It’s Not All Beer and Skittles – A Guide to British Ale

Life isn’t all beer and skittles – a brilliant phrase. It simply means that life isn’t all fun and games (Skittles is a game, a bit like early Ten-Pin Bowling). Thomas Hughes uses it in ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays,‘ and Dickens talks about ‘all porter and skittles’ in ‘the Pickwick Papers’.

Britons love their ale, and we have finally regained our pride in the properly excellent range of beers we make (although we now call them ‘craft ales’, and they all have to be made in a local ‘micro-brewery’ to prove their authenticity, but I digress).

There are a number of styles we would heartily recommend you trying (responsibly, of course), and some that may be worth avoiding. Here are our top tips. And yes, our American cousins, we do drink them all ‘warm’.

The ABV bit means Alcohol By Volume – how strong it is.

  1. Bitter – this is the one you will find most often in the hand pumps in pubs in the UK, and in brown bottles with amusing titles in the supermarkets these days. Usually copper or bronze in colour, it is very hoppy (hence the name), but the bitterness is balanced by lots of lovely biscuity malts, and some fruitiness. Best bitter is a stronger version.  Try: Fuller’s London Pride is a well-balanced example of the style 
  2. Mild – this one was the most popular beer in Britain until the 1950s and is beginning to stage a comeback. Usually much darker brown than a bitter, it is lower in alcohol than bitter, and is easy drinking, with chocolate, toffee and toast flavours. It was often only drunk in smaller quantities. ‘Make mine a half a mild’. (3%- 3.5% ABV) Try: Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best or Bank’s Original 
  3. IPA and Pale Ale – India Pale Ale was a revolution in the 19th Century. It was brewed to export to colonial India, as it was lighter and hoppier in character (and therefore more refreshing), made from pale malts. It fell out of favour for years, but we now just call it IPA and it has certainly bounced back into favour.  (4%-6% ABV) Try: Marston’s Pedigree or Old Empire.
  4. Porter and Stout – Porter is a dark, hoppy beer and was developed in the 18th Century in London to refresh the porters plying their trade on the streets and the docks. The strongest (most alcoholic) was Stout Porter, now just referred to as Stout. (4%-8% ABV) Try: The world-famous Guinness for an Irish Stout, but try Fuller’s version of a London Porter. 
  5. Golden Ale – this is the New Kid on the Block. This was introduced in the late 1980s by craft brewers to wean people off industrial lagers (the cold ones), and introduce them to the world of real ale. Golden ales are much lighter in colour, fruitier, sometimes quite citrusy, with a honey balance.  (3.5 – 5.3% ABV) Try: Eden Gold from Cumbria, or the one that started it all, Exmoor Gold.

Whilst you sup your pint, read on to some excellent beer-related stories.

Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery tragedy of 1814.

There are many reasons to buy A Man Walks Into A Pub, Pete Brown’s brilliant history of beer, but one of them is definitely his recounting of what happened to Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery in 1814.

This brewery had a wooden vat which held more than 1 million pints of porter. The vat was held together by iron hoops, each one weighing over 500 pounds. Now apparently, a workman did one day notice a little crack in one of these hoops, but didn’t feel alarmed enough to tell anyone about it. Later that day, the whole vat exploded with a force that could be heard five miles away, as it crushed the second vat, flattened the brewery’s 25 foot high, thick brick wall, and sent a furious surge of beer cascading into the streets.

Brown doesn’t tell us how many people died in this accident. But he does tell us that the causes of actual deaths, though related to this accident, were surprisingly varied. Firstly, people drowned in the initial tsunami of beer that raged into the surrounding streets. Others found themselves facing a stampede of eager Londoners, dashing enthusiastically towards the tragedy, so they could fling themselves into all this free beer pouring through the gutters…and were crushed to death.

Now, not only did all these Londoners lying face down on the streets merrily gulping up the beer completely get in the way of the emergency services trying to rescue the people trapped in the rubble of the collapsed wall, but some of them then also then perished of alcohol poisoning. The ones that only managed to make themselves sick enough for hospital suffered further attempts on their lives by the patients already there, who, detecting the beery stench emanating from certain hospital beds, felt they had missed out of free alcohol, and started a riot because of it. And finally, the security men on the door of a makeshift morgue, which had been set up for bereaved relatives to identify the corpses of their loved ones, found that there was such a general clamour to see the bodies, that they could charge admission, and were happily profiting from this grisly beer-death freak show when the floor of the building collapsed, and yet more people joined the total death toll.

It is well known that alcohol has been killing Londoners for years, but this is the only example we can find where it despatched such a number in one fell swoop, and in such an original and unexpected fashion too.

Boozers with booze in the Boozer, boozing.

Anyone familiar with Britain will be quite able to translate the above sentence: Drinkers, with alcohol, in the pub, drinking. Booze is our common term for any alcoholic drink. The noun boozer refers either to a person who drinks a lot, or a pub. This word, to us, feels particularly British…but is it? If we hop (get it?) quickly back to the Ancient beer-loving Egyptians, ( and they really did love it – “the mouth of the perfectly happy man is filled with beer” is an Ancient Egyptian wisdom, and how right they were), we find that they brewed a type of beer for ordinary, everyday drinking, and it was known as booza. Now, there are many stories about the history of the word booze (claimed all over to be American, German, Dutch and High Dutch) but wouldn’t it be fab if the word really did pass to us from the Egyptians? It would be an ancient message of wisdom. Drink booze. 

Cheers! Empty Pint of British Ale

(c) 2017 Kayte and Nicer Kate – authors assert moral rights


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  • Reply
    June 16, 2017 at 6:58 pm

    This is so interesting – I love finding out the origins of words!

  • Reply
    June 17, 2017 at 12:40 am

    I just don’t know if I can get on board with warm beer! LOL

  • Leave a Reply

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