Your tipple of choice can say an lot about you, despite the associations being based on little more than myth and cliché. Enthusiasts of red wine are applauded for being chic while someone who orders whiskey on the rocks might be mistaken for being a little bit dangerous.
But what about beer drinkers? And we're talking about real ale here, not its slightly more racy rival, lager. Ale is drunk by old men with a misguided penchant for socks and sandals, right? It is enjoyed by chaps who stop off in a country pub for a quick refreshment in between maybe a hike, or say, some birdwatching. There's certainly nothing cool or sexy about real ale and besides, nobody really drinks it any more, do they?
Not quite. Statistics tell a very different story. Real ale is enjoying a huge revival in the UK and is rapidly shedding its beardy image. The Cask Report – Britain's National Drink, which was published earlier this week, reports that despite declining total beer sales and a number of pub closures, cask ale has outperformed the rest of the beer market for the third year running and grew its drinker base by 1.4 per cent. Some 121,000 people started drinking cask ale over the past year, taking the total number to over 8.6 million; 3,000 more pubs started selling cask ale and it now accounts for about one in every six pints sold in UK pubs.
One of the most astonishing figures is that younger people and women are getting into real ale, too. The number of 18 to 24-year-old cask drinkers grew by 17 per cent.
My experience of real ale consists of a few stolen sips from my father's pint during my childhood. I don't know anything about the stuff and I wouldn't consider ordering it (mine's a glass of sauvignon blanc, thanks). But am I missing out? I'll happily drink the odd lager; why not a real ale? With a bit of help and the right instruction, could I, too, learn to love the cask ale?
The White Horse pub in Parsons Green, London, boasts one of the biggest real ale ranges in the country, so I head down there to find out more about why ale is an increasingly popular choice. I'm given a quick run down by the general manager, Dan Fox, about the differences between lager and ale. Lager is served at between three and five degrees and carbonated, while ale is served between 12 and 14 degrees with only a slight, natural carbonation. Both are made from malted barley, hops, water and yeast, but the fermentation process is different. Fox insists, "It involves a lot more skill to make and serve ale rather than lager. Ale has a shelf life and will go off a lot quicker, lagers tend to be pasteurised.
"You can get a lot more styles of ale than you can do styles of lager. Anything from a draught stout to blonde summer ales. You're going to get a lot more flavour drinking a pint of ale than you would do lager."
Asked why ale is having a renaissance, Fox believes we can look across the pond for answers. "It's driven by the American craft brewing scene, which is quite slick, dynamic and funky. It's not gender biased, male or female. Beer is cool in the States.
"The UK has recently started making some really great beers. They're slightly more challenging and interesting and that's been driving sales. There are more breweries in the UK than there's been since the First World War. People are drinking ale and getting excited about it."
Other industry experts have their own opinion as to why ale is having a revival. Roger Protz, author of a number of books on beer and an early member of the Campaign for Real Ale tells me: "One factor is price. Beer in pubs is so expensive; if you're going out for a couple of pints you want something memorable or at least tasteful rather than industrial lager. People are rejecting mass-produced, heavily advertised beers. There's also a green element. People are concerned about how food and drink is made and where it comes from and they're sceptical about beers with fancy French, Belgian or German names which are not brewed in those countries. Stella Artois sounds French, but it's a Belgian beer brewed in Wales. People suss these things out. They begin to lose credibility."
A pint of ale from a local brewery has a third of the carbon footprint of a bottle of imported lager and eco credentials are beneficial for products at the moment.
Melissa Cole, a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers and author of the popular blog, Girls' Guide to Beer believes: "For the younger market, they've grown up with a certain amount of wine knowledge from being taught by their parents, so looking into cask ale is a new and exciting way for them to discover flavours and tastes.
"And with the general downslide in sweet drinks and alcopops, it has become something for young people to be a bit cool about, to mark themselves out as being different."
Cole runs a tour group for women at the Great British Beer Festival. "That way, they can enjoy beers but they get taught by me so they don't get patronised and told that the pink one is for them." She also founded the beer-tasting experience lovebeer@borough, and has seen a shift in the demographic of those attending, from almost exclusively men three years ago when she started, to now being roughly a balance of the sexes.
In the chilly beer cellar at the White Horse, I'm given a tasting session in real ale varieties – who knew there were so many? Harveys Sussex Best Bitter is the pub's bestselling ale, with between 1,000 and 1,500 pints sunk each week. With a 4 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume), it is a fairly typical ale: warm with a balanced, fresh, hoppy taste; it reminds me of my father.
There is the Jeffrey Hudson Bitter, which is one of the more recent golden ales. It has a similar colour to lager and is therefore encouraging more people to try ale. It's a popular draw for the younger crowd. It has a clean and crisp taste but it feels a bit like drinking a flat lager, until you get used to it and appreciate the full-bodied flavour.
Thornbridge Halcyon has a 7.7 per cent ABV and has a much stronger taste. With its pungent, fruity flavours, it tastes nothing like what I would expect an ale to be like.
Finally, I try a Rudgate Ruby Mild, a refreshing, heavily roasted malt. This "cask mild" is another ale popular among 18 to 35-year-olds due to it having fewer hops and therefore a less bitter taste. It's a nutty, rich, easy-drinking ale and my favourite.
I have to say, I'm pleasantly surprised with what's on offer. I had no idea there were so many types of ale and some are really delicious. I might consider ordering one on a wintry afternoon some time but as far as drinking it on a night out, I'm pretty sure people would find me a bit, well, strange. However, Fox believes that more women might be encouraged to drink it if they could stock more elegant glasses, something he hopes the industry will look at. Fox acknowledges that ale has an image problem and believes it is because few breweries do any marketing. "The entire marketing budget is the clip that gets put on the front of the tap on the bar," he observes.
He bemoans many of the dreary, old-fashioned clips that are on offer from British brewers. American brewers, he argues, have much more exciting logos. He even shows me one designed by Ralph Steadman.
There are a few well-known faces helping to change ale's tired image. The film director Guy Ritchie (no socks and sandals beardy) has installed a microbrewery at his Wiltshire estate. Even Gwyneth Paltrow is said to enjoy the odd pint of it.
Everyone I speak to in the beer industry is hugely excited about this turnaround in growth and who knows, with a little bit of work on its image and the right marketing, perhaps a refreshing glass of real ale could be the drink of choice for the stylish and hip.
BEER FOR BEGINNERS, BY ROGER PROTZ
MILD Britain's most popular beer until the 1950s and staging a comeback. Usually dark brown, it's comparatively low in alcohol and gently hopped but is easy-drinking with pleasing chocolate, roasted grain and toffee notes from darker malts.
BITTER Copper or bronze-coloured, it's heavily hopped – hence the name – but the bitterness is balanced by biscuity malt and citrus fruitiness from hops and yeast. Best bitter is a stronger version.
IPA AND PALE ALE India Pale Ale transformed brewing in the 19th century. It was brewed for the Raj while Pale Ale was a less aggressively hopped version for the domestic market. In the doldrums for years, IPA has made a spirited return to popularity.
PORTER AND STOUT Porter, a dark, well-hopped and refreshing beer, was developed early in the 18th century in London to refresh porters plying their trade on the streets and the docks. The strongest was Stout Porter, reduced to just Stout. There are now many British rivals to Irish Stout.
GOLDEN ALE A successful 1990s introduction by craft brewers to wean younger drinkers off industrial lagers. A high level of refreshment with a rich, honeyed malt character balanced by fruity hops.
OLD ALE AND BARLEY WINE Two ancient styles revived to acclaim, rich and warming. Old Ale indicates a beer matured for months. Barley Wine rivals fruit wine in its strength and complexity of flavours.
WHEAT BEER A German speciality, British craft brewers have taken it up. Despite the name, it is made from barley and wheat malts. It's lightly hopped to bring out the fruity flavours of wheat – spot cloves, banana, even Juicy Fruit bubble gum.
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