Category Archives: Classic Beers

The incongruous amber ale

Two amber ales, yesterdayAmber2

Hi! I’m an India Pale Ale! The best thing about me is my assertive hop character, reminiscent of the olden days, when it took a long time to get me to where I needed to be. This is my cousin, the Porter – and my second cousin, the Stout. One of them is stronger than the other, but I can never remember which. They were drunk by very thirsty men who worked in markets. Ooh – this here, this is my friend the Lager. Yes, doesn’t he look bored? Well, that’s because he’s been in a waiting room for weeks, just sitting there! Finally, this is the Amber Ale. It…er…is…kind of browny, I guess. Erm. Not too strong, either. It’s, er…oh! Hello Miss Saison! My, you’re looking zesty this morning!

Extract from ‘The Ladybird book of Beer Styles’

I find, in the long run, that it’s easier if you don’t paint yourself as an ‘expert’, unless you really, really know what you’re talking about. It means you can laugh off prickly questions that are launched suddenly at your bewildered direction, for a start.* Take beer styles. Sure, I know how beer is made – I’ve knocked a few up in my time, have the wealds on my buttocks to prove it, burned on copper elements as I scooped up clusters of mulched hops. Yet if some young pup wanders up to me at an event and asks me what an Amber Ale is, I would barely have a clue. But does anyone?

*My stock answer being “Haha, well, I just like to write about the people.”

The name brings to mind something primordial, as if it has leached from between the fronds of a tree fern, trapping long-passed insects as it oozes towards the open neck of the bottle. The reality is far less Spielbergian, of course – ‘Amber Ales’ vary from pale brown to deep red. Many are base golden bitters. Then again, I’ve had some that are so resinous, they probably could trap insects – they certainly adhere peanut chunks to the molars. The term ‘Amber Ale’ does lend itself to something piney, when you think about it. But are they just pale ales brewed with too much bottom-hand when the caramalt went in?

The BJCP – after Lionel Ritchie, my go-to style guardians – state merely that ‘American’ Amber Ales are known as Red Ales in some regions; ‘popularized in the hop-loving Northern California and the Pacific Northwest areas before spreading nationwide.’ RateBeer, my go-least style guardian, opines thusly; ‘A style without definition, amber ales range from bland, vaguely caramelly beers to products with a fairly healthy malt and hop balance. Often the differentiation between a quality amber and an American Pale is that the amber might have more dark malt character, or a less assertive hop rate.’

So, who’s closer to the mark? As I said at the beginning, I may not be a style expert, but neither am I a style puritan. I don’t mind if you want to make a black saison, white IPA, or purple hefeweizen (to quote Homer Simpson; “purple is a fruit”). Go for it. Although I like drinking Ambers, I’ve always found them to be somewhat out of sorts. Two are rarely the same. Maybe this is a good thing; they give more leeway to our experimental brewers; or maybe it’s just a dump category, a catch-all. Amber Ales: a broad and welcoming church, or the little Pale Ale that wasn’t?

The best IPA in Britain


This is, in truth, a post I’ve wanted to write for a long while. A list – my list – of the best IPA’s in Britain. The problem is, every time I sit down and riffle through the selection of names, there are more to consider. Another one arrives seemingly every week. The demand for India Pale Ale on this, rightful, side of the Atlantic is growing at a pace comparable to the other side. Well, almost; the US craft beer scene is the standard-bearer for hop-forward IPA’s, and probably always will be. But, we’re catching up here in the UK, fittingly churning out more of our beloved style.

That s-word is one that leads to a whole host of blind alleys, each one containing a different beer expert, slowly pounding a cudgel against an open palm. This post is by no means intended to be a definitive list of IPA’s – heck, some might not even be true India Pale Ales. I’m no style expert. Nor do I enjoy constraining beers into rigid pigeonholes. However, I have used a few simple rules. These are beers I (or RateBeer/Beer Advocate) consider IPA’s – so therefore I have excluded Double/Imperials as a result. No Moor JJJ, Fyne Ales Superior IPA or Magic Rock Human Cannonball here.*

*That’s pretty much the start of the next list, I think…

Also, I’m going with fairly golden, reasonably standard IPA’s – so, likewise, there’s no place on this list for India Pale Ales that are black (Hardknott Code Black), red (Brodies Hackney Red) or those that have other grains in (Tempest RyePA) or unusual adjuncts (Kernel Suke Quto Coffee IPA). Speaking of the Bermondsey powerhouse, to stop a brewery having too many hits in the list, I’ve also taken the hard, hard step of only considering each brewery once. This prevents over-Kernalisation (something to be welcomed, on any other day).

Originally, I was just going for ten – but came up with so many alternatives I broadened the scope to twenty. In truth, I could probably have piled in even more. You may notice that the list reflects a certain style of IPA – feel free to comment on that if you’re a fan of Deuchars IPA or Sam Smith’s India Ale. I go for strong, hoppy, fresh-tasting IPA’s that make my tastebuds tingle. This list reflects that. Please feel free to disagree in the comments, or (as is inevitable) mention any that I have forgotten or neglected to include. Cheers!


RajIPA20. Tryst Raj IPA (5.5%)
From one of Scotland’s most under-rated brewers; one of Scotland’s most under-rated beers. When it came out around five years ago, Raj IPA announced a step change for John McGarva – until that point, session ales were his thing, either dark or light. This was his first beefy number, and on cask it still has the power to surprise, even today. Alongside the lemon and orange flavours, there’s more than a hint of earthy backbone about it – on cask, there are few IPA’s from north of the border that can match it.




MarbleLagonda19. Marble Lagonda (5.0%)
Here we have the first application of ‘the Kernel rule’ – with Marble’s Lagonda IPA. The Manchester concern have long dispensed golden hop bombs to the lucky locals of the Marble Arch – and there are few better beers than Lagonda to enjoy as the glowing sun filters through the windows there. Utility IPA could also be on this list, quite frankly – and if I was allowing adjuncts, Earl Grey IPA would be too (very near the top). As it is, one brewer, one IPA, and we can more than make do with the brilliant Lagonda.




WilliamsJoker18. Williams Brothers Joker (5.0%)
Joker is in this list for one simple reason – I was reminded recently just how good it can be. Having drunk more than my fair share of Williams Brothers’ IPA in the past, it had been registered, logged and mentally filed away. A great beer – also under-rated in Scotland – one of the best ‘no-thinkum’ beers you can stack the fridge with. However, a visit to Leith’s Vintage the other week – a charbar* part-owned by the Alloa brewers, and a pint of Joker brought back all those memories – and more. In short, it was superb. You can fly through this, nuzzled by citrus as you go.

*charbar being the modern, charcuterie-forward version of a gastropub, of course.




RadicalRoad17. Stewart Radical Road (6.4%)
Loanhead’s Stewart Brewing have been quietly upping the ante over the last year or so – beers such as No3 and Copper Cascade making way for black IPA’s, Belgian-style tripels, and the beer that arguably started it all – Radical Road. Brewed as a one-off, it has swiftly moved into the ‘regular’ folder for Stewart – based largely on public opinion. As their new brewery is taking shape, complete with public brewkit and growler station, their honeysuckle-edged Radical Road definitely seems to have marked the crossover point.




Cannonball16. Magic Rock Cannonball (7.4%)
Huddersfield’s finest were one of the easiest to include on this list – as a series of beers, their ‘Cannonball run’ has blasted into the hearts of hop-loving drinkers all over the UK. The original may have been overtaken on the geekblogs by the walloping double IPA Human Cannonball (itself surpassed by the upcoming Un-human Cannonball), but the debut India Pale Ale is one of their very best beers (and talking about Magic Rock, that’s not an easy assumption to make). But an abundance of tropical fruit and resin – what’s not to like?




HoxtonSpecial15. Brodies Hoxton Special IPA (6.6%)
San Diego or Portland may consider themselves IPA towns, but London is the place for our favoured beer style. Brodies are one of the city’s most prolific brewers, churning our dozens of different cask beers from their base in Walthamstow. A full-on blast of California sunshine, Hoxton Special sings out of the glass with every mouthful. Passion fruit, grapefruit, papaya and mango – as good as any hop-forward C-bomb from the Pacific Coast.




MeantimeIPA14. Meantime India Pale Ale (7.5%)
Staying in London for our next pick, Meantime claim to be ‘Britain’s only producer of authentic India Pale Ale’. Whether that means they are the only ones to pack Goldings and Fuggles into a beer like this, or they send it to bottle shops via Kolkata, I don’t know. But it’s a great beer – and a fantastic IPA. Greenwich’s finest have put out a lot of different lines since their India Pale Ale came out, but few better.




LotusIPA13. Ilkley Lotus IPA (5.6%)
Another cracker from another seriously under-rated brewery. Ilkley hit the jackpot with Lotus IPA – a fantastic mix of Cascade and Summit hops – giving a sweet, pineapple and peach flavour to the beer. Lotus is a prime example of a cask-led, session-strength brewery turning everything up, just a little, and really coming good. Of all the IPA’s on this list, Lotus is the one that would catch up with you the quickest, being supremely quaffable at 5.6%.




HarbourIPA12. Harbour IPA (5.0%)
Cornwall – pounding surf, pasties and fishermen with impenetrable, fixed-distance stares. As they stand, rigid, on the decks of surging trawlers, maybe they are thinking about the one that got away. Or, they could be rapt with attention on the beers they’ll be knocking back once they beach the boat and stumble up the shingle. Harbour IPA – again, since enveloped by doubles of different hoppage, is a cracking beer in cask or bottle.




SummitIPA11. Acorn Summit IPA (5.0%)
Barnsley’s finest knocked one halfway to Leeds with their single-hop Summit IPA, brewed (as far as I can tell) just the once. I was trying to avoid hard to find, unusual beers such as this (otherwise Rooster’s Serlo de Burgh would have to be in this list), but had to make an exception for Acorn’s Summit. I only ever saw this once, in Edinburgh on cask, and it was fabulous. Like standing on a Caribbean beach at sunrise (only with rain battering on the windows).




SWBDiablo10. Summer Wine Diablo (6.0%)
There can’t be a harder working pair in British brewing than Andy and James from Holmfirth’s Summer Wine. They seem to be permanently at work, double brewdays throughout the week, travelling to all ends of the country (even Scotland) for their craft. Hard work only gets you so far, of course, but the SWB guys really back it up with their creative take on modern styles. As pretentious as that sentence sounds, it’s absolutely true of Diablo – the first Summer Wine beer I ever had. I can still remember reeling in Mr Foleys, Leeds, from the grapefruit-laced right hook it delivered.




SouthvilleHop9. Bristol Beer Factory Southville Hop (6.5%)
Modern, hop-forward IPA’s are all about the fruit flavours, and how they interplay with the other components of the beer. The sweeter malt notes, or the punchy, bitter resin. Southville Hop (to my taste buds, at least) combines two of the most complementary of those fruit flavours – pineapple and grapefruit. Yes, it sounds like a Lilt advert – but if any brewer in the UK would be advised to release an Alco-Lilt, it would be BBF. Southville Hop is a stunner, and deservedly in the top 10 British IPA’s.




69IPA8. Lovibonds 69 IPA (6.9%)
Speaking of two complementary elements, the next IPA on the list features the easy marriage of Centennial and Columbus. Lovibonds 69 IPA blends the two C-hops almost perfectly, and gives a beer that would not be out of place in any Pacific hop-den – which was pretty much the intention. Lovibonds’ beers are as outspoken as their creator, Jeff Rosenmeier; 69 IPA walks the walk, and strides boldly into the resinous territory of the puckering tastebud. A revelation.




Halcyon7. Thornbridge Halcyon (7.7%)
So, back to the ‘Kernel rule’ and representing Thornbridge – who, had to be in this list somewhere – is the jaw-trembling Halcyon. Jaipur probably has more fans – or, it certainly used to – but Halcyon is simply stunning. It may verge into the double IPA category, but when a beer is this good, styles go out of the window (as do morning meetings the next day). Prepare that shaky-sounding phone call to the boss, and crack open another.




BraveNewWorld6. Tempest Brave New World (7.0%)
With India Pale Ales, I get the impression that some are made by breweries because they feel obliged – the kind of ‘oh, well, people like them so we should put one out’ mentality. Without exception, those kinds of beers become middling, and unbalanced. It’s almost as if that attitude becomes reflected in the final beer. Thankfully, there are IPA’s where you drink them and think ‘You know what? I bet this beer is the first thing this brewery wanted to make’ – Brave New World is just such a beer – I’ll wager any amount you care to mention that it’s the favourite beer of the guys in Kelso. It certainly shows in the final product.




GreenDevil5. Oakham Green Devil (6.0%)
Peterborough’s Oakham produce some spellbinding golden, hoppy cask beer – such as the (almost) peerless Oakham Citra. The cheerfully menacing scaly hop peers out from that pump clip, just as his horned counterpart does for Oakham Green Devil. This is one of those beers that if you ever see it on at a pub, it’s time to count the blessings and order it. Doesn’t matter what else is there – dance with that green devil and forget everything else. Without doubt, one of the best beers in the UK.




AKA4. Cromarty AKA IPA (6.7%)
From here on in, these beers are pretty much interchangeable depending on which I have sampled the most recently. Cromarty AKA is (in my opinion) the best IPA in Scotland, and getting on the way to taking over the whole country. Made by the most charmingly affable brewer you could ever hope to meet, in a brewery that looks out over the wind-churned whitecaps of the Cromarty Firth, AKA is the real deal. It shows exactly what the modern IPA should be about – that blend of citrus and resin on the flavour is pretty much as good as it gets. If you haven’t heard of this beer yet, you will – it’ll make Craig Middleton a household name in brewing circles.




GreatEastern3. Redchurch Great Eastern India Pale Ale (7.4%)
Drinking beer is (amongst other things) about discovery. Hearing about new breweries, stumbling across new pubs, and trying new beers. I remember trying Redchurch’s Great Eastern IPA for the first time, in the Holyrood 9A in Edinburgh. It reminded me of a distilled sweet shop – honeysuckle, pear drop, pithy orange zest. For such a new brewery, it’s a quite astonishing achievement. London is awash with new breweries – which is great, of course – but as the other capital’s legion of drinkers nose around, looking out these new drinking options, they need only head to Hackney for the very best.




KernelIPACitra2. Kernel India Pale Ale Citra (7.2%)
Well, Hackney and Bermondsey. The Kernel are unstoppable – since moving into larger premises they have continued almost unabated. The freedom they have from brewing whatever they want, with whatever hops or malt they can get hold of, is infectious. People in the food industry talk about seasonality. The Kernel do this with brewing – small batch, no fuss, get it out fresh, simple and effective. They’re the brewery BrewDog wish they could be, but never will. Evin’s original IPA Citra is still one of the beers that truly affirmed my love of modern, well-made British beer. Some bigger IPA’s have Citra piled in to such an extent, it gives a leading edge of astringency – but not this classic.




axe_edge2709101. Buxton Axe Edge (6.8%)
So, here we are. The best India Pale Ale in Britain comes from the Peak District – Buxton’s Axe Edge. This, to me, could be the perfect beer. High strength, to give the alcohol body, but not monstrously high that you can’t have at least a few. The mix of Amarillo, Nelson Sauvin and Citra that point to every part of the hop compass – sweet orange, vinous lime, juicy pineapple. For me, it’s mango that always seems to come out first (the most moreish of all hop flavours), building to a rich, sweet pine and caramel finish. It’s sublime, and works on cask, keg or bottle. Soon to be brewed by the newly arriving Colin Stronge – no pressure, Col – it remains the IPA by which all others should be judged. Oh, and I know the label says Double IPA, but I couldn’t put this list together without Axe Edge, pride of place at the very top.

Denis at Buxton confirmed to me this morning that Axe Edge has not been referred to as a ‘Double IPA’ for a while – they class it as a regular India Pale Ale…

The UK’s best beer labels

Roughly two months ago, our transatlantic cousins at the Aleheads published this great post on the best beer labels in America. At the time, it crossed our mind to reciprocate – but we were in the depths of our big beer protest month and had other matters to pursue. Now – and on the first day of advent, so it’s reasonably fitting – we reveal our top twenty British beer labels (arranged in no particular order).

The list is by no means definitive, so if you have any glaring omissions, please send them in. We’re trying to stick to bottle labels rather than pump clips, so had to miss a few obvious candidates out (i.e. I love Dark Star clips, but less so the bottle labels). Hopefully there are some here that challenge the Americans – although none hold a candle to this beauty from Caldera. A devil chewing through a spermatic cord? Only in America…


Our first offering is this beauty from Oakham Ales in Peterborough – their highly-regarded Oakham Citra. Their steampunk industrial website lists the other bottled beers – it would be hard to miss Inferno on the shelf – but the grimacing, sprout-like hop on the Citra always makes me chuckle.





There are two trains of thought when it comes to label design – be wild and creative, giving all of your beers suitably exciting bottles – or decorate them all the same, to build a brand identity (apologies for using that awful phrase). The Bristol Beer Factory do the latter, and very well – their Clifton Suspension Bridge logo really works.





British beer is renowned for jokey, sometimes horrendously naff branding. Jeff Pickthall does a marvellous job of naming and shaming over at Pump Clip Parade – but sometimes the quirky and funny do stand out – such as on the label of Whittingtons Cats Whiskers [sic]. Why shouldn’t a cat-themed Gloucestershire brewery feature puss in a bow tie?





Our next great label comes from a brewery suggested to us on Twitter by ‘friend of the BeerCast’ AdamSh. I’ve tried a couple of Derventio’s beers before – but only on cask. Their bottles feature full-on works of art, like this epic scene on their 4.2% golden ale, Emporer’s Whim. Thumbs up for this one.





Yorkshire’s Wold Top Brewery have a range of bottled beers – their regulars are badged with circular labels, some based on an astronomical theme, others named after the beer style. But their seasonals are presented beautifully – such as Against the Grain. It may or may not be ‘World Famous’ – but it’s one of the nicest tasting gluten-free beers out there, and also one of the best-looking.





Going back to our duty protest month, we featured an interview with Justin Hawke of Moor Beer Company. He told us that one of their most prized beers – JJJ IPA – was to be discontinued for the British market due to the heavy tax bill. So UK beer drinkers will shortly no longer get to look at this great label (although their other beers carry a similar design)





Clean, bold colours help a beer stand out from the crowd, and the label of Robert Knops’ IPA certainly does that. All of his three beers – soon to be joined by a bouncing baby porter – have the same visual style. While the California Common looks as if it could be on a Beach Boys compilation CD, I love the rickety bike riding and sacred cow of his IPA.





I also love owls, of course – as every right-minded person does. Somerset’s Cotleigh brewery decided on their brewery theme very early on – birds of prey. Cotleigh’s Long Eared Owl looks menacing on the label, and yet extremely quirky with it. Great tufts. Cotleigh also donate part of the profits to the Hawk and Owl Trust.





Usually content to have minimal, foot of the bottle labels, Meantime’s Union features this great drawing by Ray Richardson. He was also one of the founder members of the brewery, and for their Vienna Lager he went for something more ‘esoteric’ – which I think sums it up nicely. If you visit the Greenwich Union pub, the original hangs on the wall.





A mellow pastoral scene, the label for Humpty Dumpty Reedcutter is also really well done. A man slices through the stems of reeds in time-honoured Norfolk fashion, windmill in the background. As with the Meantime artwork – you can imagine this as a painting on the wall of a pub. Only it would have to be a cosy inn somewhere in the Broads.





The Kernel Brewery are becoming one of the biggest names in British brewing – the right way, by making wonderful beer. All of which is packaged in the same brown-paper, classic labels – each one then hand-stamped with the beer name and abv. This is genius marketing – you can spot them from a hundred yards. Also, the first time I met Evin, he was letting his friend’s young toddler stamp the labels for him.





I just love this label. It’s quite hard to see on the small picture here, but the full-size version shows all the detail – a Melville-esque scene of tragic mariners being devoured by a mythical creature from the deep. It doesn’t hurt that the beer is great, as well. As Skrimshander is delicately-carved whalebone (or teeth), then the label to the beer has to be similarly intricate – as this one is, without doubt.





This might not be the best representation of Green Jack’s Baltic Trader – it was hard to find a photo of the label to do it justice. Served in 750ml flip-topped bottles, their beers are always stylishly presented, and the mighty 10.5% Imperial Stout demands that kind of suitably impressive container.





I really like this one – but…I’m…not…sure…why…







Plenty of birds making an appearance in our best British labels – and here’s another one – Purity’s Mad Goose. The beer is named after the excitable brewery wildfowl that can delivery a swift peck to anyone who gets too close – but this particular goose looks like it’s been cooked, buried and then resurrected for a spot of payback.





Simple can be beautiful. Manchester’s Marble Brewery put all of their beers into pantone-effect bottles that let you know exactly where they come from. Dobber is their strong IPA (Dobber being a big marble) – I also like their identity-stricken sounding Stouter Port Stout.





When we asked on Twitter what labels people wanted to see in our best-of list, there was one brewery that was mentioned over all others. Huddersfield’s Magic Rock have blown onto the beer scene in a whirlwind of well-designed beer – all of which are brilliantly produced for them by Richard Norgate. They also have, without doubt, the best delivery van in the country.





Orkney’s Highland Brewery – aka Rob Hill and sons – are one of the most consistent brewers in Scotland. Orkney Blast is named after a WWII island newspaper. It makes perfect sense therefore to feature members of the mermaid military on the label – the lady on the right certainly seems to be saluting with more than her arm…





Well, here we go. Americans, eat this. It’ll take a very good label indeed to top Watermill Dogth Vader. Yes, that is a canine Sith Lord. Also yes, there is an asteroid shaped like a bone behind him. It tells you nothing about the beer (unless you take a guess that it’s dark – which it is; a 5% stout). That doesn’t matter, it’s fantastic.





So a very good label to beat Dogth Vader? BrewDog Atlantic IPA is more than that. Designed by the brilliant Johanna Basford (who personally I think should do all of their labels), just marvel at the full-size version. She also designed the Sunk Punk label. I don’t think there’s a better beer label out there, on either continent.


Classic Beer I – Fullers ESB

Here at the BeerCast we’re always on the lookout for new and interesting things, partly to keep the readership happy – and partly to appease our flirtatious tastebuds. CAMRA Chair Colin Valentine recently criticised bloggers for having such an outlook – and it got us thinking. Maybe we are guilty of bypassing the timeless to concentrate on the next big thing. What about the classics? So, starting today, we have a new regular feature – rediscovering these “lost” beers. We begin with a British institution.

Fullers first brewed their Extra Special Bitter in 1971, as a winter seasonal to replace an older brand – Old Burton Extra. At that time, the beer scene here was at a nadir thanks to the despicable keg revolution – and it really took off. ESB quickly became a permanent fixture, partly thanks to the competition, and probably also in part due to the 5.5% abv – making it then one of the strongest beers in regular production.

Described as ‘perilously drinkable’ by BeerHunter Michael Jackson, it won Champion Beer of Britain in 1978, and never looked back. Since then, it won that award on two further occasions – not to mention CAMRA Best Strong Ale for seven different years. It became the industry standard for Extra Special Bitters – the premium (read: stronger) end of the brown beer spectrum (they generally top out at 6% abv). One of the first British ales exported to America, it cemented itself so much over there that beers of the style are commonly referred to by Fuller’s brand name – ESB’s.

Today sales remain strong – Fullers ESB is something I regularly walk past at my local supermarket on the search for something new and unusual. Bumped to 5.9% in the bottle, it remains 5.5% on cask – although those rarely make it this far north (Fuller’s flagship London Pride occasionally makes it to Scotland as a guest). It pours a walnut brown with a decent white head, which dissipates fairly quickly. On the nose – sweet toffee malt and mellow fruit, highly inviting.

Taste-wise, it’s pretty rich on the palate – but not too much, the caramel toffee nuttiness doesn’t veer into the overly sweet or cloying at any point. There’s a great balance of that malt with the fruity hops that come on the aftertaste – the citrus is there for a moment before the bitter finish arrives. Unsurprisingly, it’s lovely. Classics should be re-discovered from time to time, even if it means taking time out from the new and spectacular…

Stay tuned for the next part of this series, as we get to grips with a beer that created a style. What would your classic beer lineup not be complete without?