Beer has been with us virtually since humans first planted cereals around 11,000 years ago and evidence of its existence has been found in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian history. Millennia spent perfecting the art of brewing has brought us to the point where, according the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), in the UK around 700 brewers currently produce 2,500 ales. As a result the beer drinker will be confronted with a number of confusing terms such as ‘best bitter’, ‘golden ale’ and ‘porter’. Real ale is currently one of the few growth sectors in a UK drinks market faced with heavy taxation.
In a nutshell, real ale varieties roughly break down into:
Once known simply as ‘pale ale’, bitter emerged in the Victorian era and the term covers a wide range of beer. A brewer may produce an
‘ordinary’ or ‘session’ bitter, which tends to be up to 4.1% in strength, and also a ‘best’ or ‘special’ bitter which will be 4% and higher.
Pale ale is also a beer style in its own right but, as the distinctions are often blurred, at The Guest Ale we’ve included pale ales under the ‘Bitter’ tab.
Golden ales have become increasingly popular in the UK in recent years and are notably lighter in colour than bitters. In fact, they almost appear like lagers, are also often served cool, and are usually brewed using eastern European hops.
Mild is a peculiarly British phenomenon and they often come as very malty, dark beers. They usually weight in at a fairly low 3-3.6% strength, as do the paler light milds. Malts very much dominate the flavour over hops.
India Pale Ale (IPA)
Not to be confused with pale ales, India Pale Ale (IPA) is an altogether stronger beast. As the name suggests, IPA was born out of the demand for English ale in colonial India during the 19th Century. Months at sea did few favours for the quality of ale, so brewers cranked up the hop and alcohol content to help the beer last the journey. The style has stuck, giving drinkers a carbonated, hoppy, fruity ale to salivate over.
Originally a favourite of the working classes in 18th Century London – hence its reputed origins as the drink of the porter – this dark beer is a result of the dark malts that help create it. The development of porter and stout – traditionally a stronger porter – are intertwined and at The Guest Ale we’ve clubbed them together. Porter is very much making a comeback.
How to taste real ale
When it comes to tasting real ale there is no need for the pretence associated with wine tasting. Start pouring the bottle in almost horizontally and then lower the angle of the glass so a large head can’t develop. When about an inch or two of ale is in the glass stop pouring and dip your nose into the glass to get a sense of the drink’s character. The freshly-poured liquid will have plenty of air in the glass with which to expunge its aromas. This will give you a sense of the drink’s make-up, whether it’s hoppy or malty, for example. Observe the emerging colour at this point, too.
Carefully pour the rest of the ale in at an angle and let the beer roll over your tongue to pick out character such as bitterness and sweetness. The back of your tongue when swallowing will detect the “finish”, the long aftertaste.
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