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Sam Wylie-Harris: Deciphering the best craft beers

Craft beers and artisan lagers have never been so popular. Sam Wylie-Harris offers tasting notes on a few perfect pints

Published: August 8, 2015
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With an ever-expanding choice of craft beer and huge diversity in styles, hop to it and start tapping into some ‘cru’ brews.

America was the pioneer of these specialist beers (craft beer is brewed on a small scale using the best ingredients) and with the market flourishing, the Great British Beer Festival (August 11-15, Olympia, London) is an opportunity to explore more than 900 real ales and beers from around the world.

But if you can’t make it to the UK’s biggest beer festival, plenty of breweries and a wealth of brands are driving up quality and innovation, which means a greater range of interesting beers to taste this summer.

Indeed, last month Lidl launched a selection of 48 regional ales to showcase some of the best craft ales available and to reflect the regions they’re being stocked in. Additionally, from September, the discounter will be extending the regional offer by adding three more craft ales per region.

In Scotland this month there is a selection including Caledonian 80 ale (£1.25, 500ml, 4.1 per cent) with guidance on smell “caramel, roasted malt” and taste “spicy and hoppy.” Innis & Gunn Original Ale is also on offer (£1.24, 330ml, 6.6 per cent) with its aroma described as “vanilla” and with a “biscuity and creamy” flavour.

“Nowadays there are so many beer aficionados and great local breweries around the UK, it’s tremendous to see a supermarket like Lidl supporting them,” says Alex James, former Blur bassist and cheese connoisseur who is fronting Lidl’s beer promotion.

Elsewhere, Cheddar Ales have enjoyed a run of success in competitions and renamed their Summer Pale Ale, which won gold in the Bitter and Pale Ale category of the SIBA South West to Cheddar Ales Hardrock Pale Ale (£24, case of 12, 4.4 per cent, 50cl, www.cheddarales.co.uk). Rebranded to encourage beer geeks to enjoy it all year round, it’s very hoppy with a floral finish and a note of orange peel. Complex and intense, it’s a blend of Brewers Gold, Mount Hood and Chinook whole hops, conditioned for two weeks with the addition of dry hops.

Craft beers are currently brewing up a storm in Scotland. Innis & Gunn has just opened The Beer Kitchen on Edinburgh’s Morrison Street (thebeerkitchen.co.uk), expanding its successful brand still further while last year Fraserburgh’s BrewDog released 36 different BrewDog beers, shipping to 55 different countries just seven years after launch.

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A crafty brew born of a hobby, Bedlam are now producing four cask-conditioned beers in the heart of the South Downs, West Sussex, and boasts a solar-powered brewery and a vast field where they grow hops on-site. Brewed with three hop varieties and malts, try Bedlam India Pale Ale (£2.19, 4.8 per cent, 33cl, www.butlers-winecellar.co.uk), which is rich with vivid hop characters, and Bedlam Benchmark (£2.09, 4 per cent, 33cl), which is fresh and inviting with a nice, malty presence.

Designed for long hot summer days, Meantime Brewery in Greenwich have released Meantime Summer Saison (£24.99, case of 12, 5 per cent abv, 33cl, www.meantimebrewing.com) which is modelled on the traditional Saison style fruity pale ales of southern Belgium; it’s smooth and refreshing with a subtle fruity tartness.

Meanwhile, Oddbins have teamed up with micro brewery Rocky Head in South London to create Oddbins No 5 Saison (£2.80, 4.8 per cent, 33cl, Oddbins) in a similarly refreshing Saison style. Delightfully fragrant and fruity, there’s also a gentle spicy note and the flavours are enhanced by a touch of lemongrass.

With a range of award winning beers, Daring Diver (£6, 4.7 per cent, 4 x 50cl, Morrisons) is the latest release from Badger Ales, Dorset. It’s an amber beauty with a distinctive, hoppy character underpinned by a malted barley and rye base with a feisty, bitter finish.

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When the temperature rises, nothing quite quenches the thirst like a beer made with glacial water, lending a clean, fresh crispness. A Belgian style white beer (witbier), Einstok Icelandic White Ale (£13.99, 5.2 per cent, 6 x 33cl bottles, Majestic) really hits the spot and strikes the right balance between complexity, flavour and finish with infusions of coriander and orange peel and a zingy, citrusy edge.

A real crowd pleaser and session beer, Queen Bohemian Lager (£12, 4.7 per cent, case of 6, 33cl, rnrdrinks.com) is the self-styled beer of British rock band Queen who played in Prague earlier this year and enjoyed its world-famous Bohemian pilsner. Using three Czech ingredients – soft artesian water, Czech barley malt and Noble Saaz hops, it’s fresh and citrusy with spicy aromas and a clean, bitter, hoppy finish that will leave beer lovers eager for the next round.

Further along the bottling line, jazzy labels from artful brewers can turn a slim-necked bottle into a connoisseur’s can. Best of Spanish Craft Beer Mixed Case (£22.99, various abv’s, 33cl, case of 6, www.amazon.co.uk) offers a broad flavour wheel of gold to amber beers and includes Au Yeah! American Pale Ale Cerveza Artesanal from Valencia (4.5 per cent), which has a lemon lift and displays a good balance of malt against an earthy, hoppy background.

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