Beer in England

Beer in England: The Complete Guide

I’ve written a lot about the beer culture in different countries, from Mexico to Portugal, from Germany to Japan. I’ve written about beer in Ireland and the beer scene in London. Now I’m turning my attention to beer in England, my homeland. Often overlooked when people think of beer and brewing, England is responsible for the creation of many popular beer styles. In this article, I will attempt to answer the question “What beer do they drink in England?”.

Carling is by far the most popular beer in England, followed by Fosters. Carlsburg is a distant third. All of the top ten most popular beers are lagers, and only Carling is English.

Cask ales may lag behind lager, but some are still doing very well. Sharp’s Doombar is by far the most popular cask ale, with London Pride and a few Greene King beers quite a way behind. Punk IPA from Brewdog leads the way in craft beer, but is still a long way behind the top cask ales and miles behind Carling et al. All stats courtesy of this excellent article.

The popularity of a beer is rarely a testament to its quality, and just because Carling is the most popular beer in England, I will absolutely NOT recommend you drink it. Jupiler is the most popular beer in Belgium, but it is nowhere near the competition!

In this article, I will be focusing on the best beers in England. I will also briefly cover the craft beer revolution that has gripped the nation.

Beer in England: What to Drink?

England, just like Germany, Belgium, and the USA has both regional beers and national beers. Carling, Fosters, and the like are nationally popular, and you can find them in almost any pub you enter.

Then there are the slightly less popular beers such as Doombar, London Pride, and Brewdog (Scottish, not English but still very popular). These beers can often be found all over the country, even though they are brewed in one location.

One thing that England does very well though, is showcasing its smaller breweries. There are thousands of local breweries in the UK. In fact, as of 2018 the UK had the most active breweries of any country in Europe with over 2000.

Go into most decent pubs in England and you’ll have a range of the common beers mentioned above, but you will also get a good selection of the local beers.

This actually caused a big problem in the 70s and 80s where all of the pubs in England were owned by breweries. Leading to a severe drop in beer quality and a virtual monopoly of the market by just a few breweries. Check out my article on beer in London for a more in-depth look at that time.

Of course, just because a beer is local that does not guarantee that the beer will be incredible. Sometimes it can be a bit of a gamble. A knowledgeable staff member is always beneficial. Though pick your time, if the pub is heaving then asking the bartender what they recommend is not that helpful!

Trying to name all the good small local breweries in England would be an exercise in futility. By the time I had named them all, ten would have closed down and twelve would have opened! But here is my advice for finding the right beer in each pub.

How to Order a Beer in an English Pub

The first thing you should do is ensure that you are in the right type of pub for your needs. Wetherspoons is the largest pub chain in England (it’s not even close), but they have a mixed reputation.

The best Wetherspoons pubs serve high-quality beer at a ridiculously good price. They champion local and smaller breweries, and they are well maintained.

The worst Wetherspoons pubs are still okay, but it’s best to stick to the bottled beer and avoid the sticky patches.

CAMRA (The Campaign for Real Ale) is a great place to search for the best pubs in your area, and many good beer blogs can help you make up your mind. Tripadvisor is as problematic with pubs as it is with restaurants.

Sometimes it is good at highlighting great pubs, often it is ruined by fake reviews, bitter people, and people who are looking for different things than you are.

That last point is quite a big deal. You’re searching for a place that serves great beer, but what if the pub you are looking at gets 5-star reviews for its customer service, or its burgers?

  1. Find the right pub using CAMRA and local beer blogs
  2. If you have the time, do a quick Google search for local breweries
  3. If the pub is empty, ask the bartender what they personally recommend
  4. Order the difficult drinks first (Guinness first as it takes ages to pour)
  5. You can carry a maximum of three pints. Any more and get a friend to help. Do not trust the trays!

Bonus Point: Thanks to COVID a lot of pubs are currently doing table service. If this feature remains post-COVID then I will be a happy man!

Ten of the Best English Beers

It is very difficult to create a list of the best English beers, as I pointed out earlier there are a LOT of breweries here. Also, beer is very subjective. My list includes beers that many beer “experts” absolutely HATE.

But what option do I have? These ten beers are my personal favourites, and they are also generally seen as the best in England.

I am doing craft beer separately, so keep that in mind!

Greene King Old Speckled Hen

Oxford-based brewery Morland has been brewing Old Speckled Hen bitter since 1979 and it is one of the finest examples of the English bitter there is. One of the few beers that taste fantastic in bottled, canned, and draught format.

In 2000, Green King bought the Morland brewery. But this hasn’t really impacted on the flavour – something that all beer lovers worry about when a larger brewery takes over their favourite pint.

There are now a host of variations. Old Crafty Hen, Old Golden Hen, and Old Hoppy Hen. All of them are fine, I quite enjoy Old Golden Hen, but none are as good as the original in my opinion.

Fuller’s London Pride

what beer to drink in London

Fuller’s London Pride is a beer that I talked a lot about in my article on beer in London. It is one of my all-time favourite beers, and usually a safe option to order whenever you see it in a pub. The story behind the name is pretty cool.

Apparently, the beer is named after a flower that started to grow on the bombsites left after the Blitz. The flowers represented London rebuilding after the war. The beer didn’t come out until 1959.

London Pride has been named best bitter by Camra twice and is a wonderful example of that style of beer. Many beer lovers would say that Fuller’s ESB is a better beer than London Pride, but they can go write their own lists.

Oakham Ales Citra

While many of the beers on this list will grace most best of English lists, the next one is a more personal choice. Oakham Ales is a brewery that started off in Oakham, Rutland but is now situated in Peterborough. It is just 25 years old, but has really established itself on the English beer scene.

Most of their beers are available in all good UK supermarkets, and you can find the beer in many pubs.

I have a few of their beers on my list of favourites; Scarlet Macaw is a superb beer, as is Inferno. But my favourite of their selection is Citra. It’s an English style IPA brewed with American hops.

It was named the 2019 Champion Beer of Britain in the Golden Ales category. Absolutely worth checking out if you stumble upon it.

Newcastle Brown Ale

Beer in England

This next entry is partly added to appease the northern brewers, and partly here out of spite. I was watching a YouTube video the other day where a guy just absolutely tore into Newcastle Brown Ale. Called it a horrible pint, and a waste of water. A comment on the video said that “anyone who drinks it doesn’t really enjoy beer”.

But it is one of my favourites. So that commenter can fuck off!

Now to be fair, the owners of Newcastle Brown Ale have changed hands faster than Watford football managers. Apparently, the American version has been taken over by Lagunitas brewery and completely changed the recipe. But in England, Newcastle Brown Ale is still pretty much the same.

I’ve been drinking it for about 14 years now (on and off, not daily!) and while I have noticed a subtle change in taste I still enjoy it. I don’t understand the hate and believe that it is still one of the best beers in England. Hence its inclusion on this list.

The taste is fairly unique, and I think that this is why many people have a problem with it. Great foam retention, better out of the bottle (in my opinion), and a really nice caramel aroma.

This beer is a truly iconic one, and I am prepared to die on that hill (or just sit on the hill and have a couple of pints).

Young’s Special

It’s my dad’s favourite beer, and that man has definitely sampled a large majority of the beer in England. Who am I to argue? Again, I’ve covered the Young’s brewery in my article on beer in London so check that out to learn more.

This beer is massively popular with all cask ale lovers, and even though Young’s brewery has changed hands and moved out of London, the beer is still good.

Thornbridge Jaipur

Thornbridge Jaipur is one of the best beers in the world. There, I’ve said it. Simply incredible. It is a multi-award winning American-style IPA (over 100 awards since 2005) but brewed in England. Thornbridge is an independent brewery (a rare thing these days) that is based in Derbyshire. It is just 15 years old, but is well-known among beer drinkers.

Tynt Meadow 

I first drank this beer during my recent podcast, and it blew my mind. It is the first English Trappist beer, and one of a few that are based outside of Belgium. Check out my article on Trappist beers to learn more. This is by far the newest beer on the list, only going on sale in 2018. But the reaction has been crazy. It is one of the highest-rated beers on ratebeer.com with 97 out of 99.

I was very surprised at how much I enjoyed drinking it. While I do love Belgian style beers, I sometimes struggle to drink the very high percentage beers, at 7.4% it is quite low for a Trappist, but it is very high compared to most beers. But it was smooth and easy to drink, and the taste was superb. It definitely warrants inclusion on this list.

Harvey’s Sussex Best

Another beer that is heavily influenced by my dad absolutely loving it. But Harvey’s Best is renowned for being one of the best in the country, so I’m perfectly happy to include it. This is a seriously good bitter (winning CAMRA’s Best Bitter award in ’05 and ’06).

This beer is perhaps most famous for the protest launched by regulars of the Lewes Arms in 2006 where they boycotted their local pub after owners Greene King pulled the beer from the pub’s lineup. Greene King relented after regulars stopped drinking at the pub for 133 days, and this is seen as a major influencer on brewery-run pubs today.

It is great on tap, but as I live absolutely nowhere near Lewes (where the brewery is based) I have to satisfy myself with the bottled version, which is very impressive in its own right.

Fuller’s London Porter

It would be crazy to have a top ten list of English beers and NOT include at least one stout or porter. Considering the fact that both were invented here. There are some excellent craft porters and stouts from English breweries, but the traditional breweries don’t have many to choose from. There is Mackerson stout, which I quite like, but is nowhere near the top ten.

Luckily, Fuller’s offers an excellent stout and a really good porter. Fuller’s London Porter is a fantastic example of a London Porter. The Black Cab Stout is another superb offering, but just loses out when I compare the two.

Wychwood Hobgoblin

Does beer taste better in a bottle?

There must be something in the water around Oxfordshire, because we have a second brewery from that county on this list. Wychwood brewery is based in Witney just 15 miles away from Abingdon where Old Speckled Hen was brewed (until the brewery closed down and production moved to Bury St Edmunds.

Wychwood brewery is one of the first, shall we say, alternative breweries I remember hearing about. They became famous for their slogan “Not for lagerboys” and other variations. Hobgoblin is their signature beer, a ruby ale with an amazing flavour. David Cameron famously presented Obama with a 12 pack of them in 2010.

While I love Hobgoblin, their special reserve King Goblin beer is possibly even better. It’s quite a bit stronger at 6.6%, and the flavour is incredible. Hobgoblin is perfect for drinking a few pints, King Goblin is ideal for having 1-2 bottles of.

Bonus Beer: Golden Glory

I clearly can’t count. I had my beer line up all ready to go, and was going to finish it off with one of my absolute favourite beers: Golden Glory from the Hall & Woodhouse brewery.

I remember having a bottle in around 2004, and being absolutely blown away by the melon and peach notes. I then had it again at my first beer festival (Hall & Woodhouse had built a mini country pub inside the Great British Beer Festival which was seriously cool).

Hall & Woodhouse (often known as Badger beer thanks to the labels) have a tonne of great beers, Fursty Ferret, Tangle Foot, The Cranbourne Poacher, and Best Bitter. Worth checking them out if you can.

Best Craft Beers in England

Craft beer in England is growing at an astonishing rate, however, a lot of that is from Scotland (Brewdog), Wales (Tiny Rebel), and the US. Which is a bit embarrassing for us English. Luckily, our own craft breweries are gaining popularity and international fame.

Now, I covered craft breweries in London in quite some depth in my article on Beer in London, there is no point covering the same breweries twice (Camden Town, Meantime, Five Points, Fourpure etc).

Because of this, the following craft breweries will not include London-based ones. This means that several excellent London breweries will be missed out, but as they are all doing superb anyway, I’m sure they can live without making my list!

My rule is that I need to have actually drunk a beer from a brewery for it to make the list. If you don’t see your favourite craft brewery on this list then:

  • A. I haven’t drunk it
  • B. It’s based in London and you have skim-read my intro to this section
  • C. Your brewery stinks and you should be ashamed of yourself

Here are five of the best craft breweries in England (excluding London).

Vocation Brewery

If you are a fan of the Beer n Biceps podcast then you may recognise this beer, it was one of the first breweries we sampled. Vocation brewery is based in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. Right in the middle of the Yorkshire/Lancashire divide. They sell distinctive beers, which are big on flavour. The beers are packaged in beautifully designed can artwork, and the names are all similar.

  • Love & Hate
  • Pride & Joy
  • Divide & Conquer

You get the idea. Vocation Brewery is one of my favourite English breweries, even if they would consider themselves Yorkshire rather than England!

Magic Rock Brewery

Another Yorkshire-based brewery, this time in Huddersfield. I’ve had their beer a few times, and have always been impressed. Their Hire Wire Grapefruit Pale Ale is seriously good, and gives the Brewdog Elvis Juice a run for its money.

The brewery has been running since 2011, and I became aware of them in 2018. They have a great range of IPAs, and I have enjoyed their German-style lager “Dancing Bier”.

The Wild Beer Co.

If I had been writing this three years ago, The Wild Beer Co. would be nowhere near this list! The first time I had one of their beers I absolutely hated it. The brewery prides itself on using uncommon yeasts, foraged ingredients, and alternative fermentations, so you can imagine how one of their beers may shock the unsuspecting drinker.

The problem was not with the beer, it was with my expectations. A similar thing happened to me when I visited the Cantillon brewery in Brussels. I had no idea what to expect, and was horrified by the beer presented to me.

If I walked into the Cantillon brewery knowing what I know now, about Lambic beers and spontaneous fermentation, I would doubtlessly enjoy their beer. But drinking it without context is a bit like eating black pudding when you expected chocolate.

Since my first Wild beer, I’ve tried them a few more times, and their beer is fantastic. The Yokai beer completely blew me away. A combination of yuzu (a citrus fruit), seaweed and peppercorns? Sounds horrific! But the combination led to one of the most interesting and refreshing beers I’ve ever had. At just 4.5% abv you could even call it a session beer.

This is a brewery that takes calculated risks, and more often than not hits the nail on the head. Not every beer will be to your taste, but there are a multitude of diamonds in their selection.

Northern Monk

ANOTHER brewery from Yorkshire! Is it not enough that they keep banging on about the 2012 Olympics and the England cricket team? Must they also take credit for our craft breweries? Northern Monk is based in Leeds and has been running since 2014. Their Eternal session IPA stands out as a really good beer, but honestly, you could pick any Northern Monk beer and be almost guaranteed to love it.

Buxton Brewery

Never judge a book by its cover, nor a beer by its packaging. But what stunning packaging the beers of Buxton Brewery come in! I’ve discussed Buxton Brewery before in this article about Yellow Belly Beer.

What that article didn’t cover was how much I love the beers of Buxton Brewery. Based in the Peak District, and coincidentally close to the Thornbridge brewery, Buxton Brewery has made some of the best beers in the country. While the Yellow Belly beer saga continues to cause headaches for the brewery (even after they stopped brewing it), we should remember that the beer is one of the highest-rated beers of all time on ratebeer.com.

I’ve had a load of their beers over the past few years, and there are still many that I want to try. I am particularly intrigued by their Jacob’s Ladder beer, which is described as a Table Beer. It is only 2.8% and is a pale ale.

Beer in England: Final Thoughts

I could easily have written a 10,000-word article of the history of beer in England. There is so much to write. This is a country that brought the world pale ales, IPAs, bitter, stout, and porter. It revolutionised the beer-making process. England has one of the highest brewery to person ratios in the world, has the most breweries in Europe, and has some of the oldest pubs in the world.

If you want a more general look at the beer culture in England, please check out my article on the subject. In it I talk about beer festivals, pubs, brewing, and the English love for beer. Alternatively, you could check out my article on beer in London, which discusses the history of Britain’s biggest brewing city and the current best beers, pubs, and breweries.

Finally, there is my article on the oldest pub in Nottingham. A story close to my heart now that I have recently moved to this beautiful part of the world.

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