Guardian journalist and beer sommelier Sophie Atherton explains how to get the best out of your brew – as part of our Beer, Wine and Cider Week this Harvest Festival.
Everyone knows how to drink beer. Lift glass to lips, tilt head back, tip beer into mouth, wait until it reaches the throat, then swallow. So obvious and easy, you wouldn’t think it even had five stages.
But merely tipping beer down our necks without a second thought means missing out on its vast potential and stunning variety of styles and flavours. So make sure you get the best out of your brew with this how to drink beer guide.
1. Choose your brew
There are dozens of styles of beer and hundreds of different brews within those styles – so it’s not just a matter of choosing between lager and real ale.
Look at the colour
Although colour isn’t always a reliable indicator of flavour, it’s a good guide for beginners. Lighter colours are usually more refreshing than amber or brown beers, and deep, dark brown or black brews will have considerably more depth of flavour.
Try something local
If you love a cold one (lager), ring the changes by trying a locally brewed alternative to the big brands. Cornwall is just the place to do this.
Step out of your comfort zone
If you like lager’s subtle flavour but want something less gassy, try a golden (cask) ale. Fancy a bit more bite? Ask for a hoppy brew (such as an IPA), especially anything with US or Antipodean hops in – which bring tropical but zesty fruit flavours to the beer.
Fans of coffee and chocolate who feel like branching out with a beer should look out for stouts or porters, as both these styles usually showcase cocoa and coffee flavours in varying degrees.
2. Use your senses
Our sense of taste is inextricably bound up with our sense of smell. Ask to try beer before you buy and, with luck, you’ll get a small taster in a large glass.
At home, pour a little beer to smell before you dive in and drink. Swirl it round and stick your nose in for a good old sniff.
It may sound strange, but you’ll get more from your beer by smelling it.Many of today’s beers include hops added specifically for their aroma qualities. Brewers want their beer to smell nice and they want you to smell their beer!
3. Match your beer to your food
Ever been for a pub meal only to have your beer taste just so wrong once you drink it with your food? Kiss that syndrome goodbye by becoming flavour savvy with your brews and food. Start by looking for similar flavours.
- Match subtle flavoured beer (lager, golden ale) with delicate or plain food. Think fish and chips, or unspiced, chicken dishes.
- Foods with caramelised flavours, such as roast chicken or burger with onions (but little else) work well with amber/brown coloured ales that aren’t too hoppy.
- Hoppier, amber brews lend themselves to stronger flavoured burgers and other grilled dishes.
- Having a curry? Forget lager and turn to those spicy American hops, but if your spicy meal is a chilli con carne pair it with a porter or a stout.
Seasonal and regional pairings are another good principle to work by. There’s only one real rule in matching beer and food and that’s ‘whatever works for you’, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
Journalist Sophie Atherton was the first woman in the UK to be accredited as a Beer Sommelier and is the parliamentary beer group’s Beer Sommelier of the Year 2013. She writes regularly for the national press and also appears on radio and TV to talk about beer, as well as co-hosting a regular beer podcast.
Sophie is coming to our Harvest Festival, for our Beer, Wine and Cider Week. On Saturday 4 October, Sophie will be doing a blind tasting of canned and bottled beers. On Sunday, 5 October she’ll be giving a talk on beer and cheese pairings. Find out more about these events.