Ryan Witter-Merithew shrugs his shoulders. How does a North Carolinian end up brewing in an English village? It doesn’t seem that odd to him. “I wanted to see the world, I wanted to travel,” he says. “When I was in high school I wanted to join the Navy or the Air Force, anything that would give me to an opportunity to travel.
“It’s a good opportunity to be a part of an emerging beer scene, as opposed to the States, where its already happened. You don’t make your mark as easily in the U.S. as you can in Europe.”
Witter-Merithew, the head brewer at Siren in Finchampstead, Berkshire, is not alone: British brewing is now full of enterprising Americans. A visit to one of London’s growing breed of beer shrines will confirm that. If there’s nothing from Siren, there’ll be a beer from Moor, the Somerset brewery where Californian Justin Hawke holds sway, or Lovibonds, the Henley brewery run by Wisconsin’s Jeff Rosenmeier. Then there might be something from Wild Beer Co., the West-Country stronghold of another Californian, the aptly-named Brett Ellis.
You might even spot something from one of London’s newer small breweries, like Shamblemoose—run by Wyoming’s Lera O’Sullivan—or Hoppy Collie, which is operated by Travis Mooney, also Californian.
What all these expat entrepreneurs have in common is a clear-minded notion of what British beer is, and what it could be. They don’t necessarily share the same vision; they’re working both with and against British tradition, sometimes at the same time. Collectively, they’re helping to change the face of British beer.
Take Hawke, who took charge at Moor in 2007. A former homebrewer, he has earned a reputation for producing low-alcohol, highly-hopped pale ales. One of them, Revival, took silver in the bitters category at last year’s Great British Beer Festival—a triumph that Hawke, 42, is very proud of. His success in fusing the potency of American hops with British session-drinking tradition led to an approach from Charles Faram, the United Kingdom’s leading hop merchants, when they had a new British-grown variety which they wanted a brewer to try out.
The hop was called Jester, and the resultant beer, ‘Empire Strikes Back’, hinted at a future for the beleaguered English hop industry (there are only 2,500 acres of hops grown in the United Kingdom now, compared to more than 30,000 in the United States) beyond varieties like Goldings and Fuggles.
It’s something Hawke would clearly love to see. “One of the key reasons I got involved with the project is that I try to keep things local,” he says. “Our malt, for example, comes from Tuckers Maltings [in Devon, which borders Somerset]; it’s some of the best in the world.
“We also source some of the best, most flavorful hops in the world—which comes from the Southern Hemisphere or America. It’s unfortunate to have to bring ingredients in from thousands of miles away; If we can have that flavor with a local ingredient, that’s great.”
Although the beer didn’t carry the same hop-punch as Citra, say, or Nelson Sauvin, there was enough there to induce optimism. (A few months after Empire Strikes Back was launched, London brewers Pressure Drop produced a beer with another new English hop – simply known as OZ97a—which, flavor-wise, was a further step along the road).
“It was exceedingly popular,” says Hawke of Empire Strikes Back. “It got people inspired. If we can breed hops with a similar impact to the citric, tropical hops that are in favor, but which bring other flavor and aroma compounds, then that’s exciting.”
For all the value in this project, though, Hawke is probably best known in the United Kingdom for refusing to add isinglass finings (a product derived from the swim bladder of certain fish, which speeds up the clearing process) to his beer.
“We’re making great strides in convincing people,” he says. “At the end of last year, we switched over to being 100 percent unfined. As a result, our sales went up. Most of the resistance has dropped away because people can see the beer is better.
“The icing on the cake for me was last year’s Great British Beer Festival when, for the first time I’m aware of, an unfined beer went forward to a national CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) judging and was judged the silver medal in the bitters category, the toughest category. For CAMRA to recognize a cloudy, unfined beer is pretty amazing. That would have never happened even a year earlier.”
Hawke is right. It’s a sign of how beer is evolving in the United Kingdom that even in that bastion of British tradition—CAMRA—there is a growing acceptance that things can be done differently. And radically differently, too: like at the Wild Beer Co., another Somerset concern where an American is head brewer.
Head chef might be a more suitable description. Brett Ellis, 28, was a cook in his native state before he came to the United Kingdom with his British girlfriend back in 2007. He didn’t have a visa that would allow him to work nor the contacts to get unpaid restaurant work in his new home city, Bristol, so he decided to try homebrewing. He wanted to work out why St Austell’s Tribute, for example, tasted different from Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. He was soon hooked.
Some years—and a job at his adopted city’s foremost brewery, the Bristol Beer Factory—later, he and fellow former BBF man Andrew Cooper are in charge at Wild Beer Co. The brewery is a product of their joint obsession with wild yeast.
“Before I went to Bristol Beer Factory, I hadn’t really had it [wild beer] before,” he says. “ I started reading about it, learning about it—and then Chris Kay [head brewer at BBF], gave me a bottle of Cantillon, and Andrew got me a bottle of Gale’s Prize Old Ale, from 2006. We also had a bottle of La Roja from Jolly Pumpkin … that decided it. I was like, ‘let’s do this!’”
It’s a project that allows Brett to be as creative as he wants. One recent brew involved a 58-year-old sourdough starter from a British baker, Tom Herbert of Hobb’s House. “I brewed a Berliner Weisse with some spelt and wheat and barley,” says Ellis. “Then I put it straight into oak barrels from the kettle. We pitched it with some Brettanomyces and the Hobb’s House sour starter.
“It’s 100 percent barrel-fermented, it hasn’t seen any stainless steel. It’s been in for about month and a half at the moment. There’s a soft, round acidity—it is very pale and peachy. That’s one that will come out in the next three months.”
This unusual approach (while sour and barrel-aged beers are increasingly popular in the United Kingdom, they are a long, long way from the mainstream) has opened up a new market, Ellis believes. “It’s people who don’t drink beer,” he says. “The people that really want our beer are people who like flavor, people who pay attention to what they eat. The people who want free-range eggs, not just eggs.
“In this country the tradition is great; beer is a humble drink and its every person’s drink. But that’s where my American-ness comes in—I don’t have a tradition, we’re inspired by the whole world. We’re inspired by tradition but we’re not honing in on it.”