- and two- or three year- old lambics) or their fruit-infused counterparts, kriek (cherry) and framboise (raspberry). They’re fermented with wild yeast and bacteria, the latter of which gives the beer its sour edge. They have a dryness that is more akin to aged white chablis or champagne than it is to most of the world’s other great beers.

Lambics and gueuzes are not the only wild and sour ales. Berliner weisse tend to be flinty-dry refreshers with less funk than their lambic cousins. It’s a style that is now made by breweries around the world, particularly in the US and the UK.

If it sounds remarkable that such beers should be enjoying a renaissance, it’s even more noteworthy that they even exist at all anymore. Lambic was threatened with oblivion in the 1990s when few wanted to try this most historic of beers. It was only thanks to growing demand from the US that it still exists. There are plenty of sour beers made now.

The key ingredient in lambic and gueuze is not the hops (aged hops, whose flavour is much diminished, are used for their preservative qualities) or malt, but the yeast – specifically Brettanomyces, the wild yeast that gives the beer its feral, musty, complex character, and Lactobacillus, a bacteria used to make yoghurt, offering clean sourness. Brettanomyces means ‘British fungus’, because it was first identified (at the Carlsberg Brewery in 1904) in British Ales. The sour British tradition – exemplified by Gale’s Prize Old Ale – has now largely died out, however.

food pairings

Sour beers’ dryness and complexity makes them a perfect match for a wide variety of foods. Lambic will complement rich charcuterie (such as a pork terrine) beautifully for example, or moules frites. Berliner weisse, meanwhile, can work well with goats’ cheese.

Serving

In its native land, lambic is sometimes served in a tumbler – a nod to its down-to-earth roots. However, given its elegance and effervescence, it’s a beer that can justly be served in champagne flutes, or at the very least a tall, slim glass. The same can be said for Berliner weisse.

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Style & Taste

Non-alcoholic beer is increasingly significant. There is a greater variety of non-alcoholic beers on the market than ever before, from lagers to pale ales to wheat beers, in response to growing demand.

These beers include generously-hopped pale ales like BrewDog’s Nanny State (0.5% ABV) to pale lagers such as Moritz (0.0% ABV) and wheat beers such as Rothaus’ Hefeweizen (0.0% ABV). It’s never been easier to drink beer without the alcohol. A growing number of breweries also make low alcohol beers, like The Kernel’s Table Beer (generally 3% ABV).

The quality of non-alcoholic beer has improved, too. Perhaps the best non-alcoholic beers are wheat beers: Rothaus’ beer has something of the banana and clove character of a classic golden Weissbier, and the creamy mouthfeel too. The likes of Paulaner and Erdinger also make good non-alcoholic versions of this style.

It’s no coincidence that the two most popular non-alcoholic beer styles come from Germany and Spain, as both have a sizeable, growing market for non-alcoholic beer. According to research group Mintel, 60% of Spanish beer drinkers bought it in 2013, compared to 14% in Great Britain. The Middle East accounts for a third of all non-alcoholic sales.

Low-alcohol beers (beers of 3% and less) have a long history, but beers with no alcohol at all in them probably date back to the Prohibition era in the United States (1920–1933), when drinks with more than 0.5% alcohol were banned. To survive, breweries produced ‘near beer’ – a non-alcoholic version of what had existed before.

These beers can be produced in a number of ways. The easiest is by boiling the beer after fermentation, because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water (78.3°C). This heating will affect the flavour of the beer, so some brewers use vacuum distilling, whereby the boiling point of alcohol is lowered – so you don’t have to heat the beer up so much. Then there’s reverse osmosis, which uses filtering and distillation. Whichever process is used, the resulting beer is then artificially carbonated.

Food Pairings

Non-alcoholic beers lack some of what makes their full-strength counterparts so suitable for matching with food, but they can still do a decent job. The wheat beers complement spicy food and egg-based dishes, while the soft, honey-inflected pale lagers can do a job with fried, battered fish.

Serving

These beers should be served with the same care as ordinary versions. A wheat beer, whatever its alcohol content, benefits from being placed in a tall, wide-mouthed glass, while a pale lager or ale works in a stemmed tulip or slim, tall pilsner glass.

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