With a Little Help From My Friends: British and American Craft Brewers Find Common Ground

Feature by | Nov 2012 | Issue #70

Illustration by Ryan Chapman

For 10 years, maybe 15, knowledgeable British beer drinkers have had a fascination with American craft beer’s supersized styles and rambunctious use of hops. That citrus explosion of US-grown hops made Brits realize something: American beers aren’t like our beers.

Or at least they weren’t back then …

British beer has a rich history that few other brewing nations share. When American craft beer was inducted in the 1970s and 1980s, pioneering American brewers wanted to get as far away from mass-market lagers as possible, and the pages marked “British” in the recipe book looked like the best places to start. Those early American beers drew influence from
British beer styles: Pale Ales, Porters, Stouts, IPAs and Barleywines. But those beers were brewed using local ingredients and spun to suit local tastes, turning aging styles of beer into shiny new drinks. By reinventing classic styles, the craft beer movement had begun.

Now, it’s come full circle, and the American interpretations are influencing British beers.

Traditionalist brewers might still scoff at Simcoe in favor of the Fuggle, but American hops have kicked forward the biggest changes in British beer, getting into every existing beer style and changing their flavor profiles to make them like new brews: The accent in golden ales is changing from “hello there” to “hey, dude,” Pale Ales and IPAs are citrusy instead of earthy, and C-hopped (that is, Cascade, Centennial, Columbus and Chinook) Best Bitters are starting to outnumber straightforward Browns.

Alongside the evolving flavors, there are new styles emerging: Belgo-American blends of spicy yeast and fruity hops, black ales and Black IPAs, hoppy Reds, barrel-aged sours and Stouts, and a marked increase in beers above 6 percent ABV. Then there’s the most prevalent and important new style: American-hopped session beers.

Over 63 percent of beers made in the UK in 2010 were under 4.1 percent ABV, according to the British Beer & Pub Association’s Statistical Handbook. The British like low-ABV beers with high drinkability, but they also like the exciting flavor profile of American IPAs; pale, hoppy beers are the happy midpoint between the two. This new beer style has taken over bar tops, going from being hard-to-find to impossible-to-miss in just a few years. One brewery that’s latched onto this style is Moor Beer, from Somerset, a three hours’ drive from London.

“When we bought the brewery, I wanted to fuse what I loved from each place I lived to make beers I wanted to drink,” says Justin Hawke, co-owner and brewer at Moor. Born in California, Hawke fell in love with super-fresh, unfiltered beers in Germany; after brewing in San Francisco, he moved to the UK in 2007. His beers mix hops profiles from America, unfiltered beer from the continent—Hawke is an advocate of unfined, naturally hazy beer—and session strength from the UK.

“It didn’t take long to realize that, at that time, nearly every beer available was around 4.2 percent ABV, amber and very subtly flavored. I really missed the brash, Californian, hop-forward beers, as well as the rich variety of traditional styles available on the continent.”

Moor’s Revival and Nor’Hop are both light gold and boldly hopped, yet balanced in bitterness. They’re immensely drinkable, thanks to their bright citrus aromas, and both are stellar examples of the new style of pale and hoppy session beer. This new style is also showing up on US menus—another example of the feedback loop between America and the UK, as Britain’s penchant for low-ABV beers has influenced the US market.

While hopped-up session beers are very popular now, it wasn’t so easy for Hawke in the beginning: “We were brewing beers that were so foreign in their flavor, appearance and approach that it took longer than I expected to get the message out.” Now, drinkers and brewers have caught up to where Moor Beer has been for years. Though Hawke is one of several American expats spearheading this shift, British locals are right there with them. Other beers to look out for in this style include Dark Star’s Hophead, Magic Rock’s Curious, Buxton’s Moor Top, Summer Wine’s Zenith, Cromarty’s Happy Chappy and Redwillow’s Headless.

It’s not just the beer that’s evolving; pubs and bars are widening their selections, getting bigger bottle fridges and developing a similar style to American multi-tap beer bars.

“We reinterpret the iconic British pub for a modern age,” says Martin Hayes, managing director of Cask Pub and Kitchen and Craft Beer Co. With sites in London and Brighton, Hayes’ classic-style pubs are cozy yet simple. The reinvention comes with their enviably large, crowd-drawing draft and bottle lists featuring hundreds of different beers. “I think the discerning drinker has come of age. In the same way that people have traveled the world and now enjoy different foods, they now appreciate different styles of beers.”

Most craft beer is still sold in casks, which elegantly express the fruit-forward flavors. But publicans are also reevaluating their kegged selections, dropping mass-market choices and replacing them with craft beers. Following 40 years of CAMRA telling us that kegged beer is bad, British beers now sit alongside American and European imports on the cooler end of the bar because more breweries are adding kegs to their output, alongside (or occasionally in place of) real ale.

The American influence is one catalyst here: As the British-brewed Pale Ales and IPAs are inspired by America, where they’re sold cold and carbonated from a keg, it makes sense for British brewers to copy the dispense, especially since those full-flavored styles can handle the oomph of gas (a cask Best Bitter, on the other hand, benefits from the delicate treatment of cask conditioning).

But there’s also a practical side to the proliferation of kegged beer: Beer in cask is exposed to oxygen, and oxygen isn’t good for beer. More British breweries are making stronger beers now, typically some kind of IPA (American, Black, Red, et al) or Imperial Stout, and strong beer in casks typically sells slower than low-ABV beers—so in turn, they’re more exposed to oxygen, making the beer more liable to spoil. But the sealed container of the keg keeps the oxygen out and the beer fresher for longer.

Kegs also open up opportunities to serve beer in places that don’t have the facilities or desire for cask beer. “I found the real ale market very saturated locally, and found more market opportunity [with kegs] for putting beer into places that would have never dreamed of having a real ale due to the spoilage issues,” says Wisconsin-native Jeff Rosenmeier, founder and head brewer of Lovibonds Brewery in Henley-on-Thames. “Now these places can have real local beer in a format that they already understand.”

Bottled beer is also seeing an impact: According to the British Beer & Pub Association, in 1980, the on-trade (pubs and bars) accounted for 87.7 percent of beer bought; now, over 50 percent of beer is sold in the off-trade. Home drinking sees a trend toward buying different single bottles and curiously looking for a wide variety of things to taste, which often means choosing stronger beers—and leads to consumers revisiting those strong beers via kegs at bars.

It’s not unfair to say that British beer was stagnating before it got a kick in the arse/ass from American craft brewers in the early 2000s.

These days, you can walk into a British beer bar and be able to drink some seriously good American-styled craft beers, and all of them are brewed right in the UK. Now we just wait to see how long it takes for pale and hoppy session beers to take over the taps in American beer bars …