Culture Shock: British Beers Taking Cues from America
In 2011—which, depending on your relationship to time, was either recently or long ago—I embarked on my maiden voyage to England. I was doing research for the Beer Bible. When I touched down at Heathrow, there were about 20 breweries in London, and I managed to tour a respectable 10 percent of them. And 20 was considered real progress—the number had doubled from its low point five years earlier. Now there are 78. (Note to boosters of my hometown, Portland, OR: We are no longer the most-breweried city on Earth.)
Most of these do not make what Americans understand to be English beer: low-alcohol bitter made with English malt and a lively dusting of Kentish hops. They are versions of what we think of as American beer: super-saturated, strongish beers made with not-always-detectable malts and gobs and gobs of American hops. In 2011, London’s leading champion of this style of beer was the Kernel Brewery, which made (and still makes) ales indistinguishable from those made in the U.S. A recent listing includes these examples: “Pale Ale (Centennial, Chinook, Citra, 5.4%); Pale Ale (Simcoe, Chinook, Kohatu, 5.3%), Pale Ale (Centennial, Mosaic, 5.5%), IPA (Centennial, Mosaic, 7.2%).”
At the time, this was considered fairly radical. (In those distant days of the mid-Obama era.) Early entrants like Meantime were trying to figure out what new London beer might look like and released an IPA that had some elements of the former colony (strength, mainly), but was made with Fuggles and Golding and used a healthy dose of sugar, in the English mode. Brewer Alastair Hook had already been converted to the American way, but he was trying to figure out how to fuse that with traditional English sensibilities.
As is often the case with pioneers, he figured transitioning people over was the way to go. “We’re here to change the way people think about beer. To do that, you’ve got to meet people who don’t drink beer or people who are drinking very poor beer which has no character. They’re the people we focus on. The London Pale Ale and the London Lager are very much stepping stones to the big, weird and wonderful beers that are day-to-day in the States.”
But in fact, even then the Kernel was demonstrating that you didn’t need a bridge: Just brew American beer and they will drink it.
A couple of weeks back, London-based writer Mark Dredge visited Portland to tour our breweries and brought me some local beer. It included some Beavertown and Camden Town offerings—breweries English bloggers have been raving about. They were both excellent. But here’s the thing: There’s nothing about them that said England in the least. They even came in cans, which somehow seems especially American. In fact, dozens of these new, small breweries make American-style beers. Most also make beers that gesture to the older ale tradition, but a few don’t even bother. Consult one of their webpages and the word “American” appears far more often than “English” or “British.”
If you read the English beer blogs, you’ll find mention of cask ale is nearly absent. When someone does bring up the topic, it is usually provoked by some recent outrage by the Campaign For Real Ale, England’s cask-ale defenders who often chafe at the “keg-beer” phenomenon. (A blind alley that involves the nature of authenticity, heritage and obscure culturally specific arguments into which we shall not wander.) Otherwise, cask ale seems to be considered a boring old expression of the beer arts best left to men in tweed caps.
For the American beer enthusiast, this presents a quandary. It’s great that people love our beer. Flattering. And yet it upsets the balance of things. We are the great cultural imperialists, readily adopting the cuisines, beverages and holidays of other countries. It seems like a minor crime to us, because we’re not displacing an old and august culture when we do. Nearly all our traditions are imported. But when other countries begin to abandon their cultural artifacts, we get anxious. Put another way: Besotted with hops, we might not be drinking English cask ale, but we damn well expect the English to keep up the tradition. It’s completely unfair and completely American to hold this view.
I have another, more personal reason for being unsettled. I do like cask beer. Given the choice, I would take a fresh, cask London Pride over 95 percent of the American IPAs brewed today. Cask bitter is one of the titanic achievements in brewing, and a good example is one of the finest beers on earth. And yet it is not for an American to dictate the terms of English beer culture. If the English—or British, because the phenomenon is true across the island—want to drink super hoppy IPAs made with Yakima hops, we Americans have very little say in the matter. And even though our beers may have been the source of inspiration, we also have no say over whether these are “British” beers or not. Culture evolves as it evolves.
There is one happy footnote to add to all this. The new London breweries have rediscovered porter and stout, and many make them. Porter, the world’s first super-style, a London original, once went extinct in the city, so its return is enormously satisfying to this American. Culture restored! Dredge also brought me porters from Kernel and Beavertown, and they were wonderful.