Backing British Bottled Beer: the style challenge

In the latest of our series celebrating the best in British bottled beer we explore some of the essentials to get your staff talking to customers with knowledge and confidence.

We kicked off this series with a survey asking retailers what they thought would help them  sell more British bottled beers. The feedback was that there was a need for more information on styles and food pairings.

Some said this was needed to help staff, with half of store owners saying staff were either not very good or not at all good at recommending beer and food pairings, and around a third having trouble describing different beer styles. 

Others wanted articles in OLN to be suitable for tearing out and putting up next to the beer fixture to provide a direct route to the hearts and minds of shoppers. 

This general guide to some of the basic beer style terms, flavour descriptions and food matches is designed to go some way to satisfying both needs – but there’s so much more to discover beyond this and many points of crossover. The diversity and complexity of British beer is where the beauty lies.

Be our guest in using anything here you think might be useful for shelf-edge notes, brochures, websites, or just to drop into conversation with customers.

Barley wine

A traditionally English style of strong ale, usually between 8% and 12% abv, closer to the strength of wine. Often has fruity flavours high up in the mix.

Occasion: Snow on the ground, kids in bed, a good book/film, optional log fire etc.

Food match: Foie gras, venison, Christmas pudding and strong, pungent cheese such as stilton.

Key words: Strong, rich, fruity.

Bitter/pale ale

The broad term “bitter” covers bronze or copper-coloured ales with a relatively high level of hop bitterness, but usually in the drinkable abv range of 3.5% to 5%. Pale ale is a term similarly referring to a copper-coloured ale rather than the lighter-yellow look of a lager and with a big crossover with the term “bitter”. The term used is often down to the brewery’s preference, though traditionally pale ale was used for bottled beer and bitter for draught. “Pale ale” is not interchangeable with and should not be confused with “India Pale Ale”.

Occasion: A get-together with stoic non-lager drinking mates.

Food match: Hearty British fare – bangers and mash, steak pie, roast dinner.

Key words: Bitter (naturally), fruity, toffee, snappy.

Brown ale

A description that refers to colour rather than any uniformity of flavour or body, which both have regional variations, from sweeter, lighter styles associated with southern England to a drier, more robust version associated with a famous northern brand.

Occasion: Watching nostalgic clips-based TV programmes driven by scripted commentaries by leading cultural commentators

Food match: Red meat, game.

Key words: Dark, caramel, nutty, fruity. 

Golden ale

A term that has risen to prominence in the past 20 years and is the source of endless debate in beer-nerd circles. Some argue it’s not a style at all, though it is certainly a useful catch-all for a modern, accessible style of lighter (in colour and strength), fresher, fruitier ale with passive bitterness. 

Occasion: For when you want to surprise someone who insists they don’t like beer.

Food match: Light meat and fish dishes, especially with creamy sauces.

Key words: Easy-drinking, tangy, refreshing.

India Pale Ale (IPA)

A strong, bitter ale brewed with lots of hops, originally as a preservative for the long sea journey to British ex-pats in the days of the Raj. Making a massive comeback with many British brewers now apeing the modern American preference for limey, citrus aroma hops.

Occasion: Any time you’re looking for flavour to savour.

Food match: Curry, cheese … but not together.

Key words: Citrus, spice, hops, complex.


Though more associated with continental Europe, there’s a growing fashion among British brewers to produce lighter, straw-coloured beers using classic cool and long fermentation. The best have hints of spice, tropical fruit and a crisp, bitter finish.

Occasion: Sunshine, barbecue and an ice bucket.

Food match: Barbecued meat and fish, roast chicken.

Key words: Clean, crisp, refreshing. 


Dark brown or copper in colour but light in alcohol and hops, originally brewed to be drunk in large quantities by factory workers in central and northern parts of England. Slowly being revisited by more adventurous and open-minded microbreweries.

Occasion: To lighten the impact of “the night before”.

Food match: Shepherd’s pie.

Key words: Soft, sweet, caramel, chocolate.


A lighter-bodied ancestor of stout which takes its name from its popularity with workers in the markets of London in the 18th century. Coming back into vogue as older brewers unearth ancient recipe books, and newer ones – as with stout – put their own mark on them through the use of extra ingredients, such as chocolate and treacle. Porters tend to be more reddish-brown than the black of stout and with a smoother, roasted flavour – American brewer and author Garrett Oliver makes the distinction between dark chocolate (porter) and espresso coffee (stout).

Occasion: When you’re trying to persuade a die-hard Guinness drinker there’s more to life.

Food match: Smokey meats, scallops, chocolate pudding. 

Key words: Chocolate, silky, toasted.


Typified by Guinness, stout is a dry style of dark, often black, ale that takes its colour from heavily-roasted malt. Many British brewers are putting exciting twists on the style through the use of coffee, chocolate or different fruits. The infrequently seen milk stouts are made by adding milk sugar, which gives sweetness. Imperial stouts – sometimes called imperial Russian stouts – are more off-dry than the Irish/British style, and stronger at up to 11%. They were originally brewed in the 18th century for Catherine the Great of Russia, hence the name.

Occasion: For celebrating life’s everyday pleasures … not just St Patrick’s Day.

Food match: Oysters … some more oysters … followed by some other seafood.

Key words: Dry, robust, creamy, smooth. 

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