Sitting at London Heathrow and facing five hours of internment due to a flight cancellation, I wonder why I chose to do this. Why did I think it was a wise idea to hit five towns in the UK, top to bottom, over nine hectic days, while my family grows frustrated and my lawn turns into a jungle?
I did it for you.
No, really, I did. You’d only be reading this if a) you are interested in beer and its future, or b) you live vicariously through the internet.
This theory needs further substantiation, I know.
Last night at the Shepherd’s Bush BrewDog location, I was in a wonderful conversation with two very knowledgeable guys about the evolution of beer. There, in England’s newest craft beer mecca boasting 40 taps, surrounded by traditional pubs offering cask conditioned beers, we listen to one fellow lament that he rarely springs for the bottled US beers he’s covetously stalked online in the past. He says it’s a better value to drink the freshness of burgeoning “keg beer” breweries in the UK who have borrowed inspiration from US predecessors and gotten a bit wild with US hops themselves. I see his point. My visit that morning to Kernel Brewery and Brew By Numbers confirmed that he’s not alone. Burrowed into rail tunnels beneath urban, industrial lanes, a vibrant and enthusiastic collection of folks of all ages were gathered at tables and in the fleeting sunlight to revel in a renaissance of British brewing fueled by a string of upstart breweries in this London locale and across the UK. Phish and the Grateful Dead played overhead at Brew By Numbers and a table of Swedish guys chatted next to me as I sipped the gloriously hopped Brown Ale, full of Anglo/Yank inspiration with Bramling Cross and Columbus hops. It was a perfect partner for the freshly cut wedge of Appleby’s Chesire that I scored at the Neal’s Yard Dairy outlet tucked into a tunnel just a block away. Do-it-yourself lunches and Brew By Numbers beer… we’ve evolved to a self-directed reality of nearly limitless options. We’ve learned the alluring details of products and flavors born far from where we live and we’ve become enabled to replicate those things when freshness, price or other limitations make that the wiser option.
So, British brewers can listen to the Grateful Dead and play with American hops to delight local drinkers. Where does this leave me, the guy hoping to increase his export of delightful, American-crafted beers? It doesn’t look good, does it?
But, to the contrary, things were going great at BrewDog, where my Prima, Summer Love, Headwaters, HopDevil, Storm King and Golden Monkey were freshly tapped and flowing madly as thirsty throngs gladly ponied up their hard-earned cash for these premium selections. They asked ample questions of me, genuinely curious of the production of our beers, the sources of our hops and the qualities of Downingtown water. BrewDog and others, liberated by the beacon of American craft brewing, have rolled up their sleeves and forged a new reality for demanding UK beer consumers who value flavor and diversity over cold and cheap. The hospitality operations of the four BrewDog bars I visited stand as a strong driver in the public adoption of these challenging beers. In these uniquely crafted dens, a warm, educational vibe was cheerfully supported by committed and inspired staff. These BrewDog bars, despite the edgy, defiant marketing the brewery has indulged in, were surprisingly populated with a very age diverse crowd. They are downright comfy on all levels, with no shortage of whimsy on the walls and brews to put them head-and-shoulders above cookie cutter restaurant options. The future for beer in the UK looks great from this perspective, as craft beer shines in new venues.
Back to the conversation, our group of three traced the history that delivered each of us to this very moment. We revealed the decisions and epiphanies of our beer enlightenments. We spoke of the beers and brewers that inspired us early on as drinkers and the results were surprisingly varied. For me, I recounted the pilgrimage I had made the day before to The Dove on Thames, a venerable Fullers house and one of the locals of my guru into better beer. British author Michael Jackson’s ‘The World Guide to Beer’ painted a vivid tableau of promising tastes across the globe for me, recently graduated from college and experiencing the nadir of American brewing as just a few years earlier, in 1983, the US had sunk to only 81 operating breweries owned by 50 companies. Outside of our group, Jack McAuliffe was similarly inspired as an American who had served time repairing US submarines in Scotland. He started New Albion Brewing Company (Albion, an ancient name for Britain) in 1976, the first new American brewery to open after Fritz Maytag, slightly to the south of Jack, revitalized the existing Anchor Steam Brewery. Jack had learned the craft of brewing, pre-internet, from British author Dave Line’s ‘Big Book Of Brewing.’
The ensuing rise of American ‘microbreweries’ featured few lagers in the mix as the British culture of ales appeared to be the favored format of American expression. The bulk of lager beers, it seems, had ridden Charon’s dreaded boat across a River Styx of industrialization to remain banished in a hell devoid of flavor and character that hid behind giant shells of marketing, masquerading as venerable brewery names.
A few inspired souls were tempted to salvage the great name and traditions of lager beer brewing and I enjoyed the Pils from German-trained Alistair Hook of Meantime Brewing just yesterday, in the shadows of Europe’s oldest continually operating public market, Borough Market. And, of course, Ron and I received our formal brewing educations in Germany, at the Technical University of Munich at Weihenstephan and Doemens Institute, respectively.
We brewers of the modern era of these last two decades have enjoyed a fantastic consumer response to our products as the flow of information through the internet has made heroes of brewers, and darlings of their brands, across a global spread. But as we all know, the internet is a two-way conductor. Information and, perhaps, frustration, have spawned indigenous brewing revivals in countries that had seemed locked in the grip of insipid, industrial beers. Granted, the UK’s evolution has been a multi-step process which saw consumer revolt lead by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) save some truly traditional brewing, starting in the 70’s. That was fundamentally important to me and many beer drinkers my age. But real ale still represents a few delicious bubbles within the torrent of factory output.
I’m fine with this situation, which of Victory’s potential to be dismissed in foreign markets. As I was inspired by others around the globe, I have always believed that Victory’s role on the international game board was to offer reciprocal inspiration. I have been told, first-hand, that early tastes of the HopDevil or Hop Wallop in the UK (HopDevil first shipped there in 2003) inspired new brewers in the UK. I heard this most recently on the shores of Loch Ness, sipping the Loch Ness Brewery’s delightful beers at the lovely Benleva Hotel last Saturday after an overwhelmingly beautiful walk up Glen Affric.
So, I did this all for you. You: the curious and intrepid beer lover. Myself, and many, many others are making the world a better place for fresh beer, in cities and corners as far as you can wander.
Feel free to wander, after doing your research, of course, and lift the prospects of all breweries with your visit. Realize that each pint of real beer you buy is one less the industrial breweries have to replace. Theirs was a culture of manipulation, whereas ours is a culture of connection.
Click here to watch Sarah Warman from BrewDog review our HopDevil IPA.