The Battle of Britain: British Beers

Ben McFarland

03 February 2016

Tired of foreign beers coming over here and taking our jobs? Ben McFarland seals off the borders and prepares to repel the invaders with British versions of classic continental beer styles

Back when Britain ran the show, all those centuries ago, its breweries were the envy of the world and we exported our proven depressants, available in a wide range of flavours, to every continent on the planet.

But that was then and this is now. The tide has turned. The tail is now wagging the dog. And that dog probably has rabies – because our brewing borders are currently being flooded with ales and lagers brewed by foreigners in their foreign countries using foreign ingredients. It’s disgusting.

In their hundreds and thousands they swarm. From Belgium, Germany, America and other third world countries. You see them in our ports, often huddled in groups of 24, rattling around under cellophane in the back of British lorries heading to bar chillers up and down the country with dreams of getting their greedy foreign mitts on the United Kingdom’s ‘leisure pound’.

It’s just not cricket. The only way to fend off these flavoursome foreign invaders, with their umlauts and their grave accents and their flick knives and their devil bangers, is to stock British versions of these beers instead.

Without the issue of terroir to complicate matters and with brewing horizons broadening beyond just British beer styles, a growing number of domestic brewers are now making beers more readily synonymous with foreign countries – from German Rauchbiers and Belgian sour ales to American IPAs and Czech pilsners.

German Bock: Batemans English B Bock, 6%
Bocks are strong and massively malty, mostly seasonal and once exclusive to the north German town of Einbeck. But, following the town’s demise in the Thirty Years’ War, they were revived in Bavaria and are now brewed all over Germany and, of course, Lincolnshire.

Rich, warming and full-bodied with a notably long, lingering finish, Batemans B Bock has, like all good bocks should, a picture of a goat on the label (the word bock, a distortion of the ‘beck’ part of Einbeck, translates as billy-goat).
Batemans, 01754 880317

German Helles: Camden Unfiltered Hells Lager, 4.6%
This Bavarian pale lager has its roots in Britain. Sort of. The man who created it, Gabriel Sedlmayr from the Spaten brewery, originally learned all about pale malt from British brewers.

He also sneakily stole yeast from British breweries using a special walking cane and took it back to Germany with him. ‘It always surprises me,’ wrote Sedlmayr, ‘that we can get away with these thefts without being beaten up’.

The chaps at Camden Brewery in North London boast two Helles-style beers – there’s the delicately hopped, flint-dry filtered straight Hells (sic) or a more complex, cloudy unfiltered version that has more hop character to it.
Camden Town Brewery, 020 7485 1671

German Rauchbier: Beavertown Smog Rocket Smoked, 5.4%
Imagine a Lapsang Souchong-sipping, iodine-soaked smoked kipper doing laps in a loch of Islay whisky. Think of the elbow pads of a geography teacher and the whiff of Winston Churchill’s leather-clad mahogany desk after a long night drinking drams, chomping on cigars and pushing little soldiers about a map with a windscreen wiper.

That sound like your kind of thing? Then you’ll enjoy the Rauchbiers of the picturesque Franconian town of Bamberg.

For something more drinkable, though, take a trip to Tottenham, where Beavertown brews a milder, mellower version. Pouring dark brown from a cool-looking 33cl can, there’s gentle smoke on the nose, a chunk of dark chocolate and a lovely dry tobacco finish.
Beavertown Brewery,

German Dunkel: West Dunkel, 4.9%
Until the 1840s, all German lager was ‘dunkel’ (dark) and the daddy of German dunkel comes from the historic Kaltenberg Brewery in Bavaria. But one of the best British versions of this style can be found brewing in Glasgow where West brewery brings together five different malts and a light hop presence to produce a wonderful wintery lager.
Available from Euroboozer, 01923 263335

German Hefeweizen: Bad Seed Hefeweizen, 5.9%
The Bad Seed Brewery from North Yorkshire is home to a hazy hefeweizen with all the phenolic clove, light banana character and sprightly effervescence that you’d expect. Hefeweizen is a classic German style that was last drunk in the Bavarian Bierhalle back in the mid-1800s.

Disillusioned with what they regarded as a dated drink for grannies, locals clamoured for the clean, clear and contemporary lager-style beers instead but hefeweizen was dragged from its deathbed by George Schneider, brewer of Schneider Weiss.
Available nationally through Pivovar, 01904 607197 (Yorkshire); New Wave Distribution, (Scotland); The Big Beer Co, (Bristol); and Pig's Ears, 01306 627779 (London)

Kölsch: Thornbridge Tzara, 4.8%
It looks like a Kölsch, smells like a Kölsch, tastes like a Kölsch but zee pesky pedantic Germans say it can’t legally be called a Kölsch unless it’s from Cologne. Stylistically straddling a golden ale and a delicate lager, it’s bright, brisk and light on bubbles with a faintly citrusy fruit twist.
Thornbridge Brewery, 01629 815999

German Altbier: Orbit Beers London Neu, 4.7%
Shiny of shoe, vast of wallet and all BMW, belts and braces, Düsseldorf is known as ‘the office desk of the Ruhr’. Unsurprising, then, that the name of its beer-style is also a button on a keyboard.
Düsseldorf’s not like London’s Elephant and Castle at all – but that’s where you’ll find a smooth, nutty Alt alternative courtesy of the guys from Orbit brewery, where sweet music is played to the mash tuns. It strikes a nice balance between bitter and sweet without veering into acrid, burnt barley flavours.
Orbit Beers London, 020 7703 9092

German Oktoberfest/Märzen: Meantime Fest Bier, 5.6%
A graduate of the notable Weihenstephan brewing school near Munich, Meantime founder Alastair Hook has championed Germanic brewing traditions more than any other British brewer.

This is an authentic interpretation of a beer that would have been brewed in the spring, stored in cold cellars for the summer and drunk in the autumn. Brewed with malt and bottom-fermenting yeast from Bavaria and hopped with noble German hops, it’s a deep copper-coloured lager that is stored for several weeks and released unfiltered.
Meantime Brewing Company, 020 8819 7479

Belgian Abbey beers: Adnams Triple Knot Tripel, 10%; TicketyBrew Dubbel, 6.5%
There was a time when monks brewed all the beer in Britain. We don’t have monastic beers in Britain anymore because, unlike Jay Z, Henry VIII had lots of problems with his bitches and they forced him to dissolve all the monasteries in the 16th century.

In Belgium, however, monastic brewing was revived in the 1830s and both abbey ales and Trappist beers remain the cornerstone of Belgium’s rich beer culture. The two beer styles synonymous with monastic brewing are dubbel (double) and tripel (triple). Brewers would mark their barrels with either two or three Xs to let the largely illiterate locals know how strong the beers were.

They may not be monks, but TicketyBrew in Stalybridge is a rare British brewery dabbling in the dark world of dubbels. Available in both bottle and keg, its deep maroon colour is deceptive as no roasted malts are used, merely a drop of dark sugar syrup (as per Belgian brewing tradition). The sweetness is balanced out by the dry bitterness of German hops and there’s a swirl of dark fruit, pepper and toffee apple in there too.

The latest British brewer to try a tripel is Adnams on the east coast. Brewer Fergus Fitzgerald has taken the Sole Bay sparkling beer and added a few Belgian tweaks. Tripel Knot Triple is spiced with lavender, orange blossom and orange, bitter hopped using El Dorado, double fermented – once with the Adnams house yeast and then with a white wine yeast – and then lagered on yeast for approximately six months.
Adnams, 01502 727272; TicketyBrew, 07970 093 665

Belgian Lambic: Elgood’s Coolship Blonde, 6%
Belgian lambic beer is the oldest beer style in the western world and regarded by some as the most quixotic and cultured expression of the brewing art.

But most people think it tastes horrible and can’t see the attraction of a sour beer that tastes like a goat smells and whose tartness makes you draw in your cheeks as if you’ve seen something saucy happening in the pantry.

Closer in character to cider or fino sherry, what distinguishes lambic from conventional contemporary beers is that it’s spontaneously fermented with naturally-occurring, local, airborne yeast specific to Pajottenland in Brussels.

This means that you can’t make it anywhere else. Or can you? Elgood’s in Cambridgeshire has had a damn good try using the same age-old traditional methods, authentic and iconic shallow coolships which expose more of the beer to the yeast, as well as similar fermentation techniques and oak-ageing.

We have no idea what kind of yeast is floating about just off the A1101 but whatever it is and whatever it does, the results are really rather impressive – earthy, funky, acidic, woody and citrusy sour. Just like licking a cellar door.
Cambridge Wine Merchants, 01954 214528

Belgian Witbier: Six°North Wanderlust Wheat, 4.6%
Unlike the Germans (who have, of course, historically been forbidden from furnishing their wheat beers with anything but grain, hops and water,) those crazy Belgian bastards have always revelled in adding all manner of esoteric ingredients into their unfiltered witbier – coriander seed and orange curaçao peel being the most common.

Creamy, cloudy and showcasing that fruity Belgian wit yeast, Wanderlust Wheat from Six°North brewery in Aberdeen is one of the finest wits outside of Wallonia. Made for mussels.
Six°North, 01561 377047

Czech Pilsner: Windsor & Eton Republika, 4.8%
The people of Pilsen were fools. When they invented the first ever truly golden lager in 1842, they failed to patent it. Other breweries copied it and soon Pilsner was being brewed all over Europe and America. They tried to trademark their beer in 1899 but, by that time, the horse had bolted, the stable door flapping in the wind and more than 100 years on, pilsner is still brewed all over the world – though with varying degrees of success.

Historically, there have been a lot of piss-poor pilsners out there, many contract-brewed in Britain by less conscientious mega-mainstream brewers. But now there are quite a few very good British pilsners made by brewers with the equipment and, crucially, the patience required to perfect the Pilsner style.

Windsor & Eton Republika, brewed in association with Czech brewer Tomas Mikulica of Pivovarsky Dvur, is lagered for six weeks and delivers the light aromatics, the sure malt backbone and the elegant, spritzy hop bitterness associated with a perfect pilsner.
Windsor & Eton Brewery, 01753 854075

American IPA: Salopian Catatonic, 5.7%
The Americanisation of India Pale Ale is the most significant event to have shaped beer in the last 30 years. Not content with re-inventing IPA by cranking up the aroma and bitterness, America’s craft brewers have doubled it, tripled it, made it Imperial and even taken it into the black.

And more than 200 years after English brewers were exporting heavily hopped ales and porters to India, hundreds of British craft brewers are brewing American-style interpretations of IPA.

Often with a fresher hop profile than their US counterparts, some amazing IPAs are being brewed all over Britain – those made by Meantime Brewing Company, Magic Rock Brewing, The Kernel and St Austell Brewery, not to mention the hugely underrated Worthington’s White Shield, being just a few.

But we’ve gone for this: a bold, vibrant and collaborative IPA brewed by two of the most talented brewers in Britain; Salopian Brewery from Shropshire and Tiny Rebel Brewing Co from Newport in Wales.

Brewed using two kilos of American hops (Chinook, Citra and Mosaic) per brewer’s barrel, then dry-hopped for four weeks and centred by a pale malt canvas, it flexes some phenomenal fruity, herbal aromas and – unlike with mindlessly bitter IPAs – your palate won’t wake up with a crowd around it.
Salopian Brewery, 01743 248414

Saison/Bière de Garde: Burning Sky Saison à la Provision, 6.5%
A couple of years ago, saisons were the cool style among craft brewers but few have captured the complex spiciness, herbal highs and yeasty funk quite like the brilliantly bucolic Burning Sky brewery in Sussex.

Its Saison à la Provision is a ‘tavern strength’ saison, first fermented using a sprightly saison yeast followed by a blend of ‘wild’ yeast – lactobacillus and brettanomyces – then aged in oak vats for three months.

A softly sour, lightly fruity quencher with touches of apricot, greengage and pear drops with some funky brett action in there too. Will slake that rasping thirst following a long hot summer’s day swinging a scythe in a Belgian field.
Burning Sky Beer, 01273 858080

Related content

News |  Spirits & Cocktails

Rum, blood & tiki: The history of British Navy rum

Since the 17th century, rum has had firm roots in Britain’s maritime heritage. Eleanor Dallaway reports on the British Navy’s rum-drenched history.

News |  Beer & Cider

Cheers for beers: Beer trends from the Great British Beer Festival

CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival is a showcase for some of the globe’s most innovative brewers.

News |  Beer & Cider

Barrel of Britain: Ageing beer in wood

There was a time when wooden containers were just a brewing necessity. Now, barrel ageing is about awakening flavours and experimentation, says Adrian Tierney-Jones.

News |  Beer & Cider

Brewers Association's Adam Dulye: Why the US is winning the beer & food battle

Imbibe news editor Jacopo Mazzeo talks beer and food with Brewers Association's executive chef Adam Dulye.