The taste test: Light ales

Here we are in the picnic season with a tasting of ruthless topicality: lower strength bottled ales.

The idea was to find some traditional British beers that you could consume in moderation without falling in the river and then arrive home with your liver intact. Some were bitter and some mild – a combination that took me back to my cricket-playing youth in the Weald of Kent. You could drink two or three pints of “mild and bitter” beforehand, at around 3.6 per cent alcohol by volume, and still perform creditably on the square. Any more than that was inadvisable though. I remember fainting at the wicket once after a rash six pints. But on that occasion we were playing a team called The Mad Morris Men From Hell – they all had ferociously long beards and I may simply have been intimidated into a coma.

There was a bit of jockeying in the tasting panel this week. To begin with I had a couple of City tyros lined up, keen to quaff a few ales. But when they heard we were searching out lighter beers one had an emergency commitment in New York, the other was suddenly obliged to attend a country wedding. Not butch enough for them, I fear. But the Carnivorous Undergraduate (CU), the Gourmet Celeb (GC), the Gluttonous Pig (GP) and the Discerning Litigator (DL) did turn out. The first happily shouldered the traditional burden of the student to drink beer widely and liberally, the last was able to give us an important female perspective on the drinks.

We blind tasted 13 ales from breweries across 11 British counties. We were delighted that two of our recommended beers hailed from two of the breweries which have sprung up as part of the current renaissance in micro-breweries.

Our brewers are clearly having fun tossing an exotic concoction of traditional British malts and hops into their beers, producing a wonderful spectrum of flavours. Here are a few of our tasting notes: caramelly, spicy, fermented peaches, gooseberries, off-milk, metallic, cardboard, rotting newspapers, cat’s pee, rusting iron – and those were the ones we liked. Others were less to our taste: sulphuric, animal smell, dishwater, a hint of urinal.

Third equal were two dark milds, strong in flavour but relatively low in alcohol. Ilkley Black comes from the Ilkley Brewing Company, which was set up in 2009 by two enthusiasts from the commercial property sector. The beer (3.7 per cent) names four malts and two hop varieties on the bottle and makes great play of the soft, Dales water (the only known occasion of a Yorkshireman admitting to softness): “incredibly spicy – an oriental bazaar” (GP); “yes, pungent, like a piss-up in a brewery” (CU).

The other was Black Dog from Elgood’s in Wisbech, the site of a brewery for more than 200 years. Black Dog (3.6 per cent) uses that quintessentially British hop, Fuggles, and met with approval from the Carnivorous Undergraduate: “meaty – the perfect liquid lunch”. It should be noted that the Discerning Litigator was less enthusiastic about these dark beers.

Second, by only a short (frothy) head, was Pure Gold (3.8 per cent) from the Purity Brewing Company in Warwickshire. Just enjoy the names of the malts and hops it uses: English Maris Otter and Cara Gold Malts, Northern Brewer, Fuggles, Hereford Goldings and Styrian Goldings. This was the Discerning Litigator’s favourite (“lovely hops”) and went down well all round: “amazing complexity on the nose” (GC); “deliciously dank aroma – magnificent hoppy flavour” (GP).

And the winner was Wandle (3.8 per cent) from the Sambrook Brewery in south London. The company was set up in 2008, by a former accountant who regretted London’s lack of micro-breweries. Wandle has another seductive blend of ingredients, including a hop romantically called Boadicea: “English countryside at harvest time” (GC); “cloves on the nose – lovely – like a wheat beer” (GP); “medicinal” (DL); “full-bodied fruitiness and unashamedly explosive” (CU).

The Winners

1. Wandle, £2.25

Sambrook’s Brewery London SW11

020 7228 0598,

2. Pure Gold, £1.85

Purity Brewing Company Gt Alne, Warwickshire 01789 488007

=3. Black Dog, £1.95 Elgood’s Brewery Wisbech, Cambs

01945 583160,

=3. Ilkley Black, per 500ml bottle

Ilkley Brewing Company, Ilkley, West Yorks

01943 604604,

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