Generalisations about beer culture london pubs

Native or Local?

Illustration: government stamp on a British pint glass.

Reading around the blogoshire today, there seems to be a connection to be made between two interesting posts.

First, Matt ‘Total Ales’ Curtis reports on the Hop & Berry, a pub in Islington, North London, which sets out to act a showcase for the booming London brewing scene. (See Beer Guide London for the list we always refer to.) Our first thought was: “Beer geeks visiting London from overseas will find a one-stop-shop very handy.”

But then there’s Joe ‘Thirsty Pilgrim’ Stange writing of a recent trip to London:

As a Traveler with Thirst I don’t really care about British ‘craft beer.’ It’s OK as a curiosity. As a journalist it’s interesting. But these days you can get aromatic, bitter IPA nearly anywhere in the world. Even Costa Rica. Even Germany. Why would I drink that in the UK, which has its own, special, underappreciated thing? Yes, I can see how folks who have drunk brown bitter all their lives might be bored with it. I’m not.

It seems that native style, then, might be a more important idea than local manufacture.

Thought experiment: if you were to visit Berlin, would you feel you’d had a more authentic experience drinking American-brewed Berliner Weisse, or locally made Cascade-hopped IPA?

28 replies on “Native or Local?”

When I travel, I’m always eager to try locally produced beers – but I’m also far more interested in that local beer being the “native style” than some more internationalised style that I can get in my local at home.

That said, in your example I’d be more likely to go for the “locally made Cascade-hopped IPA” – but only a pint, and then I’d go looking for the locally made Berliner Weisse.

I’d skip the “American-brewed Berliner Weisse” until I was in America (well, or at home).

Well, Berlin still has Berliner Kindl Weisse. Even if locals insist on ruining it with the usual pap. Local independents like Brewbaker are making them — and we will see more of those. So you wouldn’t have to drink an American-made Berliner in Berlin. But I see your point.

We haven’t mentioned hybridity yet… interesting cask ales increasingly influenced by bright US hops. I will be watching for German-brewed lagers that do the same. They are around and will multiply. Educated guess.

Only saw tourists drinking the Kindergarten Berliner Weiss on my last two trips in the past 12 months rather than locals. Bit like in Leipzig, I remember the hotel manager looking sideways at me when I said I was desperate to try Gose, but then I don’t think anyone drank it apart from beer travellers, diehards and thirsty types.

I sort of agree with the point, although I think it’s also a bit dodgy to get into a tourist mindset that local brewers should be brewing stuff to provide me with what I think is the Authentic German Beer Experience rather than brewing what they want to brew and what local drinkers want to drink.

That caveat out of the way, to state the obvious a bit, I think there’s plenty of room for both locally produced International Style Craft Beer and actual traditional native styles, as well as locally specific takes on ISCB (I’d imagine that even to an American, finding a US IPA on cask would be a relatively interesting thing) or ISCB-influenced developments in traditional native styles (it being a living tradition, after all…), and I think the interplay between all of these is generally a Good Thing.

My brother recently visited from San Francisco and refused to drink any IPAs, anything described as “hoppy” or anything above 5% during his trip – stuck to Otter Ales, 6X, Abbey Ales etc etc, the “proper English stuff you can’t get back home”.

If I had to choose I would probably go “native” as well, to be honest – although I would definitely be interested to try a CAMRA-compliant 4% cask bitter made in California. Or I suppose I would at least want there to be a particularly interesting local twist on the ISCB, for example (craft wanker alert) Xiamen-based Amoy Brau’s use of a local Chinese fruit in their witbeer – not so bothered about someone’s attempt to perfectly replicate a West Coast IPA.

I like diversity, so I’d go for both. I don’t know about the native bit, though. The revival of old styles, may I suggest a new term – zombie beers – would never have happened without the international beer trend, If there was a living tradition of brewing old fashioned Berliner Weisse, I would surely go for that. But Berlin is not like Düsseldorf, where you still can get the real thing. The most authentic beers in Berlin if you are keen on tradition are probably some of the Schwarzbiers.

When I visit the States I often see imported Belgian beers that I don’t always see at home in the UK but I always think ‘why would I drink a beer from Belgium when there’s all this great American stuff to get through!’

When traveling, I look for many things and try to optimize the situation. When I travel to the UK, I hope to have something that is native and local. I cannot say if that is useful for a marketing type to determine what kind of beer to brew. My personal opinion is that is best driven by talent and ingredient availability. Then couple that with good cellarmanship, service, etc. I personally would eschew purchasing even the hardest to find American made beers, while overseas. This is because the chance that I can get it in the states is still higher than the chance that I’ll get to experience something about the place to which I’ve traveled. (Besides, “the brewers” say that those famous American IPAs (Heady Topper, Pliny) have to be had extremely fresh or their not the same……oh, bother – another tangent.)

I would have thought the UK was more distinctive than any other country, how many other places in the world can you get the range of traditional cask beer we have in pubs here nowadays?

The comment seemed to be using “craft” in the sense of US-inspired-craft, though – asking why you’d go to London from the US and then drink cold, fizzy, grapefruit-flavoured beer that’s trying as hard as possible to be like the stuff that you’d normally drink at home anyway.

I’ve heard some people suggesting that bits of the UK craft scene are starting to evolve distinct local interpretations of the international styles anyway (as well as there being a much greater tendency to put stuff in casks) and hence developing a “native” thing of their own. But to be honest, I don’t drink enough US stuff to know whether that’s happening or not.

One of the delights of being home in the summer was the sheer creativity I saw on display from brewers like Cromarty and Isle of Skye, most of it on cask. Just as impressive were classic British styles from the likes of Kelburn and Durham. I get the feeling that if British brewing can avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater and find a distinctly British take on ‘craft’ beer (rather than being the beer equivalent of Wimpy) then everyone’s a winner.

The several beers I had from Cromarty Brewing stick in my mind, session strength, superbly put together, bursting with New World hops, and just so damned drinkable – which is just what I want in a beer.

It’s a bit of a thorny issue to some. As a Yank living in Franconia (the beery part, not the winey part) for the last 10 years, I have gone through a bit of evolution on this. We moved here when I had been in a serious “continental lager” phase for a couple of years or so, and those that know Franconia know that it’s the best part of the world for diversity of interesting lagers outside of the funny little country to the east. So, it was utterly fabulous. For a few years.

Back then, I was appalled at the idea of anyone wanting pale ale or whatever here, it just didn’t belong. I can appreciate and sympathise with tourists who don’t want their touristic experience ruined by seeing a pale ale or anything trendier than that on tap. (Yes, at even ONE of the hundreds of little breweries.)

But now…well, I just wish the kids doing all the “Craftbier” here had been inspiried by Mallinson’s or Fuller’s, rather than Farmstead (Fucking!) Hill or whatever.

As to the question…when I’m in England, it’s as a tourist, and I want both proper boring, brown bitter and US-hopped golden ale (under 4%, please), though I’ll try something more interesting on cask. I’d be curious to try English versions of Kellerbier or Dunkel. So, traditional and yet not necessarily, so long as it’s cask and *good*.

I’ve spent less than a month in the US in the 10 years I’ve been gone, so am quite out of touch with the “beer scene” there. When there, I’m on the lookout for Mallinson’s clones, but as keg “session IPA” isn’t as good as well-hopped casked golden ales, I’m normally disappointed. I’d try Yankee Kellerbier too, but am not really on the look out for it.

Now back to my bottle of Pilsner Urquell.

There’s more to English beer than shitty brown bitter. We also do a decent line in milds and porters.

Last year Steve and Gail, Bay Area contributors to Celebrator magazine, were in London and we met up for a drink. They bemoaned the fact that many of their London beer friends had been dragging them round places saying “you must try this” and “you must try that” and most of what this and that turned out to be were UK-brewed pale ales and IPAs dosed with US hops, of the sort they can find on every corner back home in San Francisco. “What we really want,” they said, “is good, well balanced cask brown bitters and milds, because that’s the sort of beer we rarely get back home.” I’ve used that example a few times since to push back on pressure when writing about contemporary British beer to focus only on the “craft” side, as if the previous four decades had never existed.

To me a healthy beer scene is all about diversity. The annoying myopia and conservatism of a certain section of beer appreciation in the UK doesn’t detract from the fact that Britain’s cask beer heritage is unique and valuable, and its low gravity, subtle, balanced, gently carbonated beers are outstanding at what they do. To turn your back on them and insist that the only beers worth drinking are carbonated keg beers dosed with 75 IBUs of Citra and Amarillo is the flip side of insisting that all lager is yellow fizz and ultimately just as perversely self-denying. Surely celebrating good beer shoudl be about diversity and understanding what a gloriously varied and multipurpose drink beer can be.

“To turn your back on them and insist that the only beers worth drinking are carbonated keg beers dosed with 75 IBUs of Citra and Amarillo”

Is there anyone that has actually ever insisted this? The UK craft beer movement is about increasing choice and diversity of style, not replacing one stupid autocratic regime with another one.

Well, Brewdog for one (and presumably by extension legions of Brewdog fanboys) certainly don’t think that “Britain’s cask beer heritage” is unique and valuable enough to stock any in their bars. ISTR other New Wave Keg brewers quoted in Brew Britannia as being actively anti-cask as well.

And all the “boring brown beer” rhetoric presumably isn’t intended to imply that there’s also lots of subtle, complex, interesting brown beer.

I’m not saying it’s what everyone involved in “craft beer” denigrates traditional British beer styles, but there’s certainly a strong tendency in that direction from some quarters.

If all brown beer was boring, then saying “boring brown beer” would be unnecessarily tautological.
The problem is not that brown beer is boring, the problem is that 90% of the brown beer SOLD is boring, in fact most of the most popular brands are pretty insipid and unpleasant.

Plenty of brown beer is also really, really excellent though, whether its real ale or not. I don’t know whether I’d call it subtle though, its just flavoursome in a different way.

The opponents of CAMRA are not opposing the product, they’re opposing the divisive and antiquated system of categorisation that divides beer into largely meaningless camps based on something as tenuous as method of dispense. Most craft beer drinkers love cask ale. I drink 10 pints of cask for every pint of keg, because most of the interesting beer is on cask.

Brewdog have distanced themselves from cask ale as a deliberate marketing positioning to create a separation between their beer and the deeply unfashionable image of cask ale. It was a shrewd move and it worked brilliantly, but its pragmatism, not idealism.

Okay, so if the craft scene is generally supportive of traditional British beer styles as part of the great world of stylistic diversity, which currently fashionable craft breweries produce a traditional best bitter? Or a mild?

Timmy taylor. Oakham. Dark Star. Crouch Vale. Thornbridge. Adnams. Buntingford. Milton. Marble. Liverpool Organic. Batemans. Salopian. Stonehouse.

Christ I could go on for years. Most of them, is the answer.

How about The Kernel? Or Partizan? Magic Rock? Brewdog? Meantime? Siren? Camden Town? Wild Beer? Buxton? Weird Beard?

I’m not saying that everyone involved in what could broadly be called craft beer is a fundamentalist extremophile, but to me it seems pretty obvious that there’s a significant faction of craft brewers and craft beer drinkers who basically aren’t interested in traditional British cask bitters…

Brewdog used to do a mild. Not sure about the others.
But either way, I’m not really sure what your point is. Some breweries specialise in certain particular types of beer, some in others. There was a massive gap in the market for more modern styles, and breweries are flooding to fill it. A sensible business decision to my mind.

Lots of craft breweries don’t do a black IPA – so would you conclude that “there’s certainly a strong tendency from some quarters” to denigrate non-traditional styles.

I think your argument doesn’t really hold up. I go in craft beer pubs all the time, and the bitters and milds are always the most popular drinks on the bar.

There are far, far more craft breweries that DO do a bitter or mild than those that don’t, so to represent the craft brewing industry as somehow “against” traditional styles is wilful ignorance of the reality.

Dave/py — in the middle of proofreading something at the moment, so just a quick reply:

Yes, I think it is fair to say that there are quite a few UK brewers entirely disinterested in bitter, and especially mild. They sometimes make them anyway but call them ‘amber’ or ‘red’ or something like that, and we sense their hearts aren’t always in it.

I haven’t go time to dig out a link but there have been some great snidey, catty conversations about mild between hop-fixated brewers on Twitter.

It’s not the brewers I was talking about, it’s some of the punters. I have genuinely met people who seem to think the only beer worth drinking was invented by Vinnie Cilurzo in 1994 (And don’t get me wrong, that’s not Vinnie’s fault, he’s a knowledgable brewer with a deep respect for brewing tradition and Pliny is definitely one of my all time top beers). And the abuse I got on Twitter when I put Fuller’s Chiswick in my Top 10 London beers in a View London piece a couple of years back was something to behold.

Of course there are always idiot fanboys but a bit more worrying is the dominance of certain fashionable brewers in the London pubs I’ve been visiting to update my books — nearly all brewers who are very good at what they do, but they seem to have totally ousted several equally good but not so fashionable brewers who were everywhere a few years back but now must be wondering what happened to the floor.

The slagging you’ll get for liking Fuller’s won’t be from Citra-loving hipsters, it will be from idiot Camra members who haven’t got Watney’s to hate any more and so hate Fullers/Wells/Marstons instead. God, those people infuriate me – if it’s made in a mash tun bigger than a footbath, and available in more that three pubs, they’re going to hate on it.

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