Discovering the appeal of real ale

Head brewer Phil Janke from Donnington Brewery

Head brewer Phil Janke from Donnington Brewery - Credit: Archant

Guy Warner finally grows up and discovers the appeal of real ale, sampling some of the best the Cotswolds has to offer

Head brewer Phil Janke from Donnington Brewery

Head brewer Phil Janke from Donnington Brewery - Credit: Archant

‘What’s the matter Lagerboy? Afraid you might taste something?’ taunts the rather intimidating goblin in the adverts for Wychwood’s popular Hobgoblin bitter. Well, yes, actually, I admit, I have always been a little afraid of real ale. It may be sacrilegious to some, but I can unashamedly say that in my youth I gravitated towards lager – mass-produced, insipid in flavour, lacking in depth – for this very reason; beer, back then, was something my dad, my granddad, and the local beardy weirdy drank, and as such, was to be viewed with suspicion by a 20-year-old enjoying a night out with his mates.

In the last 20 or so years, however, something has happened. Something big. Something nobody could have predicted – lager sales have fallen and sales of local ales grown. Microbreweries have popped up all over the country and we now have more breweries in Britain than at any time since the end of the Second World War: well over 1,000. And we clearly like what they’re brewing: sales of ‘live’, cask-conditioned ales, which ferment a second time in the barrel, have surged by 25% over the past five years and there’s been a 17% rise in 18-24 year-olds drinking ale compared to 2010.

One of the reasons for this, I’m convinced, is the breweries’ attempts to reel in a new breed of drinkers. The modern, popular golden ales are familiar to Lagerboy and, dare I add, ladies – reassuringly pale in colour, best served chilled – yet they have all the characteristics and complexity of real ales. Donnington Gold, brewed by Donnington Brewery, just outside of Stow on the Wold is a fantastic example of this and I am a complete convert. The award-winning beer has a beautiful golden hue, a light citrus flavour and a rounded malt finish. It gives you the best of both worlds – a refreshing lager in looks, yet a real ale in substance. I’m personally not a huge fan of dark, traditional ales, but this is like pure nectar to me – I finally ‘get’ what all the fuss is about (just don’t expect me to start growing a beard any time soon!).

Another reason for this ale boom, without doubt, is that beers are following the broader trend in food and drink towards authenticity, tradition, localism and provenance, something we do by the bucket load in the Cotswolds. Donnington Gold is brewed locally, using natural ingredients and traditional methods, and that gives it definite plus points in today’s climate. However, as my head will testify, it may be a purer drink than the mass-produced lager of my youth, but at 4.0%, it still needs careful handling, especially by a supposedly ‘respectable’ 40-something!

Donnington Gold isn’t the only fantastic golden ale brewed locally. There’s the multi award-winning Hooky by Hook Norton Brewery, the award-winning Jouster by Goffs Brewery in Winchcombe, Adam Henson’s Rare Breed and, let me whisper it, Cotswold Lager produced just outside Bourton-on-the-Water, to name but a few. All are available bottled, and have played their part in doing the seemingly impossible – taking the craft of microbreweries to a broader market aimed at younger drinkers, females, and lager drinkers, such as myself.

Yes, Lagerboy may well have grown up in the 21st century, but at least this time round, it’s now considered cool to be drinking real ale. Well, almost – did I really just say the word ‘cool’?!

Donnington Brewery

Donnington Brewery - Credit: Archant

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Pick of the best

Golden Seller: Hooky is a subtly balanced, golden bitter by Hook Norton Brewery in Oxfordshire. It’s hoppy on the nose and malty on the palate, and goes with everything.

Guy’s Favourite: the Donnington Gold by family-owned Donnington Brewery, is an award-winning golden beer with a citrus flavour and a rounded, malt finish.

One to try: Brewed in Winchcombe by Goffs Brewery, the award-winning Jouster is a drinkable, tawny ale with a good balance between bitter and malt and a clean hoppy aftertaste.

Donnington Gold is available from one of Donnington Brewery’s own pubs, online at or Warner’s Budgens stores.


This article by Guy Warner is from the April 2015 issue of Cotswold Life