Ready for a fact? Beer is one of the most consumed drinks on the planet, coming third only to water and tea. But what actually is it? Whether you’re partial to a pint or two and want to learn more, or you’re looking to buy a truly mouth-watering gift for a beer connoisseur, by the end of this guide you will learn more about what beer actually is, and what tastes, flavours and experiences you can expect from its many, many glorious forms.
You can categorise beer into two different types: lager or ale. Many people know which drinks fall under which category, but might not know that the definition actually refers to the type of yeast that is used during the fermentation process. All beer is fermented from grain, but ales are created using yeast that ferments at the top, while lager is made with yeast that ferments at the bottom of the mixture. Yeast used in the process of making ale has a higher tolerance to alcohol than that used for lager, which is why ales are capable of having a higher alcohol content than lagers. In comparison, bottom-fermenting yeast (used to make lager) has a lower tolerance to alcohol, and needs to ferment at cooler temperatures.
Before we go any further, let’s take a second to talk about what ‘craft beer’ is, as it’s a phrase you’ll hear often but isn’t always fully understood. Put simply, a craft beer is a product of a craft brewery, which tends to be an independently owned brewery that produces beer on a small scale. So if you’re picturing very cool and slightly quirky, you’re just about spot on. The rules of what is and what isn’t a craft beer are slightly fuzzy, but the basic overview is that it is commonly brewed in a small, independent brewery in a traditional way; in other words, it is dependent on the beer brewing process rather than the taste.
Now that we have taken care of the science behind the humble beer, we can explore some of the different flavours and categories. To go through all the different types of beer would take some time, considering there are more than one hundred of them, but we can most certainly take a look at the main variations, starting with lager.
Pale lagers are named so because they are lighter in colour, ranging from straw to amber, and crisp in flavour. They are carbonated and tend to be refreshing as they are light on the palate, so are a great entry beer for those that don’t tend to drink it that often. Pale lager is the most popular type of beer drunk around the world and is the main product sold by many of the top worldwide brands, including the likes of Heineken and Budweiser. If you close your eyes really tightly and picture a typical pint, you may just be able to taste one. Or is that just us? Light lagers tend to go well with salads, burgers or spicy food, which is why the Spanish Lager Hamper expertly matches Estrella Galicia, a pale lager, with chilli and black pepper olives, traditional breadsticks, flavoursome chilli jam and handmade Spanish ham crisps.
Pilsners are a type of pale lager, but whereas pale lagers are said to originate from Germany, pilsners come from Czech Republic. While similar to pale lager, pilsners are generally more carbonated and have a fuller, more aromatic flavour, due to the addition of Saaz hops. Essentially, if you are still looking for a light beer but want one with a bit of flavour, then pilsner should be your go-to. Within this category you have German-style pilsners (e.g. Becks) which are paler and crisper, and Czech-style pilsners (such as Staropramen) which are a little darker and more bitter. You can generally mix pilsners with the same types of food as pale lagers, but they also pair perfectly with cheese. The Craft Beer & Cheese Hamper covers all bases, supplying three crisp and clear Freedom lagers, including a pilsner, pale lager and helles, matched with a delicious selection of crisps, crackers and naturally smoked cheddar; ideal for those looking for craft beer gifts. Anyone else starting to feel peckish right about now?
Not all lagers are light, crisp and refreshing however, which brings us neatly on to dark lager. As you might expect, these are darker in colour than your pale lagers and pilsners (ranging from shades of amber to dark red), but tend to be malty and smooth and have smoky caramel flavours. Dark lagers are best paired with hearty, traditional European dishes, including pizza, burgers and bangers & mash.
The world of ales is even more expansive and convoluted than that of lager, with more than 70 separate categories, so we’re here to guide you through the main, better known types. Let’s start with an ale that has seen a recent rise in popularity, and can be found in most bars and pubs up and down the country: Indian Pale Ale (more commonly known as IPA beer). While there are of course different categories of IPA – English IPA or West Coast IPA for example – they all boast the same qualities. IPAs tend to be bitter, but are balanced out by characteristic herbal, citrus or fruity flavours, and have a higher alcohol percentage than other lagers and ales. Because of the flavours, IPAs are a decent starting point for anyone looking to get into real ale craft beer, and the Butcombe Goram IPA found in the Real Ale Hamper is a perfect mix of stone fruit, citrus and spice to open your senses to a new world of taste.
Pale ales are, rather confusingly, slightly different to IPAs in that they are still generally hoppy but less fruity than IPAs, with a lower alcohol content as well. Golden and amber ales are an offset of pale ales, and can be appealing to first-time ale drinkers because of their low alcohol content and similarity in taste to lagers. The colours range from amber to gold and have notes of sweet caramel flavours without being too overpowering and, as such, make for excellent palate cleansers to strong-flavoured foods, as demonstrated in the Ploughman’s Beer Hamper. In this bespoke selection, you will find a regal Butcombe Golden Ale, juxtaposed with the hearty flavours of pickled onions and ploughman’s pickle, rounded expertly off with crackers and award-winning cheese. If that’s not enough to get your taste buds tingling, keep reading.
Opt for darker in colour and flavour and you’ll arrive at brown ales, porters and stouts. Brown ales are darker than their pale counterparts and tend to have flavours akin to caramel, with toasty, malty overtones. They have mid-range alcohol content and bitterness, with the flavours perhaps too overpowering for first-time ale drinkers. Possibly the most famous example of a brown ale is the Newcastle Brown. Stouts are darker still, but tend to be full-bodied and sweet, with flavours reminiscent of coffee-and-cream or sweet espresso, with Guinness the most celebrated example of this. While sweet, the flavours are actually rather mild, but the hints of coffee and chocolate lend themselves best to being paired with chocolate truffles, chocolate mousse, or lobster and shellfish. Porters are similar to stout in their dark colour and roasted flavour, but they differ in the fact that they have a crisper finish. Porters originated in London and, as such, have historically been hugely popular in the capital, with the likes of Fuller’s London Porter flying the flag. Anyone else feel like they need a drink?
We have covered much of the expansive world of beer, looking at many of the most notable types of lager and ale, but it is also worth mentioning Belgian-style beer and wheat beer. Belgian-style beers naturally originate from the region, and are well known for their spicy, fruity and sweet flavours and incredibly high alcohol content – seriously, if you ever go into a Belgian bar, check the strength of your drink before ordering a second! Wheat beer is made using wheat for the malt ingredient, which gives it a lower alcohol content and lighter colour. These beverages buck the trend of many beers in the fact that they are often enjoyed with a slice of fruit, and are ideal for those looking for a casual drink. In fact, that sounds just about perfect right now, let’s round this blog off!
There is a final type of beer that does not actually quite fit into the categories of being either a lager or an ale because it has its own fermentation process known as ‘spontaneous fermentation’, which creates an offset of beverages including sour beer. Sour beer has risen in popularity recently, seen as a fun option for those looking to try something new. The seriously fruity and sour flavours set them apart from traditional ales and lagers; so if you’re feeling adventurous, these are worth a try!