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Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Different View From London

A couple of days ago, I posted a piece on All About Beer wherein I mentioned with some alarm the ubiquity of American-style beers in London.  I specifically name-checked The Kernel, and yesterday one of the brewers, Toby Munn, left a really thoughtful comment on the blog.  With his permission, I'm reprinting it in full.


I commented on your All About Beer page, but I like repeating myself. This is just regarding point 1. These are all valid points, and your concern over the health of British cask beer is not insignificant. But, I would like to point out that, although there are a few breweries and a few beers that are attracting headlines, there are still a huge amount of beers produced that are quintessentially British.

This is just my tiny little opinion, but I happen to think that the influx of outside influence is good for traditional beers and breweries. I think that the younger/newer drinkers are bringing with them a different, critical look to beers. On the one hand, traditional brewers are concerned that newer drinkers are just after a 'grapefruit hit' in their beers, and concerned with only IBUs and intensity of flavours. In the short term, this may be true, sadly. Long term, I think that these newer drinkers will understand more about the technicalities about what makes beer great, and the subtleties that makes beer great. To reference a post that I think is perhaps relevant, and almost certainly true.  [Note: Toby added that link, not me.]

I think that the introduction of these different styles and new flavours is only a good thing. These modern drinkers will have a fuller and more rounded view and opinion of beers, and are more critical in general. If we are to follow trends of the US, we will see that producers of truly great beer are in demand. This, I think, will happen here in the UK, and elsewhere. Actually, it is evident already.

The problem with many indigenous beers, whether in Britain, Germany, or, especially, Belgium, is that, after years and years of little progression, the only point of difference has been price point, and the only change has been a deterioration in standard. There are many traditional beers and breweries that are truly awful. And there are many that have stuck to their principals and are outstanding. I think with the newer drinkers, armed with more discerning taste buds, will raise the expectation of what good beer should be, irrespective of style, and make our tiny little world of beer a better place. Other opinions are, of course, available.

When you came to Britain in 2011, I am sure that you found many beers that were dreadful. Just because it is served from a cask does not make it good. Similarly, just because a beer is doused in Mosaic is no guarantee that it is any good.

Your concern for traditional styles is valid. It is not insignificant. But I believe that your concern will be proved to be moot.



  1. Interesting discussion, and well-worded response from Toby. However, even before the interest in APA there were signs surely that the British were losing interest in their classic styles of bitter and mild beers. One index was the giant share of the overall market taken by lager since the 1960's. Another, or which runs in parallel, is the significant drop in native hop production in England from past generations. (See Stan Hieronymous's book on this). Another is the subsistence of keg ales of one sort or another including draft Guinness. in my view, the British were losing interest in one of the great gastronomic specialties in the world, classic bitter and mild made with English hop varieties (mostly) and reliant for a good part of the mash bill on malt from from English barley.

    The turn to U.S. styles - ironic since in turn these were mostly attempts to emulate the best of the U.K. tradition I refer to - is salutary as long as it does not replace the native tradition. As Jeff says, a foreigner makes this suggestion with care since the tradition is not his to lose, but still. The analogy is not the same but still I am reminded of what Michael Jackson wrote in the 1970's, that the keg beer of the day was no objectionable in and of itself until the genuine naturally-conditioned beer of which it was an imitation became unavailable due to the onset of the newcomer.

    If all this encourages more interest in good beer though, which is where Toby is going in his remarks, that's fine: perhaps that will be the outcome here. Ditto for a renewed interest by the English in their own hop productions (provided they don't start growing only C hops, Amarillo, Mosaic, and Saphir!).

    And Jeff, of course North Americans did the same thing to themselves 100 years ago, they started to replace traditional European styles of beer that had implanted here with bland adjunct lager and succeeded to a point that most beer by 1976 was indistinguishable in taste… So we've been there, eh, but at the same time it makes gentle cautions to our British cousins salutary.

    Gary Gillman

  2. It is not without irony that a British brewery that is a primary supplier of "American-style beers in London" defends and rationalises his actions.

    As it happens, I often visit London specifically for the purpose of drinking beer. I have a good friend in London (with no connection to the brewing industry) who takes me on wonderful pub crawls. Most of the pubs we go to are more than 100 years old (some much older than 100) and all serve Real Ale, which is what we drink.

    It is absolutely not true that American-style beers are ubiquitous in London. In my experience, you need to seek them out. Something that I do not do.

    It is quite true that if you consult Ratebeer or Beeradvocate for pub recommendations in London (or anywhere else for that matter), most of the highest rated pubs will offer American-style beers. Not at all illogical considering that the vast majority of users of those sites are themselves American.

    While it is true that the traditional British drink (ale) was put in jeopardy by the influx of lager, it was NOT American-style beers that rescued tradition, it was CAMRA, in the 1970s.

    One thing that people who speak about "younger/newer drinkers" never seem to mention is that, by definition, these drinkers are inexperienced. And as all of us who were young once may well remember how determined we were not to follow in our father's or grandfather's footsteps. So, pizza beer? Definitely not something our fathers would like, therefore, how bad could it be?

    I think it's also true that when we were young, our tastes were quite different from when we got older. How many of us did not like sweet candy, sweet chocolate, popcorn, hot dogs, lots of ketchup or mustard, etc.? So, it is not so surprising that inexperienced drinkers find beers with strong flavours to their liking.

    In the Netherlands and Belgium, there are a number of breweries that were only started in the last few years. One of the best (in my opinion) is de Dochter van de Korenaar. Another is Scheldebrouwereij. And de Schans. All of these breweries, AFAIK, make European style beers for the local market.

    Some years ago, I was at the Old Brewery in London with a friend who knew the brewer. The brewer kindly brought us beers. For the next one, he said he'd made a beer using American hops. My friend jokingly told him that I loved American hops (I don't). Rather than make a fuss, I accepted the beer. I cautiously took a sip of it. It wasn't bad at all. In fact, I rather liked it. The twist in this story is that while American hops were used in brewing the beer, it was not a hoppy beer, even by British standards. The hops were not the sole element providing flavour, but rather part of a chorus of flavours that together, in moderation, were quite pleasant.

    Was this then an "American-style" beer? On the one hand, one ingredient was American, however, on the other hand, it was brewed British-style, rather than American style.

    I travel a lot around Europe seeking out beer. I rarely come across American-style beers by accident. I know, for example, that in Denmark the newest pubs will likely have American-style beers, but I also know an old pub that does not serve them. In Bavaria, I don't know of a single brewery that makes American-style beers for the local market.

    It is true that if you come to Europe specifically looking for American-style beers, you can find them. More in some places than others. In London, yes, but, at the same time, there are far, far more pubs serving traditional ales than pubs offering primarily American-style beers.

  3. Well, just a few points. My last trip to London was as for Jeff, 2011. I sampled a random number of beers and found the American taste very evident even in some well-known national names. And most of the small brewers then seemed to be offering this. Of course, Fuller remained true to its own traditions as did numerous old regional beers available in London, but the "new taste" was quite evident even then without doing research to find it.

    I don't think it matters if the taste is prominent or not, you know the American signature when you taste it.

    Outside London I cannot say but is not London trendsetter for the country?

    I'm glad parts of Europe remain outside the trend since it will encourage maintenance of their own traditions. Innovation can occur by rediscovering older local traditions and it's good that Toby mentioned porter for example.

    CAMRA did great work. I am not sure it saved traditional beer, or rather it permitted it to hold its own for a generation but this is another time.


  4. One thing usefully to add is that the golden ale phenomenon is included in this IMO. Beers like Old Golden hen and Bitter & Twisted and many of the other well-known ones have a definite white pith taste (grapefruity or lemon) that spells America to me. The history of the style may be independent of U.S. stylistic influence - apart that is from the U.S. hops in the international market. But it may not be and I always suspected that the first essays in the late 80's were aware of the light-colored American craft ales then becoming common like Boulder Pale Ale, Liberty Ale, Blue Heron, Henry Weinhard (a lager and not a craft), etc. There are perhaps two stages in the American influence, in other words.