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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Putting Britain in a Box

A week or so ago I tweeted a request for pub recommendations in Bristol.  Actually, I asked which pubs were "cool" and got a lesson in transcontinental slang use.  Rephrasing, I asked for recommendations on the "best" Bristol pub.  The two-headed Cornish blogger (and book-writer!) Boak and/or Bailey suggested the Grain Barge--the place I will go for my birthday repast and pint.

A cool London pub, but by whose definition?
The whole exchange reminded me that whether we're calling it cool or best, the way Americans and Britons think about British beer is decidedly different.  Americans, when we think of England, imagine a scene somewhere between Dickens and Orwell: dark, wood-paneled pubs with a fire crackling in one corner and four old guys sitting at the bar in tweed driving caps nursing dimpled mugs of garnet mild.  Our minds conjure cask beer engines and low-alcohol bitters when we think of British beer, and the picture is frozen there.  The joke that British ale is warm and flat is, to the fan of these nostalgic evocations,is  actually a promise.  We can get damn near any kind of beer in the world in America--but good cask ale, served in 300-year-old buildings, is not among the general offerings.  For many of us (guilty!), the nostalgia is Britain.

People who actually live in England don't pine for our sentimental scenes.  In 2011, the only time I've ever visited the country, Fuller's John Keeling told me that ale then accounted for just 11% of all beer sales.  You go into an average pub, and you'll find lots of draft "extra-cold" lagers, and maybe two or three handles of cask (usually one vacant from disinterest).  You may actually see an old guy at the bar in a driving cap, but he'll probably be drinking a lager.  When I struck up conversations with these guys, they were always mystified that I liked cask ale.

British beer geeks have always had cask ale at hand, in a range that would look scandalously small to Americans.  For decades they saw the cold lagers and the same two or three types of cask ale.  So it's of course no surprise that they are delighted to find robust IPAs, saisons, and stouts starting to fill up specialty pubs.  To them a "good" pub is a place that attends to the beer and offers a decent selection of styles.  Cask ale is fine, but (regular, American-style) keg beer is, too--and it may dispense a lathery hop bomb of 6.5%.  Ask for a recommendation of a good pub from a British beer geek, and that wistful midcentury image in your head will not spring immediately into hers. 

The Grain Barge, for example, is a pub located on a boat in Bristol's harbor.  It is operated by the Bristol Beer Factory, a brewery that makes traditional cask ale but also hefeweizen, Belgian strong, stout, and American-style IPA.  If you spend much time reading the British blogs (as I do), you see a lot more interest devoted to beer from places like Bristol Beer Factor, The Kernel, Thornbridge, and so on than you do to the old CAMRA-extolled cask ales that come out of Victorian tower breweries.

The point--which probably could have been made Tweet-short--is this: Americans have a far greater interest in keeping Britain in its old cask ale box than Britain does.  Things are changing, and we Americans need to update our expectations and definitions.  "Good" doesn't necessarily mean what we think it does. 

Post Script: For those living outside the Western US who are not 35-55 years of age "cool" just means "good."  It may have once evoked Vince Guaraldi, but them days is long past. 


  1. I think we as Americans have inspired the Brits in there love of different styles but also in updating those old images of the neighborhood pubs. You still can find those Victorian pubs but I believe the new generation of beer drinkers are interested more in the quality of beer and a updated aesthetics.

  2. Funny, isn't this also what CAMRA thinks Britain?

  3. I had to look up "driving cap". Ah, a flat cap. Only insufferable too-cool-for-school urban males wear them in the pub.

  4. Jeff, I don't agree that it was the same two or three styles for cask beer for the last 30 years. There was always variety for those who know where to look and after all we are all geeks, we know where to look or to ask (as you did). There were and are golden ales (even before the first in the 90's in UK, e.g., Boddies was a gold ale to begin with), winter ales, porters, bitters, pale milds, dark milds and more. Considering all the breweries they have and the considerable differences in palate and style between them, there were and are hundreds of beer flavours, a majority (in number) from breweries established since CAMRA was created - the small brewery movement hasn't just begun, it started in the late 70's there, the revival. CAMRA doesn't only plump for tower brewery beer although arguably (another story) those places still make about the best cask beer there is, e.g. Old Hooky, Ram Tam, Director's Bitter, Fuller's ESB. There are still plenty of Victorian style pubs in England, a ton in London alone. What you noticed is more the latest trend and of course nothing stays the same, it is the result of a rebound American influence on the U.K., one not always for the better IMO - already the first grumblings have started about cloudy grapefruit juice - but it is all good. I take the point that Americans' image of English pubs needs some updating but at the same time you can find every kind of pub in the world there, e.g. 350's estate pubs, thatched country pubs, all kinds.


  5. Gary

    I think Jeff is about right.

    Ploughing through old copies of the Good Beer Guide from the 1980s, we found bitter, best bitter and the occasional winter warmer, and that's about it. That sense of the dominance of 'brown bitter' from c.1970 onward is supported by anecdotal evidence from people we interviewed.

    Mild was almost extinct; porters you could count on one hand.

    Boddington's might have been lighter in colour but it was still a bitter. People over-play it's 'goldenness' and under-play the significance of Exmoor Gold/Summer Lightning for some reason -- resistance to the idea that there are any innovations left to be made?

    All those bitters did offer different flavours, but they were subtly different, and probably indistinguishable to casual drinkers.

    Diversity only really began to return after about 1988, and got into full flow by the 90s.

    But even now, *most* pubs offer two or three bitters of about the same strength and colour.

  6. Bailey, I appreciate the reply. I was going to attempt to answer Gary's comments based on half-remembered stuff I'd read. You make a much better witness for the prosecution.

    Another point I was going to make beyond availability is that even when you consider all the styles Gary mentions, it doesn't really amount to a terrible lot of variety. Porters actually died out completely--that I do remember from Cornell's indispensable history. You're left with gold-to-amber hued cask ales, and while it's true they might have been called golden, bitter, pale mild, and IPA, they differed pretty narrowly. Mild is definitely a different beast. But together, they didn't amount to a lot of variety--not by today's standards. It's actually pretty amazing to see English breweries making Belgian and German beer. In this way, they're much more American than their counterparts in Belgium and Germany.

  7. Boddington is a bitter (form of pale ale) and modern golden ales are ... a form of pale ale - I don't see the real difference other than differing house flavours. Also, Gregory & Knock circa mid-70's described the basic bitter as yellow - not amber-brown, but straw or yellow. These beers were survivals of 1800's pale ale which was often quite pale indeed. A lot of bitter was amber/brown - but not all.

    What about barley wine? There were light and dark ones, Gold Label, Bass No. 1, Watney Stingo, numerous others. There were true Burtons (Young's Winter Warmer and predecessors). There were brown ales southern sweet and northern dryish (pace critics of the distinction). While not all these were numerous everywhere in the country, you could get them if you made an effort. Even today geeks have to make an effort to get what they want. The luxury of choice that is modern draft craft ale is, even in Toronto, say, restricted to about a dozen places - in a city of well over 2,000,000 in the metro area.

    Mild had certain strongholds in the centre, true it had died almost in the south but that is the south and anyway some places never stopped selling it.

    I experienced all this variety over some 15-20 trips to England (different parts) starting in about 1987. Large parts were resistant to the wider beer revolution until well into the 90's, no question, but I never had trouble finding great beer variety. There were always, too, bottled beer shops with, say, Courage IRS, White Shield, Thomas Hardy Ale - Pitfield Beer Shop was the well-known one in London but smaller versions existed elsewhere. In fact, at the time the variety far exceeded what North America had with its "gold, amber and brown (or black) beer", staple of hundreds of brewpubs.

    It is true porter so-called departed the scene for a while, but stout was always around and not just Guinness, essentially the same thing.

    Finally, I always found English beers significantly different in flavour brewery to brewery - Sam Smith's relatively bland bitter was night and day from Holt's Bitter, Adnam's firm nutty ales completely different from the fruity Courage range, etc.

    I'll have to disagree here.


  8. Hi Jeff - For some reason the other thread was eating my comments so I will try and post here. The term "mouth rape" originated in male prisons. I hope this adds to the discussion in a constructive way.

  9. Jeff, you are wildly ignoring some major issues here. CAMRA is an organization designed for industry protection, not faux nostalgia.

    "In 2011, the only time I've ever visited the country, Fuller's John Keeling told me that ale then accounted for just 11% of all beer sales"

    This is precisely why CAMRA exists and has such stringent rules. It's meant to make it difficult for chain pubs and multi-national beverage conglomerates to overpower neighborhood pubs and taverns.

    This is the nature of globalized, neoliberal capitalism. Capital in general is ambivalent to individual identity, but globalized capital has the effect of wiping out local traditions and culture. Typically, it occurs in the third world, so it's kind of amusing to watch the vicious cycle happen to some of the worst offenders of economic imperialism, but there you go.

    American craft beer culture arose out of an already homogenized culture. The things we value are not tradition and process. We value novelty, precisely because novelty is very easily packaged and sold.

    Only a few of the big "industrial" craft breweries (stone, dogfish, new belgium, sierra nevada, etc) use unique processes for each new style that they are doing. Fewer still use truly unique ingredients--and I mean, for example, the kind of floor malted winter barley used in classic british beers, like Maris Otter. Walk through any brewery or brewpub of any size and you will see piles upon piles of cheap garbage 2-row from Rahr or Cargill, the stuff that's destined for Bud Light but gets diverted. Yeast strains are picked not for flavor or profile, but for consistent performance--that's why Sierra Nevada's (bottom fermenting, lager-esque) chico yeast keeps getting used for fermenting pretty much everything. 99% of brewpubs are going to be poor imitations of a lot of styles using the same yeast and the same base malt, tarted up in different ways with crystal malt. It's an imitation that will fool only people unfamiliar with the original style--which is of course most people, including educated beer snobs, because you're not going to notice a difference on most imports.

    So what you have in America is a beer culture that promotes novelty, a false sense of diversity, and a sense of exceptionalism--our way is the best way, and these provincial rubes desperately trying to hang onto a piece of their culture in the face of toxic American consumerism are wrong.

    Entirely the wrong way of looking at it. American style craft brewing is itself a product of American style economics. CAMRA is valuable as a small stopgap, at least.