Craft beer: a beginner’s guide

The best places to buy it and top tips for picking your perfect ale

It’s impossible to ignore craft beer these days, even if the majority of drinkers have yet to shift from a pint of Kronenbourg to a Neck Oil from Beavertown. Craft beer accounts for just seven per cent of the UK’s total beer sales, but it’s hitting the mainstream in a big way and growing fast.

As opposed to mass produced lager, craft beer is typically produced by small, independent breweries, has an abundance of flavour, uses the best and most expensive ingredients and is often strong enough to stagger an ox. India Pale Ales, or IPAs, are the dominant style and are loved for having a bitter, hoppy kick. But, as great as they are, craft beer is much more than just IPAs. All types of beer, from stouts to goses, are being produced by craft brewers to meticulous standards. Whatever your tastes, the chances are that you will be able to pick out a quality beer to enjoy.

Beer shops, or bottle shops as they’re commonly known, are sprouting up all the time. Typically, they will have a large selection of bottled and canned craft beer in the fridges, as well as a few regularly rotating taps. Here you can buy the freshest drops to either drink there and then or take home in a growler (a ridiculous name for a large glass bottle).

If you’ve never ventured into a bottle shop before, don’t be put off because you don’t know what you’re looking for, or are dazzled by the vast variety of labels on the cans and bottles, that make them look more like fizzy pop than traditional beer. The staff in these places are generally extremely passionate about craft beer and very happy to help out with suggestions of what you might like and offer you free tasters.

London’s best craft beer shops

Micro Beers, East Sheen

Before Micro Beers opened in late 2016, west London was a barren wasteland when it came to craft beer. Now it’s home to one of the city’s best beer destinations.

Owner Sean Looney specialises in tracking down hard to find (and delicious) beers from Scandinavia, alongside hyper-local stock from breweries such as Kew and Jeffersons. You’ll also find the latest brews from big hitters across the UK, including Cloudwater and Northern Monk. All this inside a Scandi-inspired setting that’s just a short walk from Richmond Park. www.micro-beers.co.uk

Hop Burns & Black, Dulwich

What do you get when you combine craft beer, hot sauce and vinyl records? Besides a headache, you get Dulwich’s outstanding Hop Burns & Black. This shop is famous for securing the hottest new releases from emerging UK breweries including Verdant and Deya, and also have four rotating keg lines where you’re guaranteed to find something exciting to try.

Another bonus is that they also have an online shop where you can stock up if Dulwich is too many stops away. Just don’t forget to throw in a bottle of hot sauce too, for the full experience. www.hopburnsblack.co.uk

We Brought Beer, various

One of the original bottle shops, We Brought Beer, has now expanded to three destinations in London, covering Balham, Clapham Junction and Tooting. In each one you’ll find a wide selection of beer – obviously – but We Brought Beer also specialise in hosting regular events in-store. Sign up for beer classes to learn more about the science and intricacies of brewing, or go along to tap takeovers to try excellent beer and meet the brewers that make it all happen. www.webroughtbeer.co.uk

Bermondsey Beer Mile

OK, so this is not a beer shop per se but there is one area of London that is associated with craft beer more than any other; Bermondsey. Head to this south-east London outpost and you’ll find several of the capital’s very best breweries, all within a minute’s walk of each other. In short, it’s a beer lover’s paradise.

Check out some juicy, hoppy IPAs at the outstanding Brew By Numbers (their lovely indoor bar is open on Fridays and Saturdays) before visiting Partizan for a classic saison or Fourpure for a perfectly balanced lager unlike one you’ve tasted before.

Before you go home make sure to stop at the Kernel brewery, too. Sadly, beer is no longer served on the premises – head brewer and founder Evin O’Riordan closed the taproom after it got too busy to offer the quality experience he demanded – but it is still open up on Saturdays for visitors to take a look around and buy beer to takeaway. As one of the UK’s craft brewing pioneers, it’s a visit that should be on every beer fan’s wish list. Plus, there’s nothing quite like a Kernel Table Beer fresh from the source.

Beyond London

Of course, the UK craft beer scene extends far beyond London and you can find world-class breweries such as Magic Rock (Huddersfield), Cloudwater (Manchester) and Wylam (Newcastle) all around the country. The same is true for places where you can buy brilliant beer too. Here are a couple of recommended places to try.

Beer Shop, St Albans

Commuter hub St Albans isn’t an obvious site for beer fans to visit, but the imaginatively titled Beer Shop is setting out to change that. Situated on the outskirts of the town centre, Beer Shop has a strong selection of cans and bottled beer to take away, while you can also pull up a stool and drink in the shop. beershopuk.hq

House of the Trembling Madness, York

Step forward one of the UK’s most bizarre craft beer shops – but also one of the best. Situated inside a medieval hall, there’s a lot going on inside the House of the Trembling Madness. Upstairs you’ll find a pub serving locally sourced excellent food, while downstairs is home to a beer shop that stocks around 700-800 different varieties. Not only that, but there are also two uniquely furnished apartments which are available to rent, just in case you can’t face staggering home. www.tremblingmadness.co.uk

Buy online

Nothing beats the experience of going into a shop and making your selections in person, but if you can’t do that then there are several excellent websites that will now send stunning craft beer directly to your home. These are my three favourites…

Honest Brew

For the overall package of choice, price and excellent customer service, Honest Brew can’t be beaten. It is often first to get the most sought after new releases and can provide next day delivery too, if you really can’t wait. www.honestbrew.co.uk

Beer Ritz

Beer Ritz is undoubtedly one of the best value beer shops currently online. It recently slashed its prices across the board while maintaining a wide selection from breweries from around the world. The only complaint is that trending beers tend to sell out very quickly, so there’s no time to waste. www.beerritz.co.uk

Brewdog online shop

Brewdog is probably the most famous of all UK craft breweries and you can find its entire range here, all competitively priced. Even better than this, you’ll also find new guest beers coming in on a weekly basis including some rare classics from the US. It’s worth bookmarking this one and keeping an eye out. www.brewdog.com

Top tips for buying craft beer

Ask questions. Tell the experts what you usually like drinking and they’ll come up with suggestions for similar yet (hopefully) better options.

Try, try, try. There’s a whole world of different beer styles and sub-styles out there that could be completely alien to you at first. But don’t scoff at the notion of a sour beer such as a saison or run scared from a murky, eight per cent double IPA before you’ve given them a try. Your new favourite beer could be just a few hops away and there’s a good chance it’s completely unlike anything you’ve had before

Stick to a budget. At first glance, craft beer can seem crazily expensive. For a very strong, limited edition 500ml can you will sometimes be expected to pay upwards of £7. It sounds a lot but instead of comparing it to macro beers that are often subsidised by supermarket giants, think of it like you would a decent bottle of wine. These aren’t beers to be downed in one or bought as a six-pack. Yes, there are some ripoffs around but generally expensive beers are priced as such because they are high quality and produced with expensive ingredients. And there will always be excellent options such as a Beavertown Gamma Ray or Magic Rock High Wire that are in the ‘traditional’ £2.50-£3 price range.

Follow Ross Jarvis on Twitter @Starch_Jarvis


Close