A Guide to craft ale for the novice

by nadia leigh-hewitson

august 2018

The world of craft ale can be a little bit alien.   Illustration by Cathy Hookey

The world of craft ale can be a little bit alien.

Illustration by Cathy Hookey

When you say ‘craft ale drinker’, we see youngish men, in thick-rimmed non-correctional glasses, with bowties, curling their moustaches and quaffing 16% beer served from a shoe - let's change that image.

Craft ale has evolved from the niche market that it once was; now served in 70% of pubs and bars it’s becoming increasingly accessible to ‘normal’ folk. We now have vegan ales, gluten free ales, ales without any alcohol… In 2015 alone 204 new breweries opened in the UK. With such a broad variety of styles emerging there has never been a better time to experiment. So, to get you started, we have drawn up an approach based on your usual preferences. Have a read, have a taste, and good luck on your ale-ventures.

For You Lager Drinkers

Most lagers are simple and refreshing with a carbonation that masks strong flavours. Since ales generally have a stronger taste than lagers we suggest starting with a low-percentage pale ale. Try ‘bottle conditioned’ ales for a slight effervescence similar to the fizz found in lager.

So what’s the difference between lager and ale? Sure, the fermentation process plays its part, but the most fundamental change comes from the yeast. A pint of ale and a pint of lager could theoretically contain the same malts and hops, yet the taste and smell would be distinct. This is due to the different yeasts used in the brewing processes. Over the bar, the first tangible difference is in the carbonation and temperature; real ale isn’t bubbly and is served around 5°C warmer.

An easy starter would be the 3.8% Lou's Brew from Driftwood Spars Brewery based in St Agnes (recommended in its bottle conditioned form). This is a hoppy golden ale with an easy-going citrusy lightness and not too much bold sassy flavour, a gentle step into the ale world.

Light Bulb, an ‘extra pale ale’ from Verdant Brewing Company in Falmouth, has added carbonation and comes in a can. This cheeky little 4.5% number is bright, hoppy, and offers a mix of floral and tropical fruit notes normally found in high ABV ales. Light Bulb is made with a cocktail of bold American hops (a rising trend for English craft brewers) as they offer a sharp and distinct flavour.

If You Enjoy a Guinness

The best direction to go from here is towards a medium strength mild or an English-hopped Stout. English hops aren’t too fruity or piney and provide a flavour comparable to Guinness. Tintagel Brewery's dark mild ale, Black Knight (a seasonal brew – keep an eye out in the Spring) is delicate and soft, a good transition from Guinness’s velvety embrace. Dynamite Valley brew a rich sweet oatmeal stout called Black Charge. At 5% this ale boasts a surprising complex flavour, coffee notes develop into a smooth and creamy finish, certainly comparable to a Guinness.

For Wine Enthusiasts

For those who drink the red stuff we suggest you start strong and dark. If you can get your hands on a rum cask aged porter, you’re sorted. Try something with well-roasted malts and a higher ABV such as Scilly Stout, 7% from Penzance Brewing Company. Its minimum maturing time of three months gives it richness and depth. Pair that with Its complex palate of sweet notes and we’re sure this deep red stout would be an easy transition from a Pinot Noir or Grenache.

White wine drinkers will find the conversion easier as there’s a lot of ale that’s easily compared to white wine. Styles of white wine are often mentioned in the tasting notes of pale ales. Try the White Cross IPA, a 5.7% pale from Black Flag Brewing Company; bright, juicy, citrus fruit notes and a long dry finish – flavours and qualities similar to a pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc.

If Cider Is Your Preference

Cider’s intricate and varied flavours can be found in the fruitiness of wheat beers or the highly hopped notes of saisons. Padstow Brewing Company make a wheat beer called Lobster Tale, at 4.5% this complex brew balances a combination of sour fruits, herbal notes, and an enduring dryness. If you prefer a sweeter cider then you're more likely to enjoy a honeyed ale, try Hops 'n' Honey from Skinner's. It’s refreshing, with orange and toffee notes, a sweet and easy going option that’s brewed with real Cornish honey.

Cathy Hookey, Houston, TX, USA. Magical, ginger, feminist, internationally acclaimed drinker and illustrator.

Nadia Leigh-Hewitson, Falmouth, Cornwall, UK. Director of Draught Magazine.