From pale and delicate to dark and brooding, from intense and bitter to light and floral, Britain’s ales offer great food-matching opportunities. Nigel Huddleston discovers that there is a style
for every course
If your only experience of ale was ‘smoothflow’ and its various cheesily branded equivalents, you’d be forgiven for thinking that ale wasn’t worth getting too excited about. Thank heavens, then,
for the UK’s traditional brewers and modern micros who keep the flag flying with thousands of wildly different brews made with passion, skill and flair.
It’s tempting to think that ale
begins and ends with the traditional pint of bitter, but there’s more variety in the ale world than a whole season of Saturday night TV schedules. Britain has, indeed, got talent.
Ale is a catch-all term for beers made with a top-fermenting yeast (lager is bottom-fermented) using only malted barley – so generally no wheat, rice or any other cereal additive. As the wording of
the term suggests, top-fermenting is when the yeast cells gravitate towards the top of the liquid.
The brewing process is quick, with fermentation at relatively high temperatures, 18-22°C. Cask-conditioned beer served through a hand-pump (popularly known as real ale) has an extra dose of yeast
added to the barrel at the brewery to set-off a secondary fermentation, extracting more flavour from the beer and giving it an extra CO2 sparkle. Bottle-conditioned beer is pretty much the same
idea, only in a bottle, and, obviously, without the handpump.
Variations in style come from different types of malt, yeast, water and hops – the brewers’ craft proven in how they create such diversity of flavours and aromas with so few variables to play with.
Although there are exceptions, ales tend to be full-bodied with forceful flavours, so in the main when food matching they’re going to be best up against strong flavours and later in the meal. A
highly-hopped IPA is never going to be the ideal aperitif!
But with ale it’s important not just to think in terms of matching certain dishes but also to see beer as an ingredient itself, bringing spiciness and verve to sauces and gravies, while the extra
sparkle of a ‘live’ bottle or cask-conditioned ale is a classic for enhancing the crunchy texture of a batter for fried fish.
Ale is not exclusively British, of course. Many continental specialities that often get lumped in with lagers are, technically, ales, but the UK is its spiritual home: unrivalled in both quantity
If you’re one of those venues that thinks a good beer range just means lager from lots of different countries then it might be time for a rethink.
FULL - BODIED BITTERS
Key tasting terms Bitter, hoppy, pepper, grassy, spicy, fruity, nutty
If it were a wine it would be From a grassy Sauvignon at the low-end of the scale to tannic Cabernet Sauvignon at the top.
And it’s what, exactly? Bitter is the quintessential English style of ale. The style was an evolution of pale ale, with a darker, bronze colour which could be achieved from the end of the
19th century with the advent of darker, crystal malts. Bitters emerged as brewers sought to produce beers that could be served after just a few days of being stored.
The bitterness comes from hops, with cask product frequently having whole hops added to the barrel before being dispatched from the brewery to give a hoppy aroma – a process known as
These days, the term pale ale tends to be reserved for the bottled versions of premium ales, and anything above 4% abv tends to be branded as ‘best bitter’.
Just as in wine-producing countries there’s a natural link between Britain’s national drink and its cuisine, and the rich fruitiness of a good bitter can cope with the hearty meatiness of
casseroles, steaks and red-meat pies.
Why not try …
Timothy Taylor’s Landlord 4.1% abv, £1.69/50cl and draught, Branded Drinks Partnership, 0870 066 0947
Without question one of the world’s great beers. It’s sold as a pale ale and is a lesson in how that description shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning insipid.
It has a light, golden hue, grassy Sauvignon-like aroma, good floral hops and citrus fruit. The hoppiness isn’t over-bitter and it has a freshness that means it will drink just as easily with an
al fresco summer salad as it will
with a full-on roast dinner. Wouldn’t seem out of place with the classic Sauvignon match, the asparagus starter.
FULL AND SWEET OLD ALES
Key tasting terms Sweet, raisins, orange citrus, toffee, liqourice
If it were a wine it would be A very fine, sweet oloroso, port or madeira.
And they’re what, exactly? These have a relatively low bitterness level, and a blend of dark and pale malts to produce a full, sweet, dark and rich beer. Old ales come closer than anything
in the beer world to fine wines because they are suited to ageing, and some, such as Gale’s Prize Old Ale, carry a vintage date on their labels, and even attract collectors. Many take on the
character of port or sweet sherry and their culinary home is with pudding or cheese.
Why not try …
Thomas Hardy’s Ale 11.7% abv, £3.79/24cl, O’Hanlon’s, 01404 822412
Yet another world great that faced oblivion until rescued by Devon-based independent brewer O’Hanlon’s. It’s made as a numbered limited edition each year and supplies are much prized by
specialist beer bars. Ruby-coloured, malty, with a fruity date and raisin nose, chocolate orange notes, and a raisiny, sweet-sherry like finish, this would complement a rich, sugary pudding such
as treacle tart or could perform a quince-jelly contrast role alongside a cheese plate.
Innis & Gunn Oak-Aged Beer 6.6% abv, £1.49/33cl, Innis & Gunn, 0131 337 4420
Aged for 30 days in old whisky barrels followed by 47 days in a marrying tun, this new kid on the block defies categorisation and proves that giving a beer a bit of age before release doesn’t
necessarily mean heavy, sticky and dark.
It’s got a honey golden hue, and beneath the oak is a beer with a malty-sweet Scottish style. The oak lends it subtle vanilla, honey and citrus notes which would make it perfect for lighter meats
like duck or pork served with fruity sauces, or even desserts like crème brûlée.
FLORAL AND HOPPY IPAS
Key tasting terms Hoppy, spicy, bitter, aromatic
If it were a wine it would be An aromatic Gewürztraminer or maybe a Riesling.
And it’s what, exactly? India Pale Ale (IPA) is a hoppier version of pale ale, originally made for England’s Empire outposts. While pale ale (and later bitter) were made for the domestic
market, IPAs had more hops which gave them extra bitterness and aroma, but also, more importantly, gave extra stability for the lengthy journey to far-off lands.
The style has undergone something of a revival in recent times, though some of the more mainstream brands on the market are mere shadows of the true IPA style. A real IPA should have an intense
hoppy bitterness, big floral aromas and complex flavours that can take in a spectrum of wood-smoke, spices, marmalade oranges and treacle toffee.
Some small American brewers have taken this to extremes with super-hopped beers that have bitterness levels that are unnecessarily challenging, but some of the more modest ones such as Goose
Island IPA are among the finest examples of the style to be found anywhere.
A good IPA’s body, smokiness and balance between bitter and sweetness make it a potential solution to the thorny old problem of what to serve with cheese. A good IPA should also cut through smoky
fish or continental spicy sausages, though the potentially ruinous effect the beer can have on the palate probably means it’s best served late in a meal.
IPA’s also a good complement for hot dishes, its floral notes hacking through the spices in the same way as a good Riesling. Curries are the obvious choice, but how about Deuchars IPA from
Edinburgh with haggis as a more natural fit for when Burns’ Night comes around?
Why not try …
Worthington White Shield 5.6% abv, £2.09/50cl, Coors, 01283 511000
Another world great. Brewed at the Coors-owned microbrewery at its museum in Burton-on-Trent, and enjoying a new lease of life after almost disappearing from view a decade ago. Fabulously
complex, it’s at once fruity, rich, nutty and full-bodied, with a hoppy bitterness that will hang around long after the mature cheese or venison you serve it with.
This beer needs flavoursome food to stand up to it, but with these or a rich, meaty stew, they’ll bring the best out of each other.
LIGHT AND FRESH GOLDEN ALES
This category is a modern creation that’s evolved as brewers have sought to produce lighter and more accessible beers to entice non-ale drinkers into their world. It’s met with the approval of
pressure group CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, because of its apparent ability to get younger people and women drinking what it sees as proper beer.
Having said that, it’s arguable whether it’s really a style in its own right at all since there aren’t really any key, common flavour characteristics other than that they’re easier to drink, with
traits borrowed from a variety of other beer styles – both lagers and ales.
There are, though, some very fine beers in the panopoly of ales that brewers are marketing under the golden ales umbrella.
Why not try …
Golden Champion 5% abv, £1.80/50cl, Hall & Woodhouse, 01258 452141
Fresh and zingy with an elderflower nose and soft fruit flavours of grapefruit citrus and pineapple. A refreshing alternative to lager and the subtle citrus makes it a player alongside salads,
chicken or fish.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine September/October 2007