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An American beer style in London

The most popular beers in the United Kingdom are starting to look, smell and taste a lot like the most popular beers in the U.S.
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In 1994, the British Guild of Beer Writers assembled in London for a conference on a topic of great import: India pale ale. Garrett Oliver, then the brewmaster at Manhattan Brewing Co. in New York City, pre-sented the gathered luminaries with his grapefruit-forward, heavily Cascade-hopped Rough Draught IPA, and while Britain’s beer writers were complimentary, the brewers in attendance weren’t having it. “‘The beer is very amusing,’” Oliver recalls them saying, “‘but you’ll never get anyone to actually drink it.’” They considered the brash, citrusy flavors of American hops entirely off-putting.

But 10 years later, Oliver says, a peculiar thing happened. During the final round of judging at the annual Great British Beer Festival, whiffs of orange peel and grass began to rise from one of the glasses. The brew inside, Kelham Island Brewery’s Pale Rider, went on to become 2004’s Champion Beer of Britain, and did so with North American-grown hops and a flavor Oliver describes as “rather American.” The pendulum had swung.

Today, more U.K brewers are taking a page from our book, harnessing ingredients, techniques, sensibilities and even business models that also seem, well, rather American.

Manchester, England. Inside the airy brick confines of the Piccadilly Trading Estate, the submerged hoses attached to Cloudwater Brew Co.’s fermenters are bubbling furiously. The 18-month-old brewery is located about three miles from Old Trafford, the home stadium of the Manchester United Football Club, and it’s a ten-minute walk from Piccadilly Station, the main train hub. It’s also about 3,000 miles from there to New England, which is important to note because the beer surging inside those stainless tanks is an imperial IPA, as vibrant and juicy as Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine, Tree House Julius or any of the other juicy, excessively hopped, cumulocloudy brews currently beloved in the U.S.

“This is the third version of this particular beer,” says Paul Jones, Cloudwater’s cofounder and managing director. “For this latest version, we’ve switched to using a yeast that we believe comes from Vermont.”

If the cavalcade of mango, peach and tangerine flavors delivered by that combo of American-grown yeast and hops seems closer to the beers made in the States than anything in the U.K., that’s no accident. Before ever putting pen to paper for a double IPA recipe, Jones asked the Cloudwater crew to gather the hop-forward beers they considered the best in the world. The beers they brought? Pizza Port Swami’s IPA, Russian River Pliny the Elder and The Alchemist Heady Topper.

“We haven’t set out to replicate popular American beer styles in the U.K., but by default, America’s leading the way in a number of styles,” says Jones. “So we end up looking time and time again to what’s happening [in America] and taking inspiration from that.”

Beavertown Brewery - photo by Mark Sherrat

Beavertown Brewery – photo by Mark Sherrat

London, England. Just south of the Tottenham Marshes, about a 10-mile drive from Buckingham Palace, pallets of cans stand tall in Beavertown Brewery’s packaging area. That’s a small revolution in itself; Beavertown owner and founder Logan Plant has railed against U.K. drinkers’ aversion to cans in the past. And soon to be placed inside all that aluminum: hops, and lots of them. Take Double Chin, an imperialized version of Beavertown’s year-round Neck Oil session IPA that presents tropical, grassy and resinous hop flavors above barely-there malts, or Gamma Ray, an American-style pale ale that gets its grapefruit- and mango-soaked aroma from additions of five U.S.-grown hops. Plant, the son of Robert Plant—yes, that Robert Plant—says he drew inspiration from the U.S. brew scene when he made his first batch of citrusy, West Coast-style IPA back in February 2012.

“America’s quite different,” says Plant. “It’s like, ‘Let’s go balls out and just push something out there and make it happen! Let’s make a difference!’ And that wasn’t happening in the U.K.”

The reasons have to do with dollars and cents: Britain’s tax structure requires brewers to pay higher duties as the alcohol content of their beers increases, which incentivizes them to keep ABVs as low as possible. But tradition plays a role, too; cask ale—unfiltered, unpasteurized, generally mild beer served from the vessel in which it’s fermented—remains king; nearly 60 percent of all draft beer sold in the U.K. last year was pulled from casks, according to industry and consumer group Cask Matters. Beavertown doesn’t do cask, and rarely focuses on keeping gravity low.

“We keg. We can. I find it’s far more stable for my core range beers particularly, because we use a lot of hops,” Plant says. “And we are putting more into our beer. It costs us a hell of a lot more, whether it’s barrel-aged for 18 months or whether we use a ridiculous amount of hops in the dry-hop.”

This rebellion against U.K. beer’s status quo, at massive expense to the breweries, is becoming increasingly common. Hadouken, one of the best-selling beers made at Tiny Rebel Brewing Co. in Newport, Wales, is a 7.4% IPA amped up with three American hop varieties. (Its score on the beer-review website RateBeer? 95 out of 100.) The top-rated beer produced by Firle, England’s Burning Sky Beer is Easy Answers—an American-style IPA (RateBeer score: 94). Magic Rock Brewing in Huddersfield, England, is best-known for intense barrel-aged stouts and uber-dank imperial IPAs.

These are not cheap beers to produce, but the demand is there. In Bermondsey, England, along the railway line southeast of Tower Bridge, The Kernel Brewery is a popular stop on the Beermondsey Beer Mile, a two-kilometer stretch of breweries that sees streams of Saturday beer-crawlers. Or it was, anyway—thanks mostly to an extremely well-regarded lineup of American-hopped IPAs, The Kernel’s taproom became so popular that owners decided last September to stop serving beer on premise; they couldn’t keep up with the hordes that descended each weekend.

Which reveals another challenge for British brewers: As appetites for bold, flavorful beer made in the U.K. become ever more ravenous, the nation’s brewers must not only learn to brew like their counterparts in the States; they must learn to grow like them.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It’s early May in the City of Brotherly Love and brewers from across the globe are darting between booths and zipping through crowds to get to the next workshop or roundtable on the schedule of the annual Craft Brewers Conference in the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

But, beyond the beer, what’s driving the brewers of the U.K. to uproot their lives for a week and attend seminars primarily catered to, and presented by, American brewers? The answer, Cloudwater’s Jones says, is growth.

“There’s something of a nanophilia in the U.K.,” he says. “We really have only one example of a [small] brewery that’s scaled up a lot, and that’s BrewDog. So until we have a significant number of breweries that have scaled up like BrewDog, we don’t really have a rounded view of what scale can bring. We look over to the States as a country with all the development that’s going on, with all the research that’s going on, and we’re like ‘Thank goodness someone’s doing that.’”

And there are more than a few examples for them to look at: Between 2014 and 2015, Iowa-based Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. in-creased production by more than 3,000 barrels; San Diego’s Modern Times Beer nearly tripled production, from 6,543 barrels to 19,000; and New Glarus Brewing Co., which does not distribute outside its home state of Wisconsin, grew by more than 30,000 barrels.

Jones says the U.K. is seeing a similar surge in desire for modern beers: “Looking at the States one way or another gives us insight into the future of British beer culture.”

Plant agrees. “The time that I’ve spent with brewers in the U.S. and the community here, seeing how they’ve brought a big brew-ery to life, I feel inspired by that,” he says. “I’d like to bring that to London.”

But first, Jones says, other brewers in the U.K. will have to get over the “stiffness” they have when it comes to approaching—and even talking about—getting bigger.

“Growth is very carefully managed in the U.K.,” he says. “Any statements of growth tend to be quite moderate, quite gentle. Whereas when we look to what’s going on [in the U.S.], and someone’s putting in an entire second brewery that’s just as big as the first one they own, and everyone’s cheering them on. I think maybe that’s a cultural difference.”

The exchange of knowledge between British and American brewers is far from one-sided. The overall trend toward low-ABV, “sessionable” beers, for instance, is very much in line with long-established U.K. drinking tradition, and, according to Oliver, you’re more likely to find a British-style IPA in the States today than in the style’s birthplace. As the cross-cultural flow continues, will the brewing of interesting, new American-style IPAs someday become the calling card of brewers abroad?

It bloody well might.

One Comment

  • Jamie McLean says:

    Err, cask sales do NOT make up 60+% of all draught beer sold. Just a quick look at Cask Matter’s summary page of last years report shows they hope to get the Cask market share to 20% of pub beer sales by 2020…

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