Best of british: A look the country's most interesting and unusual beers

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Drinks: Beers
Location: England, Europe

Beer guru Nigel Tarn travels the length and breadth of Britain in search of the country’s most innovative, most traditional and most plain bonkers breweries. All together now: ‘Dedication’s what you nee-eeed…’


MOST UNUSUAL: FREEDOM

Freedom is a microbrewery that specialises in lager and is, in my humble opinion, everything that is exciting about British brewing. While maintaining the traditions of British brewing, it has still given a nod to the trends of the modern British drinker, and is proud to be England’s first lager-only microbrewery.

It’s a family business, run by Ed Mayman, his wife, Susan, and, at a recent food and drink festival, their six-week-old daughter! When Ed set up Freedom, the beer boffins told him it wouldn’t work – not least because he was brewing lager in Staffordshire, a hard water area famed for its ale producers. But now these same boffins are raving about his flavoursome lager, which is given added character by the pure, limestone spring water.

These guys have grabbed

the beer world by the hair…

and pulled it out

There are three beers available: Freedom Organic Lager, Freedom Organic Dark Lager and Freedom Pilsner. Freedom Brewery doesn’t use isinglass (a substance obtained from the swim bladders of tropical fish) in its clarification process, so the bottled and keg lagers are certified by the Vegan Society as suitable for vegetarians and vegans.

My favourite, if I had to opt for one of their beers – and I did recently try and like all three – is the Freedom Organic Lager (4.8% abv). It has a rounded malt flavour with a subtle bitterness, made with organic hops and malt, so would work well on any menu.

MOST BONKERS: BREWDOG

These guys have grabbed the beer world by the hair… and pulled it out. Famed for their disputes with the Portman Group, and even reputed to have taunted them with the now delisted Screwball, the boys from Fraserburgh, on Scotland’s rugged north-east coast, are cutting a deep niche in the world of British craft brewing. Their mantra – ‘Beer was never meant to be bland, tasteless and apathetic’ – is best seen in their recent launch, Zeitgeist, a black, full-of-flavour lager.

Brewdog burst onto the scene in April 2007 with Paradox, a beer matured in whisky casks, and followed it up with the highly acclaimed Punk IPA. The scene was set for it to take over, and that’s exactly what it’s doing at the moment.

Putting its wrangling with the Portman Group behind it, the brewery now provides bottled and cask ales and lagers nationally through a range of regional and national wholesalers. Sales and marketing director Richard McLelland told me recently it had secured arrangements for cask to be available nationwide, without the trouble of returnable casks*. It has come a long way – it even has bottles in America now.

If I had to choose one, I couldn’t. If I could choose two they would be the Trashy Blonde (4.1% abv), for its fullness of flavour and refreshing pale ale malts, and the previously mentioned Punk IPA, for its incredible aroma derived from fullness of hops and its truly awesome flavour.

* Under the non-return cask scheme, casks are part of a national loan scheme and need not be returned to the brewery. Handy if your brewery is based in north-east Scotland.

MOST AUTHENTIC: VALHALLA BREWERY

As the most northerly brewery in Britain, it’s unlikely you will have experienced the brews from this traditional outfit unless you live in or visit Shetland. Although, happily, distribution is growing, so the chance of finding it on mainland UK, and rewarding yourself with a cheeky sample, is increasing.

The Valhalla Brewery produces six fine ales, each with its own unique taste, aroma and story, intrinsically linked to the island’s Norse heritage.

The brewery is named after the legendary hall in the celestial regions, home of the Norse god Odin, where slain Viking warriors were taken to be revived by a horn full of ale and, possibly, a packet of pork scratchings.

The brewery is proud of its northerly location (600 miles north of London), and utilises the purity of the island’s water, as well as doing all the brewing and bottling on the windswept isles.

Every 21 June you can celebrate the longest day by watching the sun go down, then rise again a few minutes later. What better way to savour an ale of an evening?

My favourite Valhalla brew is the Island Bere (4.2% abv) – possibly the only beer in the world brewed from ‘bere’, the most primitive form of barley reputed to be the origin of our word ‘beer’ today.

MOST INNOVATIVE: MEANTIME

Based, as the name might suggest, in Greenwich, south London, slap bang alongside the Greenwich Meridian, Meantime brews some fine ale, as well as some unusual ones, and has developed into a bit of an icon. It bottles its beers in distinctive hourglass bottles, and just this summer started to offer cask ale to discerning Londoners.

The brewery was founded by master brewer Alistair Hook, his family and friends (rumour has it the founding fathers were a collective of friends who all invested). It has grown to become London’s biggest independent brewery.

Meantime seems to have taken its inspiration from Europe, hence my choice for ‘most innovative’ accolade. Brewing with wheats, Pilsner malts and fruits, it offers an astounding array of beers: 11 regular brews and five alternating specials.

Madonna is reported to have a

regular order of Timothy Taylor

delivered direct to her home

With so much on offer it’s tough to pick out a top brew, but I’d suggest trying the Innovative Raspberry Grand Cru (6.5% abv), brewed with wheat for a sweet palate, and (obviously) raspberries to balance with sweet and sour flavours. Fantastic deep red colour and great as an accompaniment to any chocolate dessert.

MOST UPLIFTING: HESKET NEWMARKET BREWERY

What the Americans would call ‘quaint’, this brewery has such an uplifting story. When it was threatened with closure in 1999 owing to the imminent retirement of the brewmaster, a collective of locals clubbed together to buy it, forming the UK’s first (and only) co-operative brewery.

Nestled at the back of the Old Crown Pub in the northern reaches of the Lake District, Hesket Newmarket focuses on what it does best: award-wining ales for Cumbrian pubs (and further afield through regional wholesalers). Recently, the collective bought its second pub, an Enterprise Inns lease. Not content with the usual beer tie, it has now set up the Shepherds Inn at Melmerby, North Yorkshire (famed for its pub food) as the second brewery tap.

All the beers are named after Lakeland fells (Arthur Wainwright would have been proud), with the exception of Doris’s 90th Birthday Ale. While being my preferred Hesket Newmarket brew for the name alone, Doris also excels in flavour, character, balance of bitterness and full aroma. A great beer from an inspirational and uplifting microbrewery.

MOST GLOBALLY FAMOUS: TIMOTHY TAYLOR

Timothy Taylor is famed for its celebrity following. Indeed, Madonna is reported to have a regular order delivered direct to her home. Timothy Taylor is the epitome of a Yorkshire brewer. Part of the Yorkshire regional brewery triangle (along with Theakston and Black Sheep), Timothy Taylor’s Landlord is the holy grail of any Yorkshireman lost outside county boundaries. It provides an instant cure for homesickness, the way a fine single malt does for the Scottish and Guinness does for the Irish.

Brewing since 1858, Timothy Taylor is still in family ownership and still uses freshly filtered Pennine water to produce a range of five classic traditional beers. These are served impeccably in its 29 pubs across North and West Yorkshire, and are also available nationally. I recently enjoyed a swift TT in the Crown & Anchor, near Euston station in London, and can report that it travels well.

Landlord, its flagship brand, has won more awards than any other British beer, including the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) beer of the year award four times. Is that more number ones than
the Material Girl herself?

Perhaps the obvious choice, Timothy Taylor’s Landlord (4.3% abv) is also my favourite brew, for its great taste, fullness of body, strength of character and enduring international fame.

MOST TRADITIONAL: SHEPHERD NEAME

Britain’s oldest brewer can trace its brewing traditions back to the foundations of the brewery in 1698 – that’s older than the world’s first lager brand!

Merging traditional methods of production with modern facilities, this stalwart of British brewing makes the likes of Spitfire, Bishops Finger and 1698 with nothing but British barley and Kentish hops, and claims to be Britain’s first green brewery. Both Spitfire Premium Kentish Ale and Bishops Finger Kentish Strong Ale are registered with the European Commission as Protected Geographical Indicators (PGIs). This is similar to France’s appellation contrôlée system for indicating wine provenance, signifying they are brewed from local ingredients using traditional methods.

Brewed in 1990 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Spitfire Ale was originally intended to raise money for the RAF Benevolent Fund. Nineteen years later it has become an integral part of the cask ale revolution as one of Britain’s fastest-growing premium ales and sponsors ‘British’ events such as cricket, rugby and golf.

Spitfire Ale was intended

to raise money for the RAF

Benevolent Fund

Perpetually pointing to its thoroughly British provenance, and utilising the original and ancient artisan well to draw spring water, Spitfire (4.5% abv) is my Shepherd Neame beer of choice.

MOST TRENDSETTING: HOPBACK BREWERY

Multi-award-winning HopBack brewery is famed for its Summer Lightning Ale, the catalyst for the ale revolution that has seen lager lovers converted to the ale category.

HopBack grew out of a pub in Wiltshire, and has gone from strength to strength, now occupying a bespoke unit between Southampton and Salisbury.

There are currently six beers in the stable, but it is Summer Lightning (5% abv) that is my beer of choice. It set the ale world alight in 1997 by winning cask ale of the year, and is an ideal summer drink. 


Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – September / October 2009

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