The OLN Hot List: British Ales

21 March, 2014

According to this year’s Good Beer Guide there are 1,147 breweries in the UK, with almost 200 opening in the past year, taking levels to a 70-year high. Established national and local brewers have been joined by exciting start-ups that have helped change the taste, quality and style of the beers we drink. But which one’s best? Only one way to find out ... with the latest in our Hot List poll of leading retailers and opinion-formers in the field.

1. The Kernel

The arrival of a new batch of beers from The Kernel has become something of an event for cutting-edge retailers, with stocks being eagerly snapped up by beer buffs. Evin O’Riordain was crowned brewer of the year by the British Guild of Beer Writers in 2011, just two years after opening. Complex, powerful hop combinations give drinkers fashionably bold flavours while minimalist brown- paper packaging makes the beers feel hand-made and slightly mysterious. The flavour packed into the 3% abv Table Beer suggests genius at work.

LOCATION: Bermondsey, London

FLAGSHIP: Pale Ale Citra

ONE VOTER SAYS: There are so many good things, from the simplicity of the iconic labels to the consistent quality. Leigh Norwood, Favourite Beers, Cheltenham

2. Thornbridge

A 2009 move from the bucolic location of a shed in the grounds of the Peak District’s Thornbridge Hall to a state-of-the-art new-build in town doesn’t seem to have dented the brewery’s reputation. It’s retained popularity through a mix of British tradition and continental influence, delivered with unerring consistency in striking house-style packaging. With abvs on the high side, the beers are not for the faint-hearted but they balance intensity of flavour with moreish drinkability and have become a must-stock for specialist beer shops.

LOCATION: Bakewell, Derbyshire


ONE VOTER SAYS: The range covers an impressive variety of styles and the packaging looks great. Chris France, Beer Hawk, online beer retailer

3. Weird Beard

Like many micros, Bryan Spooner and Gregg Irwin’s venture was born out of a home-brew habit. The house style is unashamedly in-your-face hops but they rule nothing out, the only policy being that they do what they want on their own terms. A clutch of core IPAs reflects an American craft beer influence but Weird Beard has put its own stamp on things with beers such as Little Things That Kill – where the hop list changes on a whim – and a single hop Chinook with the wry billing of “a boring brown beer.

LOCATION: Hanwell, west London

FLAGSHIP: Five O’Clock Shadow

ONE VOTER SAYS: Some breweries’ beers fail to live up to their marketing, and vice versa. Weird Beard has cracked both. Darren Norbury, editor,

4. Brewdog

One retailer summed up Brewdog as “mad Marmite marketing”. It certainly divides opinion but, love it or hate it, the impact it’s had on the modern brewing landscape is without question. In just eight years, founders James Watt and Martin Dickie have pioneered crowd-funding share schemes, launched craft beer bars from Shoreditch to Sao Paolo, brought out a campaigning brew against Russia’s anti-gay laws and produced a limited-edition bottle stuffed into road-kill. It’s sometimes easy to forget it makes some pretty fine beer.

LOCATION: Ellon, Aberdeenshire

FLAGSHIP: Dead Pony Club

ONE VOTER SAYS: It’s a case study on how to create an underground brand and secretly take it mainstream. Tom Jones, Whalley Wine Shop, Whalley, Lancashire

5. Wild Beer

Wild Beer didn’t bother with a session ale to provide a commercial prop for experimentation. Instead, founder Andrew Cooper immersed himself from the off in his love of wild yeast, and his use of barrel-ageing and leftfield ingredients have arguably resulted in the most varied and inventive range on Planet Craft Beer. Wild Beer fans in our poll variously selected as a favourite its Epic Saison, Solera, Cool As A Cucumber, Ninkasi, Shnoodlepip, Bliss and Modus Operandi, suggesting both diversity and consistency. Investigate if you haven’t already.

LOCATION: Evercreech, Somerset

FLAGSHIP: Epic Saison

ONE VOTER SAYS: A range of unusual takes on some common styles. They are consistently well made. Steve Lamond, blogger Beers I’ve Known

6. Fuller’s

With all the fuss about the noisy new kids on the block, it’s reassuring to know that a traditional, family ale brewer can still cut the mustard. Innovation was undoubtedly a factor in its high ranking, with voters noting the Past Masters and Brewer’s Reserve series of beers and the outstanding quality of packaged beers such as 1845, Bengal Lancer and Vintage Ale. But it wasn’t just about the fancy stuff at the fringes – Fuller’s clearly struck a chord for the brewing skill behind a core spectrum of accessible and drinkable cask and bottled ales.

LOCATION: Chiswick, west London

FLAGSHIP: London Pride

ONE VOTER SAYS: It is the consistency, but also the willingness to innovate – to try new brands and flavours. Bryan Betts, beer writer Beer Viking

7. Tempest

The emergence of Tempest lends credence to the old adage ‘if you want something doing, do it yourself ’. In chef-publican Gavin Meiklejohn’s case, the thing was cutting-edge beers to sell in his Kelso freehouse. Four years later, Tempest is still in the industry drawer marked “best kept secrets” but the beers have been gradually gaining a following down the length of the UK, with Meiklejohn having to double the capacity of the plant. The range covers all bases and delivers bold flavours without overpowering.

LOCATION: Kelso, Scottish Borders

FLAGSHIP: Into The Light

ONE VOTER SAYS: The team produce beers they like as opposed to trying to follow what they think is fashionable. Steve Kitchen, Chester Beer & Wine, Chester

8. Moor

Moor takes its name from the Somerset Levels & Moors hit by recent floods, which spared the brewery by a couple of fields. Since taking the helm in 2007, Justin Hawke has infused Moor’s reputation for fine real ale with the aggressive hop character of his native California’s brewing scene. The core range stretches through 10 brews, from the refreshing 3.8% abv Revival pale ale to the barley wine-like 9% JJJ, before you get into the experimental line-up that includes a smoked rye brew, a beer made with sloes, and an old ale aged in Somerset Cider Brandy barrels.

LOCATION: Pitney, Somerset


ONE VOTER SAYS: A variety of beer styles, all with a strong taste-bud impact that promotes passion in the drinker. Nick Pring, Ale House & Cyder Barn, Devon

9. Ilkley

The Yorkshire town that’s home to the eponymous brewery might soon be more famous for its beer than the folk song about its moor. Best-selling session ale Mary Jane is named after a central character in the song but the brewery is far from stuck in local tradition. The range includes a medieval gruit beer made with foraged herbs, a rhubarb saison and a chocolate chipotle stout, all of which have won plaudits alongside throw- backs such as an English mild and a Victorian dinner ale. It’s a perfect balance between commercialism and experimentation.

LOCATION: Ilkley, West Yorkshire


ONE VOTER SAYS: I sent my lifetime lager drinker dad a crate of its beers and he loved every one. You can’t beat that. Craig Heap, beer writer

10. Williams Bros

These days, brewers who put a modern spin on ancient recipes made with weird and wonderful ingredients are ten a penny, but when Williams Bros started doing it back in the late 1980s – Froach with heather, gooseberries in Grozet and Scots pine for Alba – it was a radical departure. That the brewery managed to avoid being branded a novelty and establish itself in independent beer shops and supermarkets across the land speaks volumes for its brewing skill and the quality of its branding.

LOCATION: Alloa, Clackmannanshire


ONE VOTER SAYS: I’ve loved beers such as Grozet for over a decade. The original takes on ancient recipes make it stand-out. Susanna Forbes, Drink Britain

What we did:

We polled over 200 buyers, independents and writers to find their favourite British brewers based on quality and image. They gave a top three with a points value for each, and we added up

the points. Votes were received for 76. As well as the top 10 they were: Adnams, Arbor, Art Brew, Bad Seed, Badger, Beavertown, Belleville, Blue Monkey, Brains, Brew by Numbers, Bristol Beer Factory, Buxton, Byatt’s, Camden Town, Celt Experience, Compass, Crate, Cromarty, Dark Star, Durham, East London, Elixir, Five Points, Five Towns, Grainstore, Great Heck, Gower, Harbour, Hardknott, Harviestoun, Hawkshead, Hobsons, Hop Studio, Innis & Gunn, Jennings, Langton, Long Man, Mad Hatter, Magic Rock, Marble, Marston’s, Meantime, Oakham, Oakleaf, Oldershaw, Partizan, Piddle, Purple Moose, Red Willow, Robinsons, Round Tower, Saltaire, Sharp’s, Siren, Samuel Smith, St Austell, Shotover, Skinners, Surrey Hills, Thwaites, Tickety Brew, Tiny Rebel, Tomas Watkin’s, Wells & Young’s, Wold Top, Wye Valley.

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