I have a friend who has been a real ale bore since his teens. During student pub crawls in Oxford he used to quiz unwary landlords on cellar temperatures and other arcane CAMRA matters. When he first visited New York some time in the 00s he was surprised by the craft beer scene. Surprised but not impressed. His comments were along the lines of: ‘typical Americans, they drink nothing but watery lager for years and then we they finally start drinking proper beer they take it too far with the hops, alcohol etc.’ My thought at the time was, when it comes to beer, too much is better than too little. Rather a Big Grizzly Bear IPA than Coors Light. Now that craft beer has hit these shores, we have the strange situation where British brewers are making versions of American versions of British beers.
The other night I reflected on my friend’s words whilst at the Cask in Pimlico. Actually it was almost impossible to reflect on anything so loud was it in this place. The next day my ears felt like they’d been at the Orbit in Leeds and my voice was hoarse from shouting. Never mind the Campaign for Real Ale, what British pubs really need is a Campaign for Soft Furnishings. I was looking forward to a nice chat with falafel magnate Patrick Matthews but I couldn’t hear much of what he said. The other problem was that most of the beers we tried were undrinkable (and the chicken and leek pie was horrid too.) They were nice at first but then my taste buds would be hit with a wave of hops and alcohol and I didn’t want another sip. We were drinking halves and it was very difficult to finish them. The nadir was a coffee stout that tasted like Guinness Foreign Extra laced with Tia Maria.
Patrick commented that the craft beer scene reminded him a little of wine 10-15 years ago. The emphasis then was on more: more extract, more ripeness, more oak, more alcohol. More, more, more! The model was big glossy Californian Cabernets. Wine has moved on. Everyone now talks about balance, acidity and drinkability. The model is Burgundy or even Beaujolais. Fashionable wines are ones that you could easily drink a bottle of by yourself. Or at least I could. Many new brewers, in contrast, are stuck in a 90s time warp. Rather than looking over their shoulders at the US, they should try some old favourites. The classic English beers such Landlord, Black Sheep and Young’s Special, are amazing and unique things. The disparate elements, alcohol, bitterness, fruit, maltiness are all in harmony with nothing shouting too loud. They’re complex enough to make you keep coming back but not so intense that you don’t want to take a really big swig. You can mull over them but they’re really for drinking in large quantities.
We shouldn’t be too hard on these ambitious new brewers though. To create something perfectly balanced is much harder than creating something immediately impressive. Making a good beer takes expertise and years of experience. I think in future all trendy beer pubs should have one classic British beer on tap just to show the young pretenders how it should be done. I bet it’ll be the first to run out.