I’ve checked in to my flight, my luggage is almost packed and, in the morning, I’ll be headed to Heathrow Airport. After that? Denver, Colorado. A quick check of my phone and I’ve been messaged by some friends over in the Centennial State: “Can you bring some Cloudwater?” And so, off to my local bottle shop I plod, in search of shiny cans decked in pastel tones.
Although this desire from American consumers to experience the cutting edge of modern British beer is a relatively recent phenomenon, it feels significant—as though the UK industry has begun to earn the mutual respect of its neighbors across the pond.
“Trips to the U.S. are opportunities to see worlds beyond my vision, whilst trips to the rest of the UK and Europe are great to see into the depths of our noble traditions, and to help support fledgling modern beer scenes,” Cloudwater’s founder and director Paul Jones says. “It's vital that I regularly expose myself to anything that helps me determine what is likely to work well for us, our customers, and for the UK beer industry as a whole.”
According to Jones, he’ll spend on average 2-3 months in the U.S. per year for research and development purposes—attending conferences, festivals, and brewing collaborations. In addition to this, he’ll spend a couple months on the road visiting Europe and other UK cities away from his business’ home in Manchester. By building a bigger picture of the global industry at large, he’s able to nurture a far more focused vision for his own brewery in turn. But it’s something he personally sees as benefitting the UK industry as a whole, and not just Cloudwater.
“The UK scene is peppered with people who liked things as they were, and who can feel challenged by the industry at its most modern,” Jones says. “Early trips to the U.S. filled me with a confidence and vision for how the industry could positively evolve that I struggled to find at home.”
The British beer industry has experienced a boom in its modern era that's not unlike what's been happening in the U.S. The United Kingdom now recognizes more than 2,000 breweries, the second highest amount in the world after the United States, and reportedly the highest per capita. But this industry is still dwarfed by that of its American counterpart, which is home to bordering on 7,000 breweries and still rising.
Many within this new wave of British breweries were directly inspired by the progression and evolution witnessed within the U.S. beer industry. Whether it’s the culture fostered at taprooms, business savvy ideas such as own-premise retail, or technical achievements (from dry hopping ratios to biotransformation), British brewers have loads of it. And it's a point that runs adjacent to the story told by many U.S. breweries founded in the 1980s and '90s, who took their inspiration from classic British ales. There's a cyclical, almost-symbiotic relationship between these neighboring industries.
Observing how the American beer industry goes about its business—and how, in turn, consumers respond to it—continues to be critical for British breweries. Events such as invitational festivals organized by the likes of Firestone Walker and distributors such as Shelton Brothers have proved to be ideal observation points. In turn, it’s at these events that traveling Brits form close bonds with their U.S. peers. This spurs future collaborations, and visits returned in kind at events such as The London Craft Beer Festival and at Beavertown’s Extravaganza.
“[When I started Beavertown], I looked across the pond at the U.S. community. Breweries like Dogfish, Stone, Russian River, Firestone Walker were my idols and inspiration,” The London-based brewery’s owner Logan Plant says. “I was invited to serve my beer at the British Consulate in Washington DC during the 2013 Craft Brewers Conference. Within seconds of those initial conversations in the U.S., it felt like I had absorbed so much. There’s something about craft beer and the culture and its encompassing community over there. I’d never felt anything like it before.”
But how does heading over to the U.S. to pour a few beers and make new friends translate into tangible experiences that can benefit your business back home? A small brewery trying to make serious inroads into U.S. distribution would find it both costly and challenging. The real value in a small British brewer sending beer to the States is having the excuse to go out there and pour it, absorbing as much of the culture and knowledge from the largest brewing industry in the world.
“The U.S. craft beer market is still more advanced than it is here in the UK,” Plant says. “We are catching up quickly, but I feel if I can bring back a nugget or two from a Stateside trip and apply to the world of Beavertown, then that can only be a positive to us, and hopefully the UK craft beer market as a whole.”
Another British brewer that has applied insight from the U.S. market to its practice is Yorkshire’s Magic Rock. American influence was in plain sight from its launch in 2011, with a core range featuring beers such as High Wire Pale Ale and Cannonball IPA, directly inspired by the Californian West Coast. Founder Richard Burhouse has continued to visit the U.S. as his brewery has evolved and expanded, with events like Shelton’s Festival and Cigar City’s Hunahpu’s Day continuing to fuel that inspiration.
“It’s difficult to put a fiscal value on our attendance of U.S. festivals, but there are other ways to take value from the trips—visiting other breweries and beer venues to find out what they’re doing is always valuable,” Burhouse says. “Festivals are a great opportunity for sharing ideas, and we’ve made many new friends this way over the last few years. We will also fit in a collaboration or two while we are visiting. Those connections are valuable in getting our name known to drinkers in new markets.”
The result of British brewers taking the time to acquire knowledge from their U.S. counterparts is that the modern British beer is no longer just a little window dressing in the frame of the much larger U.S. industry. Putting my earlier anecdote about picking up a few Cloudwater cans for Coloradoan friends to one side, we’re seeing greater amounts of British brewers listed at U.S. festivals and an increasing amount at large-scale industry events like the Craft Brewers Conference. Plucky young UK breweries are also picking up accolades at the Brewers Association's World Beer Cup, even in categories with fierce domestic competition like IPA.
“[CBC] was eye-opening, inspirational, and it ignited new fires within all of us,” Beavertown’s Plant says. “We sent six members of the team out there, each coming at the experience from different angles but with the overall unified dream of making what we do at Beavertown something unique and stimulating.”
Thanks to the gradual construction of transatlantic relationships, the U.S. industry is perhaps more engaged in British beer than it has ever been. The days of a token line dedicated to the likes of, say, Old Speckled Hen or Sam Smith’s Oatmeal Stout as the sum total representation of British beer culture in the U.S. may be slowly fading. And it's instead replaced with a curious interest in what has become an exciting beer market.
For Greg Engert, owner of celebrated DC beer bar Churchkey, showcasing a range of British beers has often been a way of generating a little extra excitement amongst his customers. However, despite this growing interest in the UK’s new wave of brewers, there is evidently still plenty of love for the classics. The appeal of classic British styles is still something Engert says his customers are drawn to. Add this to the fact that many of the hoppier offerings sent over the pond simply won’t hold up to the fresher offerings from their U.S. counterparts, and you can start to build a picture of how difficult it might be for a modern British brewer to gain a foothold within the American market.
“I tend to focus on pouring classic British styles from established brewers, along with and the modern expressions of said styles produced by the new guard,” Engert says. “We are awash in hops Stateside, so these styles provide welcome variation.”
Bars like Churchkey framing British beer in a more classic light doesn’t put a dent in the efforts made by breweries like Cloudwater to showcase the more vibrant side of modern British brewing. Perhaps finding the subtle nuances between modern styles fashioned by British and American brewers alike will be the next great challenge for UK breweries eyeing the U.S. market.
“U.S. consumers don't have good or regular access to modern UK beer, so they're often surprised at just how up-to-date beer is from the UK,” Cloudwater’s Jones says. “Being one of a few or, in some cases, the only UK brewery pouring at an event or festival works out well for those consumers bent on trying something distinctly modern.”
For modern British brewers making curious forays into the U.S. market, there’s also the challenge of balancing this desire to explore with staying connected to your local trade. Like in the U.S., British beer consumers are fiercely fickle. In a market of more than 2,000 breweries with an intensely compact infrastructure, it doesn’t take much before consumers are drawn toward the next big thing. However, channeling all of the energy and experience gleaned from research trips across the pond could actually be the key toward sustaining that interest—as well as improving existing attitudes within the UK beer market.
“My biggest worry is succumbing to too much influence from all the people here in the UK that tell us we are wrong, or are on the wrong path, or that we won’t succeed,” Jones says. “When I spend time in the U.S., I get to tune into an energy and focus on modern beer that is the foundation of what sets that scene apart, and it fills me with just enough confidence to come back home and make a difference.”