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The ultimate guide to craft beers

Jonathan Goodall / 20 July 2018

Bewildered by the growing number of craft beers on offer? Saga drinks expert Jonathan Goodall explains what the labels mean and shares his pick of the best.

Craft beer

Do you remember when beer was in ‘black and white’? When the choice was between anodyne ale and lifeless lager? We reached our beer nadir in the 1970s and ‘80s, when the landscape was dominated by bland global brands, distinguishable not by flavour but by their enormously expensive advertising campaigns. To all intents and purposes, it was their advertising we were drinking.

There was a time when local and regional beers exuded character and flavour, but this was before the First World War. The need for clear-headed munitions workers and a scarcity of brewing materials during two World Wars led to a serious dilution of the classic British styles. Pale ales, IPAs, porters and stouts soldiered on, but they were weak and pale imitations of their former selves. In the USA, where the current craft-beer movement started, Prohibition pole-axed all brewing in the 1930s.

The path was cleared for giant multinationals which, ultimately, commoditised beer. They sped up the brewing process by reducing fermentation and conditioning times and cut costs by supplementing malted barley with cheaper sources of fermentable sugar such as maize, rice and starch. No corner was left uncut in the pursuit of profit. Many of these industrial beer brands were – and still are – filtered and pasteurised to within an inch of their lives in the name of ‘cost-effective refreshment delivery’.

In stark contrast, today’s craft brewers are not afraid of the F-word – flavour. They put the art and soul back into brewing, innovating and experimenting with wild yeasts, barrel-ageing techniques and seasoning with new hop combinations, fruits, herbs and spices. Craft beer is to mass-market beer what freshly baked sourdough is to sliced white.

The birth of craft beers

John ‘Jack’ McAuliffe, who founded the New Albion Brewing Company in 1976 in Sonoma, northern California, is often cited as the pioneer of the American craft-beer movement. Drawing his inspiration from the breadth of beer styles he had encountered during his military service in Scotland, McAuliffe built a cult following. But New Albion wasn’t big enough to withstand larger market forces and closed after six years. It was, however, the first microbrewery to open in the USA since Prohibition and a huge source of inspiration to those that followed. It is arguably the most important ‘failed’ brewery in history. In 2010 there were 1,716 craft brewers in the USA; in 2016 this had risen to 5,234, according to the US Brewer’s Association.

After decades of dumbing down, the backlash was inevitable, though it hasn’t been so much a revolution as a renaissance. American craft brewers drew their inspiration from the classic European beer styles, initially focusing on British pale ale and IPA, to create their own, often turbo-charged, versions. Using pungent American hop varieties such as Cascade, Chinook and Centennial, renowned for their spicy, resinous and citrus qualities, especially grapefruit, they’ve elevated beers to unprecedented zesty, flavoursome heights.

Now British craft brewers are returning the compliment with IPAs, pale ales and new golden ales seasoned with the same zingy American hops. British craft beers such as Thornbridge’s Jaipur India Pale Ale, Kelham Island’s Pale Rider and Roosters’ Yankee harness their power to stunning effect, brimming with zest, citrus and floral aroma.

These days it is said you are never more than ten miles from a craft brewery in the UK, where the number of breweries has now surpassed 2,000 for the first time since the 1930s. The introduction of Progressive Beer Duty (PBD) in 2002 was a major catalyst, allowing smaller breweries to pay tax according to their production levels. Broadly speaking, the major global beer brands are losing ground in their established markets in the USA and Europe due to the inexorable rise of regional and craft brewing. And the beer giants have decided, if you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em. London’s Meantime and Camden Town brewers, Chicago’s Goose Island, California’s Lagunitas and Australia’s Little Creatures are some of the bigger craft brewers that have been snapped up or part-purchased for huge sums. Craft brewers have become the tail that’s wagging the multinational dog.

And it’s because of this success that craft brewers can no longer be defined by their size. Indeed, the American Brewers’ Association found it necessary to revise upwards their definition of craft brewery production from two million barrels to six million barrels a year, which is a lot of beer. Craft brewing is more about attitude, quality and innovation than size.

A cursory glance at the supermarket shelves tells you there’s something afoot in the beer aisles. Look up from the BOGOF packs of ‘cooking’ lager, depressingly cheaper than bottled water, and you will see bottles brimming with possibilities. Beers flavoured with cherries and raspberries; ales aged in old whisky or rum barrels; brewed by monks and fermented with wild yeast. Nowadays beer labels sing the praises of hop varieties such as Fuggle and Golding as loud and proud as wine labels extolling the virtues of grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. And in Michelin-starred restaurants such as Le Gavroche and Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons you’re just as likely to be handed a beer list by a young and happening ‘som-ale-ier’.

Beer has passed from black and white into glorious Technicolor.

Some of the best craft beers on the market

Stockists key: Asda: A, Marks & Spencer: M&S, Morrisons: M, Sainsbury’s: S, Tesco: T, Waitrose: W


IPA (India Pale Ale) was created in London around 1790 when brewers decided to harness the antibacterial, preservative power of hops to prevent their beers from spoiling on long sea journeys to India. The result was pale ale turbocharged with extra hops and alcohol. What’s not to like? It’s certainly a style that craft brewers who love to play with hops have taken to heart. Some contemporary American IPAs are so astringently bitter they will melt your fillings, but not this pair of beauties, which showcase the gorgeous nettle, gooseberry and grapefruit flavours of American hops. These are no blushing wall-flowers…

Goose Island IPA (5.9%) from the Goose Island Beer Company, Chicago: fruity, perfumed and well-balanced. If this were a wine, it would be a ripe Sauvignon Blanc (A, M, S, T, W).

Lagunitas IPA (6.2%) from the Lagunitas Brewing Company, Petaluma, California: pungently grapefruit pithy with a hint of orange (A, M, S, T, W).

For a more understated version try Jaipur IPA (5.9%) from the Thornbridge Riverside Brewery, Bakewell, Derbyshire. It’s made in the American style with American hops, but is paler with a lemony twist (M, T, W).

Pale Ale

‘Pale’ refers to the colour of the lightly roasted malts used in this style. The broad term ‘pale ale’ refers to a family of copper/amber-coloured, bitter beers that includes English and American pale ales and IPAs as well as English bitter. It’s another hop-forward style but more reined in than IPA.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (5.6%) from the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company of Chico, California: iconic, amped up ale. Full-bodied and assertively spicy with hints of marmalade (A, M&S, M, S, T, W).

Little Creatures Pale Ale (5.2%) from Little Creatures Brewing of Fremantle and Geelong, Australia: light-bodied yet deeply flavoured. Soft and perfumed with a touch of citrus. Divine (W).

Golden/Blond Ale

Golden ale, also known as Blonde ale, is a relatively new, accessible style of beer that combines the refreshment of lager with the depth of flavour of ale. These beers are light and easy-drinking yet brimming with zest, citrus and floral aroma. Relatively low in alcohol, they make great session beers. This style was created to tempt more drinkers into trying craft beers and it regularly sweeps the boards at beer festivals.

Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted (4.2%) from the Harviestoun Brewery in Alva, Scotland: vibrantly golden thirst quencher with a dry, lemony finish (W).

Saltaire Blonde (4%) from the Saltaire Brewery in Shipley West Yorkshire: straw-coloured, creamy blonde ale, only moderately bitter with subtle spicy notes (M, W).


Originating in Germany, ‘lager’ covers a wide spectrum of styles from golden Helles (meaning light) via amber-hued Märzen and Dunkel (dark) to Schwarzbier (black). Crisp, golden Pilsner, the world’s most popular beer style, comes from Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. Bock, meanwhile, is rich and malty with a kick like a mule, while Rauchbier (smoked beer) tastes like bacon dipped in lapsang souchong. In other words, lager is not the enemy of flavour; bland, mass-produced commodity beers are. In ascending order of ‘body’, I recommend…

Hells Lager (4.6%) from the Camden Town Brewery, London: a cross between Helles and Pilsner, this is light, crisp and golden with floral hop aroma (M&S, S, T, W).

Schiehallion (4.8%) from the Harviestoun Brewery in Alva, Scotland: elegant lager of considerable depth and character with a dry, grapefruity finish (W).

Pistonhead Full Amber Lager (6%) from Brutal Brewing in Varby, Sweden: full-bodied and full-flavoured with hints of orange peel and a rounded, bitter finish (A, M, S, T).

Wheat Beer

Weissbier in Germany, Witbier in Belgium, wheat beer looks like lager but is, in fact, ale. Wheat produces tarter, slightly edgier flavours than malted barley, and tends to form a foamier head. For traditional, unfiltered cloudy wheat beer with a frothing head and bags of banana and clove flavours, try Erdinger Weissbier (A, M, S, W) and Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier (S, W). They’re light, fruity, refreshing and not overly dry. For a contemporary twist, try…

Blue Moon Belgian White (5.4%) from the Blue Moon Brewing Company: cloudy amber, citrussy wheat beer, brewed with orange peel and delicious when served with a slice of orange (A, M, S, T).

Goose 312 Urban Wheat Ale (4.2%) from the Goose Island Beer Company, Chicago: hazy, straw colour with lemon and elderflower aromas and a hint of apricot (A, T, W).

Stout / Porter

Like IPA, Stout and Porter are resurgent styles, favoured by craft brewers looking for extremes of flavour. Although heavily hopped, these are malt-accented beers that, traditionally, are refreshing and quaffable despite their dark, brooding demeanour. Definitions are extremely fluid, but Porter is generally slightly sweeter, while Stout is theoretically drier, fuller-bodied and stronger. The addition of oats gives a smoother, creamier texture to Oatmeal Stouts. Chocolate Stouts derive their flavour from ‘chocolate malts’, which merely refers to a high level of roasting of the malted barley. Some brewers add chocolate.

Meantime London Porter (5.5%) from the Meantime Brewing Company, Greenwich, London: a muscular, sweetish beer with notes of caramel and a smoky maltiness (M&S).

Old Ford Export Stout (7.5%) from the Redchurch Brewery, London: full-bodied black beer, reminiscent of Pontefract cakes. Highly perfumed, finishing dry (W).

Titanic Plum Porter (4.9%) from the Titanic Brewery, Stoke-on-Trent: delightfully different Porter enlivened by the addition of plums. Rich and fruity with a hoppy finish (M, W).

Oatmeal Stout (4.9%) from the Ilkley Brewery, Yorkshire: light, smooth and creamy with a touch of treacle and coffee (M&S).

Cheshire Chocolate Porter (6%) from the Unicorn Brewery, Stockport: unusual, copper-coloured Porter. Smooth and full-bodied with vanilla aroma and dry chocolaty finish (M&S).

Fruit beer

This is surely the most Technicolor section of the beer aisle. There are many ersatz, gimmicky products with all sorts of fruity flavourings vying for your attention, but the Belgians have been macerating real cherries (kriek) and raspberries (frambozen) in their beer for centuries. Look out for the Bacchus, Liefmans and Lindemans brands.

Bacchus Kriekenbier (5.8%) from Brewery Van Honsebrouck: Flemish brown ale macerated with real cherries. Light and refreshing with a gentle spritz and a pleasantly sharp, wine-y finish (T).

Fruli Strawberry Beer (4.1%) from the Huyghe Brewery: Belgian wheat beer brewed with strawberry juice. Fruity, pink and easy to drink. Not overly sweet (T).

Wells Banana Bread Beer (5.2%) from Charles Wells, Bedford: traditional English bitter with Fairtrade bananas. Tropical fruit aromas and malty sweetness balanced with bitterness (A, M).

Farmhouse / Saison Ales

Farmhouse ales, or ‘Saison’ in Belgium, cover a pretty broad base. What they traditionally have in common is a wine-like, cidery quality to refresh the parts other beers cannot reach. Hence their popularity among farm workers.

Thornbridge Tart Bakewell Sour (6%) from the Thornbridge Brewery in Derbyshire: golden beer with passionfruit aroma and tart green apple flavours, like those sweet/sour Tangfastic sweets. Immensely refreshing but not for the faint-hearted (T).

Cornish Saison (5.9%) from the St Austell Brewery, Cornwall: smooth, fruity, golden ale. Off-dry with a sour edge and spicy finish (M&S).

Savour Saison (5%) from Savour Beer, Windsor: hazy, unpasteurised, orange-coloured ale with notes of lemon and zesty hops. A dash of lemongrass and tart finish (W).

Scottish Ale

They don’t grow many hops in Scotland, so Scottish ales are traditionally rich, dark, malt-focused, comforting brews. They are at the opposite end of the beer spectrum from the zesty, citrusy, hop-forward IPAs we started out with.

Innis & Gunn Bourbon Barrel Aged Scotch Ale (6.6%) from Innis & Gunn, Perthshire: amber-coloured, rich, malty Scotch ale with vanilla, toffee and caramel notes from bourbon-barrel wood, which is added to the beer (A, M, S, T, W).


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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