A Beginner’s Guide To Beer
Beer is just a great little beverage, isn’t it? It’s relatively cheap, it’s tasty, it’s readily accessible and it can instil you with the Dutch courage you need to speak to a potential romantic interest that’s vastly out of your league. One of the only problems with beer is that there’s just so much of it out there that it can be difficult to make up your mind. Historical records state that the Ancient Egyptians made at least seventeen kinds of beer that all possessed different strengths and flavours for different occasions. And that’s only got worse with all the varied NEIPAs and Goses and Dunkels available on the shelves today. That anxiety of choice can often mean you end up stuck in a rut and you just end up buying the same tinnies of Kronenbourg from the corner shop every time.
Well, we’re here to help you. Because the world of fancy beer (the kind that your mate who unironically says “hazy boys” tends to buy) isn’t all that complicated. For the most part, that is. Pretty much every beer on the planet is a combination of malts, water, yeast, and hops. It’s just the different measurements and types of those ingredients that are used which separates your ales from your lagers. This handy beginner’s guide should help you tell apart some of those different styles and learn a bit more about what you like.
In the wise words of Thomas Jefferson: “beer, if drunk in moderation, softens the temper, cheers the spirit and promotes health.” So here’s to promoting health and drinking good beer responsibly with our beginner's guide to beer.
A lager is a clean and crisp style of beer that acts as most people’s entry point to the beverage. Ever since the cold storage of beer became common practice in the medieval period (it was done in caves back then), humans have been enjoying a cold lager after a hard day’s work. Or hunt. Budweiser and Heineken are two examples of the most well-known lagers out there and it’s fairly likely that your actual “I remember my first beer” moment involved a lager. Or six. They’re generally quite light and malty but can range in colour from extremely pale to dark brown and black. It’s hard to go wrong with a lager.
Try: Thornbridge’s Lukas. It’s a delicious Helles-style lager with an even more delicious name.
Ales are a style of beer created through a process known as top fermentation. This is basically where yeast is encouraged to ferment at a warmer, room-ish temperature and settle at the top of the beer. That’s important to know because it’s the use of that top-fermenting yeast, and that slightly different brewing process, which makes ales more layered and fruitier than their lager cousins. Doom Bar, Old Speckled Hen, and John Smiths are a few of the classic ales you might be familiar with; their sweet, almost biscuit-like quality is their primary appeal.
Try: Tiny Rebel’s Cwtch. This red ale is rammed with Citra hops and is an especially fresh version of the genre.
A beer that’s made predominantly with pale malt (hence its name), pale ales are a good in-between beer for when you’re in the mood for something with more substance than a lager but something that’s not as rich or heavy as a stout or porter. Most pale ales are packed with plenty of flavour – imagine a slightly bitter lager with more malt and hops – but won’t knock you out for the count, either. A great beer for a variety of different occasions.
Try: DEYA Brewing Company’s Steady Rolling Man. Soft and delicate with intense tropical fruit hop aromatics, this is DEYA’s vision of the perfect pale ale. Which, let’s be honest, is a pretty good vision to drink.
India Pale Ale
An India pale ale (commonly known as an IPA) is a hopped-up style of pale ale that’s been around since the 1800s. The style was originally created for British ex-pats living in India; the drink required a higher alcohol and hop content in order to make sure it didn’t spoil while travelling across the seas. The bev has come a long way since then and it’s one of the most popular beer styles in the UK today thanks to its distinctive punchy flavour. BrewDog’s Punk IPA was the beer that launched a thousand ships and it’s still going strong in pubs and supermarket today alongside American imports like Lagunitas IPA.
Try: Fourpure’s Juicebox. It’s a super summery IPA with fresh orange zest, flavours of mango and papaya. What’s not to love?
A porter is a well-hopped, dark beer that gets its unique appearance thanks to the use of brown malt. As pretty much the first-ever beer to be brewed on a large scale, porters were the choice of many (its name comes from the drink’s supposed popularity with street and river porters) and this historic style has remained a popular tipple over time. Fuller’s London Porter is one of the most well-known (and widely available) of the bunch but you won’t struggle to find some truly excellent old-school examples out there. Expect a porter to be friendlier and sweeter than a stout with an almost dessert-like consistency.
Try: Siren’s Coldblooded Porter. A great beer for the chocoholics out there, this rich porter has notes of roasted coffee and dark chocolate that’ll shake your hand at every sip.
Similar to a porter in a lot of ways, a stout is a dark, top-fermented beer that sits towards the heavy end of the beer spectrum. Stouts are the dark and mysterious member of the beer family and will, as a general rule of thumb, be less sweet than porters and also have a slightly higher alcohol percentage. The best selling stouts worldwide are those made by Guinness. Not that that will surprise you in the slightest.
Try: Hammerton Brewery’s Peanut Butter Milk Stout. A stout that tastes like a peanut butter milkshake? Sold.
Sour ales are – wouldn’t you know it – quite sour. A calculated blend of yeasts and bacteria are what give sour ales their lip-puckering flavour and there’s really something to be said for drinking a beer that tastes like it’s had a fight with a lemon. And lost. I realise this might not sound all that appealing but trust me that sour ales are absolutely delicious. There’s a time and a place for them and you should definitely try one if you haven’t yet.
Try: Mikkeller’s Ich Bin Berliner Weisse Raspberry. This tart, fruity and fierce sour ale has an eye-catching raspberry colour and flavour. Not a traditional sour by any means, but a lot of fun.
Wheat beer is a top-fermented beer (there’s that phrase again!) which is brewed with a large proportion of wheat. That makes sense, right? Well, here’s something else that makes less sense: wheat beers don’t really taste wheaty. They’re more sweet and sour and can often be quite sharp owing to the presence of lactic or acetic acid. The main varieties of wheat beer that you’re likely to find out in the wild are German Weißbir, Belgian witbier, Lambic, Gose, and Berliner Weisse. Those are all pretty diverse styles in and of themselves but most styles of wheat beer will share a thick head and smooth mouthfeel. It’s good stuff.
Try: Weihenstephaner’s Hefe Weissbier. This bavarian-style beer is a textbook example of what wheat beers are all about. If you don’t like it, you’re probably not a wheat beer person.
A pilsner is a type of lager (if you’ve forgotten what that is just have a quick scroll up) that’s had a healthy amount of hops added to it. Hops work in a similar way to seasoning and spices in recipes so you can expect most Pilsners to taste like lagers that have got a little something-something extra. That little something-something is hops. We’ve established that. Anyways… pilsners are super fun and can range in flavour from floral and fragrant to almost savoury. Check them out.
Try: Lost and Grounded’s Keller Pils. This pale straw Bristolian beer is light and citrussy with a gentle herbal touch and a large and in-charge mouthfeel.
Brown ale is a style of beer with a dark amber or, y’know, brown colour. As you’d expect from their darker tone, brown ales have got a more nutty, caramel character than regular ales. Classics like Newcastle Brown Ale are a prime example of what a brown ale can offer. They’re not super refreshing, and not the best for quaffing a hot summer’s day, but they’re moreish and ideal for an evening beverage.
Try: Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale. This organic number from Samuel Smith’s is sweet and dry and the beer equivalent of drinking a spoonful of Kellogg’s Fruit and Nut. Ace.