We might consider ourselves amateur beer aficionados. At home we try new beers whenever we find them. We seek out specialty bars that import and serve rare beers, and visit back alley wholesale distributors with broad-minded selections. It’s part of a true appreciation of food: good food is made better by a refreshing accompaniment, and a complex, full-bodied beer is just one of the better experiences in life. Prior to this trip, we had very little experience with beers from the UK, but a local beer is the best match for local food, so we jumped in with both feet.
Everyone has tried a variety of German or Belgium beers by now, they are common and widely renowned. In comparison, the UK is mostly known for Guinness, a little less for Fuller’s, Young’s or Boddingtons. With some work you can find good beers from Brit brewers like St. Peters with their excellent Organic Ale, but there just isn’t that broad of a selection or even knowledge of English ales in the States.
We discovered on our trip through England, Scotland and Wales that this seemingly little island is actually home to a surprising diversity of beers, and a rather devoted microbrew culture. It’s actually argued that the term Microbrew comes from the UK. Traditionally, way back when, on this little island and in nearby Europe, Public Houses or “pubs” brewed their own beers.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the UK, larger brewers emerged and began distributing. Most pubs were happy to stop cumbersome in-house brewing and the brewer Pub-Tie (a large brewer finances or owns land then leases to pubs) began. For example, you can find a Fuller’s bar that essentially serves only Fuller’s ales. This would be like Americans finding a bar which serves only Coors’ product, except the beer is better.
Where in America Prohibition put most breweries out of business and only large companies were able to begin or restart after the repeal, the UK carried on uninterrupted. Instead, most small breweries could not compete on size, distribution or the pub-tie system, and died out. Beginning in the 1970s organizations such as CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) and SIBA (Small Independent Brewers Association) began to rise out of public dissatisfaction with limited choice and quality coming from the few large brewers who controlled 80% of pubs (and therefore the market). Microbrews and Free Houses, independent pubs that had no pub-tie, began to grow. In a backlash, the IFBB (Independent Family Brewers of Britain) formed in the 90s to support the pub-tie System; the IFBB is made up of some of the largest brewers such as Young’s and Fullers.
Over the course of this evolution, a diverse, rich and experimental beer culture emerged. A lot of locals brew their own beer, share recipes, start small breweries and wax poetic on the philosophy of good beer.
We had the good fortune to try Porters, Lagers, Stouts, Ales and so on. Beers are brewed with a variety of fruits and spices on top of the vast array of malts, barley or hops. Ginger, coffee, honey, coriander and cinnamon are not uncommon ingredients. Alternately, some brewers take real pride in brewing their beer from only the four traditional parts: barley, yeast, hops and water — a sort of purist beer. Overall, we found English brews to be to luscious, and tasting strongly of fall fruits and herbs. Most Ales have a dark mahogany color.
Traditional English beer styles include Brown Ale, Mild Ale, Old Ale, Bitter Ale and Porter. Brown Ales are on the sweeter side, and feature lower alcohol content. Mild Ales are malty, and well, mild — in alcohol and profile. Alternately, Old Ales are often strong yet malty — you’ll find a lot of bottle-conditioning in this category. Bitter is a broad term, and refers to strongly hopped beers. A Porter, done the British way, is akin to a stout.
An Ale differs from, say, a Lager basically because its fermentation process is carried out at a different temperature for a different period of time. It’s not exactly rocket science, but the styles end up differing quite a bit. Ales are somewhat sweeter than other styles, and brew quite quickly.
If the England’s heritage is in Ale, then its real pride is the Cask Ale. The term “microbrew” originally indicated small brewers with a focus on producing Cask Ales, spurred on by CAMRA’s campaign that this was the only “Real Ale”. Cask Ale is essentially considered the original form of brewing. The Ale is unfiltered, unpasteurized and conditioned, which includes a secondary fermentation, in the cask it is typically served from. The cask is then tapped with a hand pump or gravity pour instead of using any nitrogen or carbon dioxide. This is commonly felt to be the greatest and oldest of traditions — few of the pubs we visited lacked at least one Cask Ale.
The mouthfeel we felt was synonymous with British Ales results from the use of a hand pump tap system, also called a Beer Engine. Unlike pressurized draught taps which dispense carbon dioxide to force the suds out of the keg, hand pumps feature an airtight piston chamber; pulling down on the handle raises the piston which drags up a half pint of beer.
A glass is filled with long slow pulls and the difference is immediately noticeable: a tighter head caps the glass, and the brew tastes far less carbonated, much more velvety. Beers here are served at “cellar temperature,” which is actually lower than we expected — it’s cold, just not ice cold.
If anything, it is the pride of tradition that is so great about the United Kingdom’s brew and pub culture. The history of their beer is tied heavily to the Public House, which was a meeting place, a gathering spot for villagers, friends and family. The result is that these old, distinguished pubs and traditions still remain. Beautiful dark wooden interiors invite with patrons spilling out into the streets and alleys — they can be found anywhere in the country. We loved the ornate beer taps and wooden furniture warped by years of wear and polished by generations of patrons. And best of all were the names of the pubs: harkening back to old slang, local lore, famous natives and most often sounding like titles of some strange British porn.
Where America is young and our experiments range to every type of brew in the world, the British Isles ground their beer, their brewing and their pubs on their heritage and tradition. No country in the world really comes close to the depth and breadth of social interest in brewing and brewers that America and the UK share. Guess the fruit doesn’t fall that far from the tree.
Check out CAMRA’s website for more information about Ale and “Real Ale”
RealAle.com provides a more in depth look at the history of beer in England
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