Beer drinkers in the United Kingdom were long seen as either "lager-louts” or cask-ale drinking old blokes with mutton-chop sideburns, knit jumpers and socks with sandals – rather unkindly.
Now, as beer comes back into fashion, drinkers from the United Kingdom are shaking traditions and stereotypes loose and classic styles are seeing a renaissance outside of the traditional cask presentation, championed by the Campaign for Real Ale group (CAMRA). While CAMRA has done a massive amount of work to preserve drinking tradition and presentation, modern beer is helping attract a different UK demographic in the form of younger inner-city adults who are embracing a range of styles that still include lager and cask ale, but go far beyond either category.
As a result, the United Kingdom might now be the most interesting place to be a beer-lover. Fortunately for us here in Australia, we get a great range on shelves and on taps, from the classic UK styles to aggressively hopped new-world beers. While traditional cask ale is rarely (if ever) shipped outside of the UK, there are a small number of local brewers producing authentic, and some less authentic, versions.
For those looking for bottled versions of their classic styles there are a number of terrific options, and one that is always front-and-centre during any UK beer discussion is Fuller's - Extra Special Bitter. While the brewery began in 1845, this 5.5% beer was first brewed in 1971 and is so good it defines ESB as a style - a style that didn't exist until it came along.
The brewery Samuel Smith is even older than Fullers. Founded in 1758, their deliciously named Oatmeal Stout is one of the smoothest versions of that style you will find. At 5% it is velvety and rich; reasonably dry, and full of delicate but prominent flavours such as powdered-cocoa and roasted nuts.
While these two breweries have been incredibly influential, it's a style born of the region that has had the biggest impact on modern beer. While modern versions of the India Pale Ale can be easily found, classic IPA's aren't as readily available. Luckily Australian drinkers can find great representation in the form of the Meantime Brewery - India Pale Ale. While the brewery, only 15 years old, is still a teenager standing next to double-centurions, theirs is a classic example that uses English hops to give earthy, spicy and herbaceous aromas with a decently bitter finish supported by caramel malts.
The New Hopness
If you are looking for the big aromas of hop-forward new-world beers, the United Kingdom is also producing world-beating versions. Oakham Brewery has one of the finest examples of modern hop-usage in the form of their Citra. An American-style Pale Ale, it displays the grassy and lemon zest aromas of the Citra hops.
From there, hop-lovers can dive into bigger beers, with Thornbridge's Jaipur being a great start offering juicy fruit-salad aromas, a big, bitter finish and a clean, sharp malt profile. Brewdog, one of the most recognisable global breweries, produces a number of hop-forward beers and their Jackhammer IPA is an intense example of what hops can bring to a beer. Both the Thornbridge and Brewdog beers are a perfect comparison to the old-world style Meantime version.
Even though hops are still very much at the forefront of craft beer, UK breweries are increasingly looking to experiment with different sorts of yeast, including strains of Brettanomyces. Many drinkers associate this yeast with Belgian beer, however the name actually translates to "The British Yeast" and was likely to be found in many historical UK beers due to their cask ageing. A great lesson in how modern brewers are using the yeast is the Wild Beer Co - Evolver Brett IPA. The addition of brettanomyces gives tart, leathery, fruity aromas that back up the orange and mandarin flavours from the hops used. A beer that might not be seen as a traditional take on the style but lives up to the name "Evolver" as it encompasses both history and modern techniques. It might just be the kind of beer to give drinkers a great taste of what is still to come from the UK, and there is nothing loutish or old-fashioned about it at all.