Quick guide to beer
A quick guide to beer
Beer in the UK varies considerably from most continental beers and a lot of the most common beers found in the US (though we know the States are starting to catch up with some of its micro-brews).
When you go into a pub, there are a few basic kinds of drinks you’ll find available on the pumps and here’s a quick guide to what you’re likely to find.
Real Ale or “proper” beer
Describes traditional ales, whether English, Welsh or Scottish. The Irish don’t tend to make much ale, preferring Guinness, which is Stout. Ale primarily refers to beers which are top-fermenting. The strength of ales varies and is usually dependent on how it’s made - although you won’t normally find beers in the UK as strong as Belgian beers, there are a number of producers producing stronger beers (See BrewDog, for instance - their strongest beer is somewhere around 27.5%). Strengths are typically in the range of around 3.8% to 5%, with some exceptions being around 6%. Typically, ales have a sweeter, fuller body than lagers. Other names for ale include Bitter, IPA (India Pale Ale), Mild and Best. These are the beers you usually see on the hand pumps (as opposed to taps, where it is pumped electriclaly or propelled by gas).
Most common brands are still beers like London Pride, Bombardier, Young’s and Greene King, although, there are a number of London breweries now who’s beers are proving popular with real ale drinkers as well as a lot more access to regional variations. Some of the London beers you might see include: Meantime (Greenwich), Sambrook (Battersea), Brodies (Leyton), Battersea Brewery (Battersea), Redemption (Twickenham), Camden Town (Camden) and Kernel (Tower Bridge).
Lager is the name for bottom-fermenting beers of Central European origin. They are the most commonly consumed beers in the world. This is a pale, mostly golden drink which varies in strength from fairly innocuous “cooking lager” to super-strength lagers designed to get you pissed, to continental pilsners (which also vary in strength). Common brands you’ll find in most pubs are Carling, Carlsberg Kronenbourg, Fosters, Stella, Groslch.
These are from, as the name says, Belgium. A number of pubs sell bottled versions of many popular Belgian beers now, varying from the pale to the brown to the Trappist, depending on the pub, and there are quite a few in the UK now which sell it on draft. Well, it is only across the channel, after all. These are very different to ales for the most part, and are entirely dependent on the ingredients used to make them. As for strength, that varies too, from about 4.5% all the way up to 12.5% - there’s a reason the Belgians don’t use pint glasses!
Wheat or white beer (Weißbier)
Hoegaarden is probably the most famous wheat beer available here in the UK, it's from Belgium - most wheat beers come from Germany (Weißbier - where it is traditional to put a slice of lemon in it) - and is delightfully light and refreshing, although usually stronger than average. They vary from producer to producer, and the end result can vary widely. It is naturally cloudy as it is unfiltered.
Stouts and porters are very dark beers - usually black - and of course the most famous stout is Guinness. It is produced using dark or patent malts, that have been roasted longer and includes roasted unmalted barley. There are several versions in the UK, including Oyster Stout. Porter is similar in style (in fact Guinness is a derivative of it), but tends to be a little lighter.
Always order beer first, and if you’re ordering a stout (i.e. Guinness) – ALWAYS ORDER IT FIRST. It takes longest to pour (and it should stand for a short while, before being topped up) and you’ll save everyone a lot of time by getting this right.
Another thing to remember is that you won’t get a “pitcher” of beer in most pubs in the UK, but you may be able to purchase a “jug”. Chances are, the bar staff won’t know what you’re talking about if you ask for a pitcher, either.
If you’re unsure what you’re ordering, some pubs will let you try a sample to see if you actually like this. Most notable for this are the Nicholsons (“Sup before you Tup”), Sam Smiths and Wetherspoon pubs – if in doubt, ask.