Good Beer Hunting

Behind the Curtain — Dissecting American Resistance to Modern British Beer

There’s a belief among some American beer enthusiasts that British beer can be separated into two distinct parts. In one circle of this unholy Venn diagram sits cask ale—not any specific style like Bitter or Mild or whatever, just a dispense method that people all over the world consider to be the quintessential element of British beer tradition. On the other is our modern beer scene—wholly inspired by trips to the U.S., or nights sampling months-old imports that were probably better left gathering dust on a shelf. You’ve probably heard of Beavertown or Cloudwater, especially after last week's news. Anyway, they just make New England IPAs and Pastry Stouts. Probably.

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You might be surprised—or not, if you're familiar with other posts on this very blog—to hear that this isn't an accurate interpretation of the modern British beer scene. The reality is that the UK beer market is arguably the most diverse behind the U.S. Sure, we don’t boast nearly 7,000 breweries—that would be ridiculous here on our little island the size of Michigan. But we do have more than 2,000 and rising. Almost twice as many as the third country in that league table, Germany. In fact, if you combine the number of breweries in the UK and the U.S., then the total accounts for almost half of the breweries on the entire planet.

The world outside of America is fascinated by its beer to the point where it's transforming that culture globally. People are making killer West Coast IPA in Poland, tasty Gose in Brazil, and elegant Saison in Vietnam. And it's because of America that those traditional international styles are being brewed the world over. In Copenhagen, Denmark, you can get a tray of authentic Texan style barbecue at WarPigs and wash it down with a pint of what is, for my money, one of the best American-style IPAs you can experience outside of America. In fact, to me, Copenhagen’s modern beer scene feels very much like a little America. It’s an intense summation of how the U.S. has changed the face of beer worldwide.

This has happened because the U.S. craft beer explosion is the most compelling thing the industry has seen in living memory. All those that visit the U.S. in search of beer do so wide-eyed and brimming with fascination. We're desperate to seek out rare brews and stuff suitcases with cans and bottles to horde or share with friends back home. In fact it’s not just that beer culture, it’s the entire food and drink culture.

My issue is that I don’t see Americans approaching global beer culture with the same youthful enthusiasm as they get to experience from their own visitors. Instead, they gaze upon international beer culture through rose-tinted spectacles. They lap up tradition as opposed to innovation when, in truth, the best way to experience beer culture is at the center, where those two circles overlap. I worry this close-minded attitude means that they don’t get to witness the exuberance of global beer culture in the same way as we do their own.

Too often do I see Americans coming to London excited about drinking lots of “cask ale.” Nothing specific, just “cask ale.” Of course, the UK has a wealth of amazing places to drink cask beer—it’s the differentiator that, for many years, has ensured British beer culture is one worth celebrating. You should know that most great cask beer is not within easy reach of Heathrow Airport, however. And, unfortunately, this misconception can often lead to bad experiences with sub-par beer in Central London tourist traps. They're the kind of places that have given us an unrelentingly annoying reputation for serving warm beer. Here’s a little secret: we don’t like warm beer. No one likes warm beer.

Cask ale is so much more than a pint of Fuller's London Pride or ESB (although, in peak condition, both are things of great beauty). The majority of Britain’s breweries package in cask (including some of its youngest and most innovative), which means you can experience a wealth of Pale Ales, Porters, Stouts, Saisons, and so much more via this dispense method. And yes, you can even get New England IPA in cask. A handful of them are quite good, actually.

But things have changed quite a bit, and there’s now far more to British beer than just cask ale. We’ve now got brewers making some of the most sumptuous, crispy Pilsners out there. Brand new coolships are being installed in British breweries for the first time in almost seven decades. I happen to think we're making some of the best IPAs in the world—and I'm a bit of an obsessive when it comes to that kind of beer. As in the U.S., there are few boundaries here when it comes to brewing, but this does not mean that every single new brewery is throwing chicken nuggets into the mash tun.

America has helped transform the world’s beer culture without diluting the value of its history or tradition. If you're reading this from the United States, you should be very proud of that. But when you visit the UK—and you really should—take off that blindfold and try and experience as much of our beer culture as you can, new and old. I promise that enjoying one will not take away from your experience of the other. Embrace the nontraditional and, who knows, you might just find a little fresh inspiration to take home for yourself.