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Ultimate Guide to British beers

Although Britain can’t claim to have invented beer (there’s evidence it dates back at least 4,000 years to Mesopotamia), it’s certainly a drink that’s associated strongly with the island. We’ve been brewing beer with hops since the Middle Ages and possibly before, under the plausible pretence that it was safer than the water, thanks to alcohol’s disinfectant properties. How convenient.

Anyway, with such a brewing culture, you’re always going to get variety. Sometimes it’s through experimentation – trying different ingredients, temperatures, yeasts and prep durations no doubt tweaked the recipes for the better. But other times, dumb luck will have played a part – picking the wrong type of hop or roasting the grain a bit too long, for example.

With all these types, and breweries large and small up and down the land, we thought we’d give an overview of the British beer scene. We’ll cover the main breweries, the types of beer and to start, a quick look at how brewing works.

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How beer is made

British beer is a multi-stage process, with just a few key ingredients: water, grain (wheat or barley), hops and yeast. Here’s the brewing process:

1. Some grain is soaked in water, then just as it’s starting to germinate, the process is halted by drying with warm air. It’s at this moment that starch is beginning to be turned into sugars. This is called malting, and the dried grain is called malt. It can be roasted to make it darker.

2. The malt, and other grain, is mixed into hot water in a process called mashing. This is when the starch completes its transformation into sugars.

3. Lautering happens next. It’s essentially when the sugary liquid and the grain are separated through filtration. The liquid is called wort.

4. Now the wort is boiled, which kills off any bacteria and stops all sugar conversion. Hops are added at this stage, often in two batches – the early batch gives the bitterness, the later batch the flavour and aroma.

5. The wort is now cooled and the yeast is added, which is where the sugar is turned into alcohol. It’s a process known as fermentation.

6. Finally, conditioning happens (or secondary fermentation). The beer is allowed to settle, so sediment and yeast cells can sink to the bottom, leaving the final product. Now the beer is ready to be tapped, bottled or canned.

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Popular British beers

Go into any pub in Britain, and you’ll be almost guaranteed to find the following beers on draft or in bottles.

  • Bitter: This is the cover-all term in the UK for traditional ales and pale ales, and there are dozens of brands to choose from. Many are mass-produced in mega-breweries; others are craft breweries that specialise in small batch, limited edition bitters, often brewed on the premises.

  • India pale ale (IPA): It’s called India pale ale as it was said to be the only type of beer that could survive a voyage to India not only in a palatable form, but actually improved. This version of events is now seriously called into question, but unlike the ships, the name isn’t going anywhere.

  • Stout or porter: Porter is a dark beer dating back to the 1700s in the UK, made from dark roasted malted barley and plenty of hops. It was easy to brew on the premises of pubs, so it became popular with landlords and patrons. There are generally three types of porter: brown, robust and Baltic. Stout is a development of porter, and is stronger, especially imperial stout.

  • Mild: Sometimes called brown ale, mild is a younger, fresher brew that might not have been through the same amount of conditioning as a traditional bitter. It’s cheaper and less alcoholic as a result, and is a handy lunchtime pint.

  • Lager: Originating in the north of mainland Europe, lager uses a different type of yeast, and is generally cold conditioned (lagern means “to store” in German). It made its way to Britain as late as the mid-19th century, but it is now by far the dominant beer in terms of sales in the UK, with mass produced lagers available everywhere.

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What kind of beer is popular in England?

All of the beers listed above are popular in England, with lager being the most drunk beer in pubs, clubs, restaurants and homes. However, bitter is still enormously popular, and stout has a significant number of drinkers in England (although it’s the most popular in Northern Ireland).

What’s exciting is that every year, the taste for craft beer is teasing drinkers away from the mainstream. In towns and cities across the UK, small, independent bars, craft ale shops and brewers are setting up and catering to this adventurous new breed. Each individual brewer and beer barely registers as a blip on the wider consumption stats, but taken together, it’s becoming a significant challenger sector.

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How many breweries are in the UK?

According to the Brewery Bible, there are around 2,200 breweries in the UK. That includes the large breweries that pump out millions of pints a month to the craft brewers selling their product to local pubs and beer markets.

The question of who is the biggest brewery in the UK is a bit more complicated to answer. We know which beers are brewed in the UK, but the companies that own them are often huge corporations like InBev that have lots of brands and brew from several locations across the country. InBev, Molson Coors and Heineken each has about 17% of the market.

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What is the craft beer UK scene like?

It’s positively thriving! There are beer festivals galore, hundreds of bloggers writing about craft brewing, mainstream pubs selling craft guest ales, and even the supermarkets are getting in on the act – you can buy some pretty unusual beers from most big stores now.

BrewDog is an example of the taste for craft ale that has exploded to life recently. It’s hard to believe we only started out in 2007, but the fact that we now have more than 60 bars in the UK and five breweries worldwide shows the seismic shift in tastes. Craft beer, which was once seen as a bit of a minority pursuit talked about in stuffy pubs, now represents a large and growing sector. The British palate is definitely getting more sophisticated.

We love our beers, and we think we’ve mastered the art of scaling up without losing quality. But we’d urge you to support all your local brewers, suppliers and bars by researching and (most importantly) enjoying their amazing produce.

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