Drinking Beer in the United Kingdom - dummies

Drinking Beer in the United Kingdom

By Marty Nachel, Steve Ettlinger

The United Kingdom is the ale stronghold of the world. Similar to the U.S. brewing industry, a handful of large, national breweries dominate the market, but several hundred brewpubs, micros, and regional brewers produce the more interesting and more flavorful interpretations of traditional styles for impassioned consumers, especially cask-conditioned ale (unpasteurized, unfiltered, naturally carbonated, handpumped beer; also called real ale).

These delicate brews are treated locally like estate-bottled wines are in France, and with reason: They don’t travel — further justification to go there yourself. Ironically, even the beer made by the British national brewers (such as Bass) is considered good stuff in the United States. In short, one drinks well in Great Britain.

Bitters in England and Wales

Almost any pub in England or Wales offers the British standard, Bitter, but the Bitter style isn’t so bitter — it’s fairly light-bodied, softly carbonated, and light in alcohol (bitter is an ancient tag dating from when hops were first used). Bitters can be found on draught as Ordinary Bitter, Best Bitter, and Extra Special Bitter (also known as ESB).

This lineup of beers isn’t simply in ascending order of quality; these designations also refer to the body and strength of these beers relative to each other. In truth, the differences are rather miniscule and barely perceptible to the untrained palate — just something you should know.

Many of the pubs in the United Kingdom are tied houses — they’re at least partly owned by a brewery and, therefore, can serve the beers only of that particular brewery. You can usually spot a tied house by the mention of the brewery, or the beer served within, on the pub sign. If you want to try a variety of lesser-known beers, avoid the tied houses.

Drinking beer in Scotland

Scotland accounts for only about 10 percent of all the pubs in the United Kingdom, but that’s understandable considering that Scotland is a much less populous country. Heck, the Scottish people are even outnumbered by sheep in their own land by a margin of 5 to 1!

Due to its more northerly climes, Scotland has a tradition of producing fuller-bodied, dark, malty ales. And they’re no strangers to stronger libations, either — whisky notwithstanding. Their strong Scotch Ale is well respected in other countries, most notably Belgium.

Exploring shrines, festivals, and museums in the United Kingdom

Britain has a long and illustrious past, much of which is infused with beer. What better way to acquaint yourself with British history than experiencing it through beer-related events and locations? Here are some highlights to check out:

  • U.K. breweries and brewpubs: The United Kingdom has too many good breweries to put on the A list — you’ll never see them all. Your best bet is to check out the local pubs in each town (some tours make a point of this).

  • The Traquair House, Innerleithen, Scotland: A four-story manor house (now a museum) has not only a small working brewery but also an abundance of history dating back to the 1500s.

  • Edinburgh, Scotland: A great town for walking, Edinburgh’s numerous pubs also make it perfect for pub crawls (walking tours of local public houses at which the “wares” are tasted). Rose Street in the New Town section has Britain’s highest density of pubs per square foot.

  • Southeastern England: In addition to visiting the breweries and pubs, if you’re here in the late summer or early autumn, check out the famous hop farms that dot the countryside in Kent County, “the Garden of England” and home of the famed East Kent Golding variety.

The best way to experience U.K. beers and culture is to visit the local pubs. No matter where you are, you’re likely to see many of the same beer styles featured on tap; what’s most likely to change is the brand names. Also be on the lookout for anything on handpump; real ales are the real way to enjoy British beer.