Know your craft beers from your ales
Real ale is deliciously flavoursome with an appropriate tipple for every occasion. Really learn your ales with this advice
The craft beer
The craft beer industry has catapulted to success in recent years with micro breweries popping up in the most unlikely places. Brewing has become an art form, offering drinkers complex flavours and exciting twists than liven up even the most average of after-work-drinks.
Your local friendly barman will be well versed in craft beers and ales, and good news: try before you buy is common! Brewery taprooms, such as the one at Fonthill Brewing Co. in Tunbridge Wells, give you the opportunity to sample keg and cask straight from the source.
Finding a brew that will knock your socks off couldn't be easier.
Beers, like wines, have bouquets that are generated and developed during the fermentation process. Unlike wine, beers are produced with grains, water, hops and yeast. The grains—typically barley—are ground, steeped and mashed with water to produce what's known as a malt.
This process helps the sugars in the grain magically become our end of week tipple. Later in the process, hops are added to the brew to balance the heady flavours and preserve the lively liquid.
Barley can be substituted for other grains like rice or rye, and hops come in wide varieties that can be added at different stages of the process to greatly enhance the flavours.
Even specific types of yeast can be used but the process remains the same and understanding this will help you make your selection.
The grain-based malt is what gives your beer its base-note. Depending on the grain, malt will produce the dark, fully-bodied flavours usually associated with stouts and porters—perfect for the autumn chill.
But malting is also responsible for the caramel flavours of most cask ales. Rich fruity flavours such as raisin or plum (and even coffee and chocolate) can also be produced by a careful selection of grains used for malting.
Knowing this can help you select craft beers more appropriate for red meat dishes or winter gatherings.
Hops are responsible for the aromas in a beer; their citrus tang and herby fragrances. Even though there are many varieties of hops flowers (to even count), practically they don’t vary so widely in taste.
Being aware of a beer’s hops content will help you ready yourself for more floral, even herby, encounter—perfect for a late summer evening or celebration.
But beware! The more hops added in the brewing process, the more bitter the liquid will taste as the hops counterbalance the malt.
This is effect is measured in IBUs (International Bittering Units). If your bartender is describing a beer as hoppy, it typically translates as between 50 and 100 IBUs.
Lagers and ales use yeast in the fermentation process to turn sugar into alcohol.
Developing a brew's bouquet through adjustments to the yeast is typically the preserve of the Belgian beer. Flavours as wide and exciting as bubble gum, clove and banana can be produced in these Belgian varieties, which makes them great dinner party drinks.
Looks can be deceiving
Not all dark coloured beers will be malty and delicious, and not all orange-y glasses will taste like a Cotswold's summer. An excellent example of this is Budweiser Dark; a pint that you'd be forgiven for thinking was a glass of finest Irish stout but one which tastes as light a larger. But do not be discouraged.
When at a limited bar, or if selecting bottles at the supermarket, the amber liquids are best navigated with good understanding of the brewing process, and the functions of both malt and hops.
If you happen to be at a cask ale friendly—many of which can be found with the Camra Good Pub Guide—then ask for a taste of two or three in your taste range and bottoms up!