Britain is one of the world’s four great traditional brewing nations, with history, innovation and variety to burn. So why, asks Pete Brown, if we’ve inspired brewers from Portland to Pilsen, do we have such a downer on our local beer?
This may be turning into a cliché of beer writing, but that’s because it’s true: there’s never been a better time to be a beer drinker. We now have more breweries in Britain than at any time since the 1930s, and on top of that, we have our pick of beers from the global craft beer boom.
At our fingertips we have Belgian lambics, saisons and Trappist beers, American IPAs and big barrel-aged Imperial stouts, quality German and Czech lagers, and almost-forgotten styles like gose and Berliner weisse brought back to life. Hundreds of new British brewers are setting up shop every year and taking their inspiration from the smorgasbord around them. Brewers from London to Nottingham, Manchester to Belfast are brewing up juicy New England IPAs, spicy saisons and tart kettle-soured beers.
It’s so exciting! Isn’t it?
Well… yeah. It is. When I started writing about beer in 2003, lamenting the fact that beer was the only category that seemed to have been left behind by Britain’s gastronomic revolution, I never dared dream we might end up with such a stunning array of beers in bars at the end of my street and in every town I visit.
There’s just one problem. Have you spotted it? Nowhere above have I mentioned anything from the British brewing tradition. And that’s because it’s becoming increasingly invisible.
Before we had craft beer, most beer drinkers in Britain were drinking ersatz versions of global lager brands. In any country that drinks a lot of beer, the number one brand is invariably a national hero: Bud Light in America, Stella Artois in Belgium, Pilsner Urquell in the Czech Republic and so on.
In Britain, not a single one of the top 10 best-selling beer brands is British in origin (Carling came from Canada) or British-owned.
When it comes to craft, our biggest breweries may have been born here, but they’ve disavowed traditional British styles in favour of foreign influence. British brewers now buy more American hops than British to create styles that ape the giant of American craft.
On beery social media, British hops are ‘bland and boring’, British ales ‘brown and twiggy’. As craft beer booms, traditional British cask ale is in double-digit decline.
Despite the fact that Britain is considered (by other countries at least) to be one of the greatest brewing nations on earth, we import twice as much beer as we export, with more imports coming from that famous brewing giant, France, than any other country.
If this were France, Mexico or Italy, or any of the other countries that gave birth to what are now Britain’s favourite beers, we could shrug our shoulders and say, well, what do you expect? Beer’s not our thing.
But historically, Britain stakes its claim alongside Belgium, the Czech Republic and Germany as one of the most influential brewing countries in the world.
The birth of big beer
As the first industrialised country, Britain was the first to develop commercial brewing to cater for large, concentrated populations, and the first to improve the quality and efficiency of brewing through the pioneering use of steam power, hydrometers, thermometers and economies of scale.
Five top breweries that were inspired by British beers
The two giant beers of the Industrial Revolution were porter (which later gave birth to stout) and pale ale, particularly India Pale Ale (IPA). The latter was made possible by the innovation of coke smelting, which allowed tighter control over the temperature at which barley could be malted, permitting consistent pale malt.
British pale ales and porters were celebrated around the world, so much so that research trips to London and Burton-on-Trent were essential for any ambitious brewer. Carl Jacobsen – the ‘Carl’ in Carlsberg – apprenticed with Burton brewer Everards.
In the 1830s, legendary brewers Anton Dreher of Vienna and Gabriel Sedlmayr of Munich visited Burton to learn the secrets of pale ale. They carried with them hollowed out walking sticks in which they hid tubes of beer they snaffled from Burton’s fermenting vessels, and thermometers to secretly measure temperatures. They wrote home boasting ‘we stole as much as we could’ and ‘It always surprises me that we can get away with these thefts without being beaten up’.
Back in Austria, Dreher married English-style pale ale malt with lager yeast to create a pale, refreshing brew known as Vienna Red. A few years later, a renegade Munich brewer turned up in Pilsen, made a new sparkling beer using pale malt and pilsner lager was born.
Porters and pale ales were stored to mature for up to a year, and over that time they acquired a special characteristic no one could quite define. In 1904, Niels Hjelte Claussen, a Carlsberg brewing scientist, traced this to a yeast present in British breweries which he named ‘British fungus’, or in Latin, Brettanomyces. ‘Brett’, as it’s now often referred to, is a staple of Belgian beer styles – some of which were first inspired by British ales.
These achievements aren’t just confined to history but continue to influence craft brewing around the world. American brewers generally agree that the best malt for brewing IPA is pale malt made from Maris Otter barley grown in Norfolk and malted by companies such as Crisp and Simpsons, who supply malt to craft brewers around the world.
Brewers from California to New Zealand then add this malt to water that has been treated in a process known as ‘Burtonisation’, the addition of salts that brings the water profile in line with that of Burton, generally considered to be the most perfect pale ale brewing water that there is.
The hip, young British craft brewers today may be aping their American contemporaries, but the American craft beer scene wouldn’t exist without pioneers such as Sierra Nevada and Goose Island. Those pioneers, in turn, wouldn’t be who they are if it wasn’t for British cask ale. They began as hopelessly devoted fans of brewers such as Fuller’s: Goose Island Honkers ale was based on London Pride, while Sierra Nevada pale ale began life as an imperfect cover version of Fuller’s ESB.
And that influence shows no sign of waning. While British brewers obsess over fruity American hops, the Americans are buying half the entire harvest of Kentish Fuggles and Goldings, as they strive to create the perfect ‘session beer’ – one of the fastest growing styles in the US, inspired once more by cask ale.
So given Britain’s astonishing influence on the global brewing scene, why do we have such a downer on ourselves?
Part of it is the universal problem with overfamiliarity, especially in a market that’s increasingly driven by novelty. But that’s true everywhere, and no other brewing nation takes the antipathy towards its own heritage to the level we do.
This is part of a wider British malaise of self-deprecation. We were widely predicted to exit the World Cup ignominiously early, whereas in fact we won hearts and minds as well as games. Equally, most of the country agreed that the 2012 Olympics were going to be an embarrassing farce until their jaws hit the floor 30 seconds
into Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony.
And I know of no other nation of people who are so quick to agree that their national cuisine is the worst in the world, when it patently isn’t. The problem is, even if we wanted to stand up for our national food and drink, being proud of what we do is undoubtedly one thing that we Brits are genuinely terrible at.
Anyone who dares to say they’re proud to be British, or of British achievements, faces the danger of being lumped in with Nigel Farage. A majority may have voted for Brexit, but even most Leave voters rankle at being compared to red-faced, racist ‘gammons’.
And what drink do you associate with Nigel Farage…?
Most of us haven’t done national pride for so long, we’ve forgotten how to do it at all. When people try, it feels like a throwback to the 1950s, desperately clinging on to the death of the Empire.
But it is possible to celebrate Britishness and British brewing tradition without that turning into ‘We’re the best in the world and we should get rid of all this foreign muck’.
We should celebrate and be proud of British malt alongside American hops, of British subtlety and balance alongside the brashness and boldness of other styles. We don’t need to drape the whole thing in Union Jacks and claim it’s the best in the world.
The history of modern brewing, from industrial to craft, is an inspiring story of international cooperation and the trading of ideas. Just as in pop music or design or literature, a disproportionate number of those ideas have come from our small, creative nation.
If we turn away from and deny our own tradition, we turn off a big flow that’s been going into the global creative mash tun. And if that happens, the whole global brewing scene is diminished.
Five under-appreciated classic British beers
Harveys Best Bitter
When someone tells me that British cask ales are boring and twiggy, I give them a fresh pint of this and they go all quiet. It inspires near-religious levels of devotion in its Sussex heartland.
4%, £17.44/12x50cl, Harveys Brewery, 01273 480209
Timothy Taylor’s Landlord
The most awarded beer in the world, 20 years ago Landlord was considered to be particularly hoppy. Our idea of what ‘very hoppy’ means has changed; the sheer excellence of this beer has not.
4.3%, POA, Timothy Taylor & Co, 01535 603139
Hop Back Summer Lightning
The beer that began the golden ale revolution in the early noughties, the first exploration of new styles in the UK for a long time stands up to the very best US-style pale ales.
5%, POA, Hop Back Brewery, 01725 510986
Worthington’s White Shield
The only true survivor of the early 19th century IPAs that went from Burton to India. Balanced and endlessly complex, it’s like an album you think you’re familiar with, but keep hearing new things on.
5.6%, £15.15/12x55cl, Molson Coors Brewing Co, 01283 511000
Harviestoun Ola Dubh 2002
Know how whisky barrel-aged beers are so hot right now? Yeah, Scottish brewer Harviestoun has been doing that since 2002, now collaborating with Highland Park to mature its Old Engine Oil beer in different expressions of arguably the world’s best whisky.
8%, £34.17/12x33cl, Harviestoun Brewery, 01259 769100