Forty years ago, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and the British music invasion was on. Since then, many bands and performers from all rock music genres have crossed the pond and achieved success in the USA. Comparatively few groups, however, were able to achieve the widespread and enduring acceptance of the Fab Four. For every immortal like the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, or the Who, there were dozens of now-obscure flashes in the pan and one-hit wonders. But together, they rejuvenated American music and became an indelible part of our culture.
Britain’s styles gained new admirers, especially once our new brewers revived them with uniquely American ingredients and verve.
The British Invasion wasn’t just limited to music. Soon it seemed that almost everything British became a hot commodity—James Bond, The Avengers, Carnaby Street, Twiggy, mini skirts, Kings Road Chelsea, Monty Python, and even Benny Hill. The United States may have been born in a rebellion against Great Britain, but now almost anything from the mother country was chic.
Beer was an entirely different matter. There was Bass Ale, of course. The classic English pale ale was popular here even before imported beer became the rage. But, in general, British beer continued to bear the mythological “warm and flat” image brought back by American servicemen from the Second World War. Music, movies, and television shows were one thing, but beer was something entirely different. In America we apparently still liked our beers yellow, cold, and fizzy. End of story, right?
The emergence of craft brewing in the United States kindled a new-found appreciation of the complex flavors and aromas of many classic beer styles. Britain’s styles gained new admirers, especially once our new brewers revived them with uniquely American ingredients and verve.
Meanwhile, British brewing did not stand still, either. As the largest breweries continued to push increasingly bland products or exit the business completely, smaller regional and family brewers rededicated themselves to traditional cask beers. By the turn of the 21st century, they had been joined by a surging number of microbreweries to outpace the few remaining multinational giants in the production of cask ales. Today, Britain is overflowing with new beers of high complexity and quality. A growing number of them have been showing up on our shores.
You Say You Want A Revolution
Beer lovers in America now have access to a selection of British brands that was simply unfathomable in 1964. But despite this development, the prevailing view of British beer in this country remains remarkably out-of-date. It’s as if we stopped listening to rock music after the Beatles broke up. People still ask about old “classics” like Watney’s Red Barrel or Double Diamond, brands that haven’t been produced in eons. In musical parlance, it’s like talking about Herman’s Hermits, the Dave Clark 5, or Freddie and The Dreamers, as if Bowie, Costello, or the Clash had never existed. All is not just Bass Ale and Newcastle Brown. The fact is, we’re actually in the midst of an unparalleled British beer invasion, with choices that couldn’t be imagined just a few years ago.
Walk into a decent beer store these days and the selection of British brands can bowl you over. Next to some familiar names like Fuller’s, Young’s, and Samuel Smith are lesser-knowns (at least in the USA) like Adnams, Black Sheep, Broughton, Caledonian, Coniston, Felinfoel, Greene King, Hook Norton, Hop Back, Moorhouse’s, O’Hanlon’s, Orkney, Frederic Robinson’s, St. Peter’s, Charles Wells, and Wychwood. And not all of these are standard pale ales. There are golden summer ales bursting with hop character; low and high gravity milds; powerful old and winter ales; porters and stouts; wheat and rye ales; Scottish wee heavies and English barley wines. There are even ales brewed with heather, spruce, and gooseberry. Clearly these are not your father’s British ales.
But, truth be told, our purchasing patterns have yet to catch up with all these new choices. When we opt for a British beer, we’re just as likely to go for the more established names. Beyond Bass and Newcastle, the top sellers come from familiar old friends Samuel Smith’s, Fuller’s and Young’s. Interest in imported beers is booming, yet many magnificent British ales are gathering dust on the shelves, and we’re not talking one-hit wonders here. Why is this?