Can Britain's Craft- and Microbrews Top the Charts Here?

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 25, Issue 5
November 1, 2004 By

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.

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?

I Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Perhaps American beer drinkers have just become too accustomed to British beers. After all, the top selling brands were around long before more exotic imports were readily available. Bass has seemingly been here forever, and even the specialties from Samuel Smith have been around since the late 1970s. When practically every good beer shop has an aisle devoted solely to newer Belgians or American microbrews, it’s easy to see why even the best-known British brands get lost in the shuffle.

Another possibility is that the UK’s classic ale styles have been co-opted by American craft brewers. Pale ale, IPA, brown ale, and porter may be indigenous to the British Isles, but many of the most authentic or boldest examples are now produced domestically.

Alcohol strength is another factor. Britain’s brewers tend to concentrate more on the production of “running” beers below 5% ABV. This makes it more difficult for their everyday beers to stand out against stronger American interpretations, much less powerful Trappists and other strong Belgian ales. Consumers appear less likely to pay premium prices for beers with less of a kick. “There is a great deal more willingness to pay a high price for a 10% Belgian ale than there is to pay just a little extra for a 4.5% ale that is wonderfully subtle and complex,” observed Ron Extract of Shelton Brothers, an importer of European beers.

Finally, there’s the often unspoken issue of product quality. Don’t get me wrong: there is little doubt that almost all of the new British imports are excellent beers when they leave the brewery. But the rigors of travel combined with poor turnover often results in beers being sold in less than optimal condition. Oxidation, which manifests itself in flavors and aromas like cardboard or wet paper, is all too common. And if breweries use green or clear bottles, skunky beer is almost inevitable. Far too many consumers can get burned, getting less than a premium product for a premium price. A recent sampling of British beers conducted for this article demonstrated all too clearly how common this is (see sidebar).

Tainted Love

The passion of the importers is beyond question. All have typically gone to great lengths to identify unique beers and bring them to America. In recent years, B. United International and Shelton Brothers have taken the once unimaginable step of importing casks of real ale on a regular basis. More incredibly, George Saxon of Phoenix Imports bought the Royal Oak and Thomas Hardy’s brands when Eldridge Pope ceased brewing to go into the pub management business. These beers are now contract-brewed in Britain, almost exclusively for the American market.

But the best of intentions do not always translate into commercial success or consistent quality. It’s not enough that a beer has been a consistent award-winner in the UK. To succeed in this market, specialty products must stand out among an increasingly crowded field and also have the durability to survive the inevitable periods of low demand. Importers must identify the right sort of products, package them attractively, and promote them tirelessly. If a beer isn’t moving, they have an obligation to pull old product or at least make suitable arrangements to do so.

The final wild card, as with almost all imported beers, is the care and handling at the point of sale. Most beers should be stored at cellar temperature (55-60°F) for optimal shelf life, but clearly most liquor stores don’t or can’t adhere to this specification. As always, buyers must be extremely careful, inquisitive, and demanding. It’s critical to check “best by” dates and ask store staff about turnover. When possible, choose beer from a sealed case, especially if a specific brand is offered only in clear or green bottles. When beer is displayed on an open shelf, steer clear of any dusty bottles (oldies are not goodies!), and try to select bottles from the back (less likely to be light struck).

Of the latest crop of imports, those with the best durability have tended to follow four basic strategies (or a combination of them):

1. Focus on stronger ales of 6% ABV or higher

2. Emphasize darker styles like old ales, porters, or stouts

3. Choose bottle-conditioned ales when possible

4. Identify beers made with unusual ingredients

London Calling

London brewers Fuller’s and Young’s have adapted especially well to this market, often employing parts of the strategies identified above. Granted, they have also successfully capitalized on their location, given that most anyone who goes to Great Britain stops in London and will have likely seen a Fuller’s or Young’s pub. But their export selections have been particularly suitable for US craft beer drinkers.

Fuller’s ESB was a seminal beer that inspired a generation of home and craft brewers. London Pride, a perfect name for an English beer if ever there was one, has made a more recent appearance, but at an export strength (4.7%, compared to 4% in cask in the UK). Other products, like Fuller’s IPA, London Porter, and Vintage Ale (8.5%, bottle-conditioned), are targeted at the export market and are much more commonly seen in this country than in Britain.

Young’s have also emphasized bigger, stronger beers that are less-often seen in their home market. Special London Ale, a complex and aromatic bottle-conditioned ale, has earned many accolades in the United States. At 6.4%, it has enough oomph to stand up to most American microbrewery pale ales. And beers like their Oatmeal Stout, Old Nick barley wine (7.2%), and ever-popular Double Chocolate Stout have been consistent sellers.

Increasingly, both breweries have also changed their packaging to be more in concert with American preferences. Beers that were once only available in pint bottles can now be purchased in our standard 12-ouncers and six-packs,

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

In the last decade a number of excellent regional brewers, like Batemans and Shepherd Neame, have exported to the United States, but with very mixed results. Shepherd Neame ultimately decided to get out of the US market, and I think the main reason for their limited success here was as clear as their bottles. Consequently, even though its first exports were bottle-conditioned, consumers too often purchased skunky beer. Later exports were pasteurized, but the beers were still susceptible to skunkiness and eventually, as they sat on the store shelves, to oxidation. With two of three beers under 5% ABV, these beers really didn’t have much of a chance for long-term survival.

Those who have stuck it out have had some tough going, but they ultimately have had the right products and strategy. Merchant du Vin has varied very little from Yorkshire’s Samuel Smith line or the strong ales from Scotland’s Traquair House, and these products have survived quite well. They avoided the urge to flood the US with a lot of look-alike products and found unique niches of their own.

What is the future for the latest British imports in the US? Just as over the last 40 years, brands will continue to come and go. Much of this will reflect the continuing consolidation among the largest British brewers and the natural ebbs and flows inherent in microbrewing. The big names obviously have a built-in advantage. They can discount more heavily and get into more markets.

But the most interesting products in Britain are coming from smaller craft and regional breweries. They can overcome their inherent obstacles by choosing the right products for this market, and not going overboard by bringing in too many brand names. Hop Back Summer Lightning, which has radically transformed the image of traditional beer in the UK, has the right sort of characteristics to make a lasting mark in the US. Yet Hop Back has other products coming into the States, and these may be muddying the waters for their flagship brand.

In 20 years, will Summer Lightning be our new standard for British beers? Stranger things have happened. After all, who would have ever thought that 4 mop-headed Liverpudlians would change our lives forever? Americans haven’t yet embraced the new British invaders, but there’s still a chance. We now have a richer beer culture that’s more open to distinctive products from abroad. But we won’t settle for the Bay City Rollers when we can get the Beatles instead. The brewers, importers, and beer store owners must do their part to make sure we’re getting new classics and not one-hit wonders.