The ‘craft’ beer scene was borne out of the desire to kick back against bland, mega-brand beers. This thirst for innovation, experimentation and collaboration, largely driven by independent small-batch brewers, has resulted in an unprecedented choice of beer styles, strengths and flavours available for the intelligent drinker to enjoy.
This, in turn, has led the bigger breweries to up their game when it comes to choice and quality, to ride the wake created by this new wave of beery pioneers. For the discerning beer drinker, these are halcyon days. But choice also means more chances to get it wrong. Here's how to know which craft beers will delight your tastebuds, and which are just Carling in a fancy can.
Where to buy craft beer
Swerve around the stacks of heavily discounted big-brand lagers front of shop and you’ll discover that most supermarkets have ramped up the quantity and quality of their hoppy offerings. Take a stroll through Marks & Spencers, for instance, and you’ll clock an impressive array of on-point ales and lagers, while northern powerhouse Booths gives up rude amounts of floor space to house its extensive collection of cans and bottles.
Away from the supermarkets, there has been a surge in the more urbane, boutique bottle shop. Such places provide fertile foraging grounds for quality ales and can offer a pleasant, personal service for those who need steering towards the good stuff. However, if you don’t have good options nearby or want to access those rarer bottles or cans, you could opt for an online subscription service.
How does a beer subscription service work?
These will handily deliver to your door, dispensing the need for any awkward social interaction or flustered clanking at packed checkout tills. Most services riff off the same idea – beer boxes are sent out at monthly intervals and contain a collection of bottles and cans determined either by your own individual selections, your preferred style of beers, or left to the informed judgement of your chosen subscription service. For the curious beer drinker wanting to broaden their horizons, these services offer beer utopia a mere mouse-click away.
We’ve selflessly supped our way through as many subscription services that we could get our hands on, done our homework and even shared tasting notes online, bringing you these Esquire-approved options.
Types of craft beer: a spotter’s guide
Here are some common (and lesser-spotted) beer styles you may find lurking in your subscription box.
A cloudy, sour beer, popular in Berlin. Often mixed with either raspberry or woodruff syrup – the sweet addition being the cause of many flailing fights between biergarten drinker and wasp.
An ancient gaelic beer made from heather and Bog myrtle. Tastes a lot nicer than it sounds.
A crisp, lightly hopped beer. In their original incarnation, Kolsches are brewed in Cologne, made under strict guidelines, but they have now been widely appropriated by craft brewers eager to expand their repertoire. Kolsch beers are regarded as the perfect session beer.
A robust style of sour beer that originated from Brussels and surrounding area, brewed in open vats to encourage wild yeast fermentation.
A dark, warming beer made from heavily roasted malts, popular with London port workers during the 19th century.
A beer made with malts dried by beechwood fires that imparts a distinct, smoky favour that admittedly, is not to everyone's taste. Rauchbier is a speciality of Bamberg, Germany: Their other culinary claim to fame is the equally divisive ‘blue sausage’.
A spicy, rustic beer, originally fermented to a low-alcohol strength. Saisons were traditionally brewed in Flemish farmhouses, made to keep the workers refreshed whilst still retaining their ability to wield sharp farming implements.
A beer, usually less than 4.5% ABV. Often light-bodied and hop-forward, these are boozes designed for long sessions down the pub – the kind of drinking frowned upon by most medical professionals.
Stouts (originally called ‘stout porters) are essentially a stronger version of porter with a maltier flavour and thicker mouthfeel.
India Pale Ale. A paler, hoppier and stronger version of a standard pale ale. It's a style that emerged from strong pale ales shipped to India that evolved in flavour during their hot, undulating oceanic voyage.
An American take on the IPA, made with citrusy American hops.
An even stronger, even hoppier style of IPA. The 'D' stands for double.
A New England IPA. Hazy, smooth and juicy, with the emphasis on fruity aromas from American variety hops. The acronym-less West Coast IPA is its punchier American cousin, typically heavy hopped to produce piney, grapefruit bitterness.
An IPA made from roasted malts, resulting in a black, hoppy beer. Essentially, it’s a black pale ale. Go figure.
Good news for those who abstain from booze (or are carrying on the good work done in Dry January) – there are now a couple of alcohol-free beer subscriptions. The advancements in low ABV brewing has skyrocketed in the past few years. Taste-wise, many of them are (almost) on par with some of their alcohol-enriched, beery brethren. You’ll find that a few of the subscription services mentioned above offer low/no alcohol beer boxes, but here are a couple dedicated to the cause.
How to drink craft beer
In order to attain a greater appreciation for the beer that you drink and to try and understand what the brewer was trying to achieve in their creation, beers are best sampled in a calm environment that will enable you to zone in on intricate flavours and nuances that make beer great. A noisy bar environment is far from ideal, but home-imbibing (seen by many as the slippery slope to social and economic ruin) is perhaps the best way of acquainting yourself. At home you can gen-up on tasting notes, plug yourself into a beer-based podcast or drink along with a live tasting (see Beer Bods, above), sniffing, slurping and savouring whilst being free from the ridicule of your pub-going peers.
What type of glass should I use?
You can sup beer from whatever receptacle you have to hand, but the stemmed tulip glass is the preferred, professional choice. The inwardly tapering neck on this kind of vessel is designed to hold aroma, while the wide, stemmed base makes it easy to swirl in the languid fashion, befitting of a bona-fide beer aficionado.
What temperature should craft beer be served at?
To fully appreciate a beer’s flavour, texture and aroma, beers should be served at the correct temperature, determined by their style. Generally speaking, dark beers should be served warmer than light beers. Most beer experts recommend between 7-10°C for IPAs, 10-13°C for real ales, 7-13°C for porters and stouts, and and a frigid 1- 4°C for lagers. If you don't want to faff with thermometers, then just store everything in the fridge and let any beer that's not a lager sit for 20-30 minutes before pouring.
Craft beer tasting guide
While safely ensconced in the confines of your kitchen, carefully pour your chosen beer into a tilted glass, in one fluid movement.
Swirl the beer in your glass to release the aromas and take a good old sniff. Think of similar smell experiences, and compare them to the beer in your glass. Heavy-hopped IPAs may have the scent of wet pine forests – stouts and porters of coffee houses and cocoa powder.
What does your beer look like? It may be bright and golden like a field of waving wheat, or impenetrably black like squid ink. Unfiltered beers will appear cloudy and intimidating; a sparkling pilsner will shimmer in the glass.
How does it feel as it dances over your tongue? Is it viscous like a silky imperial stout, or maybe there’s the spicy tingle that a well-rounded saison can provide? As the beer slides down your throat, ponder the flavours further. It it well balanced? How does it compare to other, similar beers? Do I like it? Do I want another?
Pour. Drink. Repeat.
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