The Most Important British Craft Beers?

British beer bottle cap.

In response to an article listing ‘The 25 Most Important American Craft Beers’ Michael Lally at Bush Craft Beer has challenged his readers to think about what might be on a Brit-centric version of that list:

I think we can define ‘craft’ relatively loosely and ‘important’ in a similar way to our US colleagues: It’s one that either changed consumer tastes or how breweries approach making beer. There are a few obvious ones: Punk IPA by Brewdog, Jaipur by Thornbridge, ESB by Fullers.

There’s a survey you can respond to including space to make your own suggestions but here’s some food for thought from us.

1. Traquair House Ale (1965)

Arguably the very first ‘microbrewery’ was Traquair House which commenced production in 1965. It demonstrated that it was possible for small breweries to be opened despite prevailing industry trends, and also that small independent breweries could often do more interesting things than their bitter- and lager-focused Big Six peers — this beer was (and is) at a hefty ABV and very rich.

2. Litchborough Bitter (1974)

Another brewery with a strong claim to being the first microbrewery was Bill Urquhart’s Litchborough based in the village of that name near Northampton. The beer itself doesn’t seem to have been especially exciting but the business model, and Mr Urquhart’s mentoring/consultancy, directly inspired the microbrewery boom that followed.

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A Mixed Case of History

British beer bottle cap.

If you were to go to your local specialist beer shop or an online beer retailer you could put together quite an interesting mixed case of reasonably easy-to-find beers which would each tell part of the story of ‘alternative’ British beer in the last fifty years.

1. Worthington White Shield (India Pale Ale) — one of a handful of ‘bottle-conditioned’ or ‘sediment’ beers remaining by the seventies and an inspiration behind the IPA boom of the last twenty or so years. Alternatives: this was the emergency purchase for a real ale drinker in a keg-only pub; after White Shield, they’d resort to Guinness, so maybe that?

2. Courage Imperial Russian Stout — another bottle-conditioned survivor of the seventies, newly resurrected, which held the torch for imperial stout through a period when bitter was king. Alternatives: Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout.

3. Chimay Red — one of the first really exciting ‘world beers’ imported into the UK. To better appreciate it, imagine that you have only ever tasted about six beers in total in your entire life, five of which were bitters between 3% and 3.8% ABV. Alternatives: Westmalle Dubbel.

4. Theakston’s Old Peculier — the cult beer of the nineteen-seventies, sold at a premium in the hippest real ale pubs, and renowned for its terrifying strength. (5.6% ABV doesn’t seem so scary today.)

5. Anchor Steam — by the end of the seventies, the coolest imported beer in Britain, wowing visitors at the Great British Beer Festival in 1979 with its similarity to English beer (brown!) and dissimilarity to Budweiser. Alternatives: German Altbier was also very cool at around this time for the same reasons.

6. Butcombe Bitter — a surviving example of a late seventies ‘real ale revolution’ bitter. We don’t know the recipe, but, having spoken to Martin Sykes from Selby and Patrick Fitzpatrick from Godson’s, a theme begins to emerge: pale malt with a little black for colour; Fuggles and Goldings hops; yeast from the back door of a larger regional brewery.

7. Ramsgate Brewery (Gadd’s) Dogbolter— one of David ‘Firkin’ Bruce’s most famous beers was Dogbolter. Every Firkin brewer made it differently aiming for a broad specification of ‘heavy and dark’, and Eddie Gadd, who learned to brew with Firkin, continues to make it to his personal recipe.

8. Hopback Summer Lightning — if not the first ‘golden’ ale, then at least the one that inspired both Sean Franklin and Brendan Dobbin to brew ‘pale and hoppy’. Alternative: Exmoor Gold.

9. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale — the other key inspiration behind ‘pale and hoppy’ cask ales. Again, it helps if you can imagine that you’ve never tasted Cascade hops before — perhaps spend a week drinking John Smith’s bitter to recalibrate your palate?

10. Rooster’s Yankee — an early ‘pale and hoppy’, now brewed by Sean Franklin’s successors at the brewery he founded in the mid-nineties.

11. Freedom Lager — arguably the first ‘craft lager’, in the sense that it was as much about packaging and presentation as it was the beer. Originally brewed by Alastair Hook in West London, we can’t vouch for how closely its current incarnation matches the original, but still… Alternatives: Meantime Pilsner or London Lager.

12. Nethergate Umbel Ale — there were a few breweries experimenting with Belgian-inspired ingredients in the nineties and Umbel, which contains coriander, is a surviving example of that trend. Alternatives: St Austell Clouded Yellow.

13. Anchor Liberty IPA — first brewed in 1975 one of the influences upon the resurgence of IPA in the UK from the mid-nineties. We’ve seen people ask if it’s become less bitter and aromatic: the answer is, probably not, but it certainly has a lot more competition these days. Alternatives: Goose Island IPA.

14. St Austell Proper Job IPA — like a lot of people, much as we love it, we thought this was a big regional brewery jumping on the US-influenced IPA bandwagon. In fact, it was one of the earliest such beers to appear in the UK. Alternatives: Marston’s Old Empire, Thornbridge Jaipur.

15. Brewdog Hardcore IPA — inspired by US brewery Stone in every detail down to the label blurb, this is a great example of the IPA escalation which took place after 2005.

16. Wild Beer Co. Ninkasi — the end of beer as we know it? Made with ten per cent apple juice and, fermented with wild yeast, and presented like champagne, it’s no wonder the brewers refer to it, rather pointedly, as a ‘celebratory drink’. (Disclosure.)

Unfortunately, we don’t think there is a single online retailer which stocks all of these beers, but Beer Ritz has several, as does Beer Merchants.

Notes:

  • This isn’t a list of the best beers or best breweries; if we’ve not mentioned a beer or brewery, it doesn’t mean we don’t like them.
  • Some of these beers are very different to when they were first brewed.
  • We’re still researching some of this, hence the vagueness in places.
  • It’s OBVIOUSLY not comprehensive.
  • It slightly defeats the object to drink beers from the ‘real ale revolution’ from the bottle rather than on cask…