Broadly, British beer falls into five main categories:
- Barley Wine
I have deliberately ommitted lager as it is not strictly British, although it is probably the most widely consumed beer in the UK.
Bitter is probably the most popular of British beers.
As the name suggests, it has a slightly bitter taste due to the addition of hops, although the varieties (and hence the aroma and taste) are almost innumerable.
My favourite—mainly because it's a relatively local beer, and therefore widely available—is Greene King's Abbot Ale. Bottled, canned, or best of all, draught, this is a sharp, strong bitter that slips down well.
Greene King's other beers are just as high-quality—e.g. Harvest Brown Ale, upon which I was weaned. It is a fairly low alcohol ale with a with a sweet, nutty taste. Bottled is best and is a drink for novices and girls.
There are, of course, other brown ales—Mann's is another favourite of mine, and quite similar to Harvest.
Newcastle Brown Ale is another matter. Lighter in body, but considerably stronger in strength, this is another prize-winning beer, this time (as the name suggests) from the North.
Stout & Porter
These terms are roughly interchangeable, although the beers themselves do vary in strength, texture, and taste.
Guinness is certainly the most famous of the porters (its black colour derives from the blackening of the barley when it is roasted, prior to the brewing process).
This thick, bitter beer is delicious in draught form or as bottled "Original." The draught is somewhat viscous while the bottled variety is fizzy and sharp. They are, in fact, two different beers.
Mixed with Champagne (producing Black Velvet), porter is often served with oysters!
Other stouts and porters are equally palatable, but beware—the sweeter they get, often the stronger (I once climbed out of a third-storey window after sampling my friend's home-brewed porter...).
Barley Wine should never be drunk in pints, unless you are a rugby-player.
Audit, another Greene King brew, is sold in half pint bottles, and packs a large, alcoholic punch, as well as a deliciously sweet, belly-warming afterglow.
Other well-know brands include Gold Label, sold in smallish measures to prevent over-enjoyment.
This is a draught version of brown ale, but is different enough to deserve its own pump.
Traditionally served with either "pork scratchings" or mixed with bitter, this is a drink preferred in the Midlands and North of Britain.
The number of different beers of all kinds can be measured in their thousands, in no small measure due to CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) that forced the hand of the major brewers, ensuring that they produced high-quality, traditionally served beers instead of the fizz that they were turning out in the 70s.
Beer festivals are now common across the UK. These are not thinly-disguised piss-ups, but genuine tastings and celebrations of Britain's equivalent of French wines.
British beers can be brewed at home with little difficulty and (in the UK) completely legally. There are plenty of kits available—a starter kit, as well as including the wort (the basic malted mixture that, with water and yeast makes beer), will also include a bin to brew the mixture in; disinfecting solution (absolutely vital!); brewer's yeast; finings, to help clarify the brew; a syphon; and lastly a hydrometer (to measure the original gravity or strength of the brew).
Full instructions are usually included, but here are a few basic tips:
- Ensure that everything is disinfected—a stray yeast will ruin the brew!
- Make sure you have a warmish spot to store the brewing beer.
- Invest in some bottles or a pressurised cask, unless you want to drink the whole 40 or so pints in one go!