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Friday, August 06, 2010

Comparing Britain and the US

A couple of days ago, judges at the Great British Beer Festival unanimously called Castle Rock's Harvest Ale Britain's best. The beer is a 3.8% blonde ale (or, variously, a pale or bitter) of apparently balanced hopping (read: modest). Last year, the GBBF designated a 4.4% mild its champion beer. In 2008, it went to a 3.8% beer, in '07 to a mild, in '06 and '05 to the same 4% pale, and so on.

The United States has no equivalen. At the Great American Beer Festival, beers are awarded by category only; there's no grand champion. Still, it is extremely difficult to imagine a scenario in which a beer of less than 4% would ever receive such a laurel in the US. (There were only 17 entrants in the mild ale category last year, one of the least competitive in the GABF.) Americans do not prize small beers. Were the GABF to designate a champeen (and they should), it would almost certainly go to a robust, probably barrel-aged beer. That's how we roll.

Obviously, part of this is structural. CAMRA conducts the GBBF and consequently hosts the judging, and CAMRA is keenly interested in the promotion of small, cask-friendly beers. We have nothing like that in the US. But it's not all structural. Castle Rock's Harvest Pale isn't the art-house pick of snooty critics--it's also a wildly successful beer:
In the last 18 months Castle Rock has been brewing at capacity due to the popularity of Harvest Pale, he added, and a new brewhouse will open in two weeks time, which will treble capacity.
Now, imagine the release of a modestly-hopped 3.8% blonde ale in the United States. See sixers of it sitting there, gathering dust, on grocery shelves? Look, there's your hand reaching for beer. It pauses briefly at the golden, but--impossible, you can't do it. May be a great beer, but you palm the relatively burly Mirror Pond instead. A 3.8% beer? No one would buy it.

Some folks lament the direction of American brewing toward the ever stronger, more intense beers. Hell, there were twice as many imperial red ales entered at last year's GABF than milds. American brewers make these beers because they sell. I don't lament it at all. It is, by very slow accretion, the emergence of our national character. It's very cool that Britain produces and consumes lots of lovingly-crafted wee ales. It's so British. But it's also cool that the Americans, brash, lacking subtlety, the volume perpetually at 11, love their crazy hop bombs. It's who we are.

Vive la différence.


  1. I look forward to Ted Sobel, Brewers Union 180, comments on this topic. I recall in the new year he predicted the rise of small beers in 'Merica.

    It may not be germane; but, I notice kegs of hopped up / high ABV ales lasting longer and longer at my local; dare I say . . . languishing. Whether this augurs a change in taste or is merely an anomaly will be revealed in time.

  2. Which makes these recent awards by CAMRA a real head scratcher:

    CAMRA Michael Jackson Award 2010
    New Hampshire brewer wipes competition clean!

    1st- Smuttynose, Big A IPA (9.7% ABV, Portsmouth, New Hampshire)
    2nd- Clipper City, Heavy Seas Loose Cannon (7.3% ABV, Baltimore, Maryland)
    3rd- Lost Abbey, Older Viscosity 2009 (12.5% ABV, San Marcos, CA)

    CAMRA Great British Beer Festival 2010, Earls Court, London, August 3rd-7th -

  3. Drinking Priorities? Maybe England looks at Beer as social "Drinking" and America looks at it as Social 'Drunkard'?

    Do we want to drink and taste beer or drink to acquire drunkenness? Many beers can be made with lower alcohol and be equally as tasty. Lets be honest, It's not that hard to add a truck load of hops to a low alcohol beer! SO, why do we need the extra alcohol?

    Questions we need to ask ourselves and our social consciousness of why we drink beer.

  4. Actually, Doc, you've got it backward. The Brits are notoriously bad about getting as smashed as possible. They've tried to deal with it through a number of different remedies, but the problem is pernicious.

  5. Maybe we should ALL have a better social consciousness? ;-}

    Like new photo, Jeff! I like it better than the crusty Axe Men look. :-O

    I belong to CAMRA. They're an odd bunch. A large contingent have focused on traditional production and delivery of British beer. Beer Evaluation and brewing knowledge to a lesser extent. This is changing in recent years.

  6. Ironically, I was just (like 5 minutes ago) reading a little fluff piece on Scotland's Brew Dog which, as you have chronicled, are into insanely big beers. Anyway they were very harshly critical of the CAMRA movement in Britain because they feel they are all about conformity.

    The article was clipped out of some in-flight mag or something like it and was left out for my brother the brewer who commented that the owner and head brewer of his brewery recently went on a beer tour of the UK and were disappointed by both the quality of the beer and by the quality, preparation and handling of the casks. Apparently they encountered a number of ones that were past their sell-by date.

    Anyway, I don't really have a point other than to say that the CAMRA is controversial in Britain.

    I still await the first annual "Beervana Small Beer Fest"

  7. Are you sure those perecentages weren't alcohol by content instead of alcohol by volume? British beers usually show alcohol content in terms of ABC, which runs lower than ABV. I.e. a 3.8% ABC beer would be 5% or so ABV.
    Maybe I'm just stating the obvious here, in which case carry on.

  8. No doubt we in Britain could have a novelty beer category for BIG beers next year.

    British beers come in all shades and strengths. We also drink full pints generally speaking which does enforce a weaker beer (the British pint is much bigger than a typical US ping as it is a fixed size and our Gallon is bigger).

    We also judge beer on it's taste not on strength.

  9. I just had a 3.7% Dry Irish Stout and a 4.0% Bitter on the pumps here. I sad "had", because somebody drank all 4 Imperial BBL of them. I had a regular come in last night asking for the stout again and had to disappoint. Said customer had to settle for the whopper of a 4.6% Brown.

    The demand is there. Many of our customers are appreciative of the lower ABV's and are not looking for a belly full of gas. Still, there are the cultural differences at work. I've spent many a lively evening in the pubs drinking session and having intelligent and spirited conversations, which just doesn't happen on our shores.

    Re: Alcohol by Content. I can assure you that there is no such animal. Perhaps you're thinking of Alcohol by Weight. However, all the places I worked at or drank at in the UK and Ireland used ABV, and they're careful about posting it.

  10. "I've spent many a lively evening in the pubs drinking session and having intelligent and spirited conversations, which just doesn't happen on our shores."

    Wait, what? I hope I am reading this statement wrong or misinterpreting it. If not, then you are drastically over-generalizing, and I must have been hallucinating all those drinking nights of intelligent and spirited conversations. Or maybe I'm just a low born American plebe not capable of your advanced European diatribe

  11. I would guess, based on my years in England, that they are more open to a lower ABV beer due to their much bigger pints. In my experience, pints were poured in glasses which had the official pint line in them about an inch from the lip. Invariably, though, I got beer up to the lip (little or no head ... as in, dripping out the top). It just doesn't need to be as strong to get your attention. - Trevor

  12. Late to the party on this one, but as someone who spent a number of years in the UK and appreciates a good mild, I love that Yards Brawler is available year-round now (at least in the Philly area) - it's a great example of the style, and it's something I always make sure I have at least a few of sitting around. Friday night pizza sometimes just needs a good, solid beer or two - not necessarily something flying the high gravity flag.