My craft beer journey began in 1997 when I moved to California, toured a microbrewery for the first time and flashed a fake ID so I could try its unique wares. It was love at first sip, and I haven’t looked back since. Now in my 30s, I’ve drank beers around the world, but I’ve never lived in another country, fully enveloping myself in a different beer culture. But that changed last month, when I embarked on my newest beer journey, by getting a visa and moving to England.
During my first 30 days in the UK, I haven’t travelled that extensively: living in Sheffield, visiting London and The Chilterns – but I’ve tried a vast array of real ales (and the occasional draft) at as many pubs as I could, purchased different beers at every big grocery store and small bottle shop I’ve passed, and made it to one fantastic beer festival.
Though the adventure is just underway, I already feel confident sharing some of the awesome brews I’ve had the pleasure of trying or revisiting over the past month. I’ve also picked at least a couple beers I know you can find back in the States. But overall, consider this list a bit of a visitor’s guide and an encouragement to come see how exciting Britain’s beer scene has become.
Tart, Thornbridge Brewery (Bakewell) collaboration with Wild Beer Co (Shepton Mallet)
In Sheffield, I always find my way to a pub pouring real ales from Thornbridge, a brewery in nearby Bakewell that, after only about a decade in business, has already garnered a bit of popularity in the United States. Though their bright and citrusy Kipling South Pacific Pale Ale is my absolute favorite, this time around I was smitten by a recent collaboration with another one of my favorite English breweries, Wild Beer Co (which you can also find in the US). Tart, billed as a “Bakewell Sour,” perfectly fit its name, hanging on to plenty of acidic edge for a kettle sour while also maintaining its drinkability.
Dead Pony Club, BrewDog (Ellon, Scotland)
Though BrewDog is a name most American craft beer fans know well, I was surprised to see how ubiquitous the Scottish brand has become in the UK since my last visit. Bottles and cans of Dead Pony Club have been an especially common sight, and the American-style session pale ale is a solid fallback if nothing else at a bar strikes your fancy. It’s equal parts dank and drinkable, but also clocks in at an easy 3.8 percent ABV.
Summer Legend, Harviestoun Brewery (Alva, Scotland)
Speaking of session beers, though British ales have always landed at lower ABVs than their American counterparts, I’ve been surprised to see just how much the UK has reembraced the session trend, especially session IPAs – which are almost as ubiquitous as they are in the US. For instance, Harviestoun Brewery isn’t some hip newbie – it’s been open for three decades – but this Scottish stalwart makes a hell of a seasonal session IPA. With its bitter, but not overpowering backbone, light grapefruit flourishes and balancing sweetness, I could see the legend of Summer Legend lasting until it returns the following year.
Pride & Joy, Vocation Brewery (Hebden Bridge)
During a stop at a Tesco Superstore of all places, I first spotted cans from Vocation, a brewery that, despite opening just last year, has gotten immediate acclaim (and apparently solid distribution). Another UK brewery embracing US styles, the West Yorkshire brand’s Pride & Joy American Pale Ale was practically a revelation: resinous, pithy, lightly tropical, bitter, biscuity. It would almost be too much if it weren’t so downright delicious.
Low Hanging Fruit, Paradigm Brewery (Sarratt)
On top of the increased American influence, British breweries have also shown a proclivity towards New Zealand hops – which makes sense since the South Pacific nation is part of the Commonwealth. Paradigm Brewery, another upstart from 2015, this one based just outside London in the tiny village of Sarratt, brings both New Zealand and American ingredients together beautifully in their Low Hanging Fruit, a beer that indeed has flourishes of zesty fruit within its light and crisp profile but still stays grounded with a bitter finish.
Pale Rider, Kelham Island Brewery (Sheffield)
Whenever I’m in Sheffield, I always keep an eye out for brews from the city’s elder statesmen of true craft ales, Kelham Island Brewery. When it launched in 1990, Kelham Island was the first new independent brewery in the city of over half a million people in nearly 100 years. By 1999, thanks to other brewery closures, it earned the additional title of the area’s oldest production brewery. After getting a pint of their signature Pale Rider off the hand pump at the legendary Fat Cat pub (the brewery’s original home), I found its signature real ale as good as ever: a lemon nose followed by a grapefruity pop of flavor deliciously balanced with a bright malt base.
YPA, Rooster’s (Knaresborough)
Though British breweries have been taking a much larger cue from American craft brewers as of late, modern American craft brewing couldn’t exist without its British influence. Don’t forget, the IPA is originally a British creation. So it’s fun to see breweries on this side of the pond taking back their brewing roots. For instance, when the North Yorkshire-based Rooster’s first opened in 1993, the brewery admits its focus was showcasing “exciting new hops from the USA.” But more recently, the brand has added its YPA to the mix – an acronym for Yorkshire Pale Ale – and England’s largest county should be honored to have this beer bearing its name. The truly unique pale ale opens with a practically minty scent followed by a delightfully herbal hop character that transforms on the palate to mellow stone fruits. Amazingly, these fruit flavors follow all the way to the finish, ending practically without bitterness. YPA could be the best English beer I’ve had so far.
Cattle Shed, Old Dairy Brewery (Tenterden)
Speaking of juicy, I was just ducking into a nearby pub for a quick pint when I decided to give the oddly named Cattle Shed from the Old Dairy Brewery a try. Turns out it’s not just a catchy name: In 2010, the brewery launched in “an old milking parlour” in the coastal county of Kent located southeast of London. Though Old Dairy has since moved on to more professional facilities, this American-influenced pale ale certainly gave me a feeling of the farm: The juicy brew has distinct hints of orange juice before the decidedly bitter finish takes hold enticing you for another sip.
Ilkley Pale, Ilkley Brewery Company (Ilkley)
At this point, you’ve probably noticed I have an affinity for bright pale ales—it’s the summer, I don’t think you can fault me. What intrigues me most, though, isn’t how similar these beers are, but how different they can be. Those differences are especially interesting in a relatively small place like the British Isles, where the furthest two breweries on this list are from each other is about 600 miles apart. Along those lines, Ilkley Brewery’s eponymous pale ale caught my attention for how little it resembled a traditional pale ale. The tasty brew was light, grassy and bitter with a pronounced dry malt backbone that left this beer drinking more like a hoppy pilsner. If yeast-forward pales aren’t your cup of tea, Ilkley’s pale is your answer.
Red, Wit & Blue, Abbeydale Brewery (Sheffield)
Of course, the UK has plenty of great beer styles besides pales. Many people here still love their classic bitters and darker brews. But the country also continues to embrace newer styles and experiments. To wit, I came across a bizarre beer from one of my favorite breweries, the always consistent Abbeydale: The American-themed Red, Wit & Blue is an aggressively hopped “Red Rye Wheat Beer.” Fermented like a wheat beer, the spicy rye helped cut through the massive mouthfeel of this cloudy potion that partnered well with its aggressive hopping.
Coolship Blonde, Elgood’s Brewery (Wisbech)
Though Elgood’s Brewery proudly proclaims it was established in 1795, in far more recent memory, the generations-old brewer has been embracing an even older traditional brewing method: using spontaneous open fermentation to make sour beers in the Lambic style. Needless to say, the brewery’s Coolship Blonde impressed me: a proper drinking sour that was still pucker-worthy and complex despite going down easy with every sip. Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Citra Brett Pale, Chorlton Brewing Company (Manchester)
Love funk yeast? At one point I dropped into a tiny bottle shop in Sheffield called Hop Hideout and opened with my go-to question of “You don’t happen to have any Cantillon, do you?” Alas, the knowledgeable storekeeper said over the past year, beers from the legendary Belgian brewery have become about as scarce in the UK as they’ve been for nearly a decade in the US. However, she directed me towards some other sour beers in the shop’s extensive collection, including a funky line of cans from a brewery called Chorlton. The Manchester-based operation specializes in “slow beer – unfiltered, unpasteurised, unfined,” and as a Citra hop fan, I grabbed the Citra Brett Pale. The dry-hopped tropical nose was like a blast of papaya smoothie, followed by a perfectly balanced dry and dirty Brettanomyces-based flavor and a massive mouthfeel that made the brew drink like a thick fruit juice.
At one point during my discussion at Hop Hideout, as an obvious American, Heady Topper came up. When I told the woman behind the counter I’ve had it many times, she responded in her thick British accent, “Oh, you tease.” Americans reading this may have a similar sentiment: Though some of these beers are available across the pond in the United States, many are not. But that is one of the exciting ways in which our modern beer world has evolved: When at home, you get what you can, and for the rest, the journey is half the fun. While perhaps overshadowed in the minds of Americans by the thousands of new breweries that have opened in the US in the last decade, the English brewing scene has made leaps just as large and as a beer destination, the UK may be more worthy of a visit than ever before.