For various reasons (time, money, fear of flying) we’ve never been to the US and don’t plan to go any time soon which means our experience of American beer is either vicarious or through imports which we suspect, and are repeatedly told, lack the ‘zing’ of the same beers drunk on home turf.
Increasingly, that leaves us feeling slightly lost when beers such as Russian River Pliny the Elder or Alchemist Heady Topper are discussed as benchmarks of a sub-style or flavour profile.
That prompted us to ask the following question on Twitter:
Can someone better travelled than us compile a conversion chart showing which easy-to-find UK beers are most like hard-to-find US ones?
We’re not necessarily talking about clones and realise that there aren’t going to be many beers that are identical, but there must be a few out there that would give people trouble in a blind taste test. For example, we were once told by a hop-obsessed brewer that Thornbridge Halcyon at its freshest gets pretty close to Pliny — a thought echoed by Matt Curtis here. (Which is handy as there’s a new batch of bottled Halcyon going on sale on their website sometime around now.)
We got some other suggestions in response to our Tweet:
@BoakandBailey Ahh ok. So recently Cloudwater DIPA & Buxton Dbl Axe. This year, Bloody Ell, Two Tonne, Beavers Phantom Series..
— Alex Greig (@GreigAlex) November 29, 2015
The main event, however, has been a very helpful email from Gary AKA @TheAleTrail. He’s kindly given us permission to quote a big chunk of it:
As a beer fan, being lucky enough to visit the USA fairly regularly is a real bonus… In the last couple of years I’ve managed to come by some world class IPAs which I always try to bring home to share out. But something has definitely started to change in my appreciation of these US hop monsters — we can get just as good here in the UK… mostly….
As you know it’s all about freshness when you’re wanting that huge aroma and tropical fruit hit. The flavour profiles of lupulin laden IPA’s alter over a matter of weeks…. and months murder them.
Most American IPA’s and Pales are transported by road/rail and container-ship to the UK. The very few such as Stone ‘Enjoy By’ might be flown over. The ship time from US brewery packaging via pickup then onto road/rail, container ports, customs, import agent and distribution to your glass is at least eight weeks, especially if the beer’s coming from the West Coast. Don’t get me wrong, there are some malty back-boned IPAs such as Ska Modus Hoperandi which are decent after six to eight weeks but when you’re wanting the real pale beer tropical hit, time really tells.
A recent example here was Stone’s Thunderstruck IPA. In the first week of September I had this in bottle and on draft at Stone in San Diego. BrewDog shipped some over appearing in their bars about 6-8 weeks later. It still tasted great but boy those hops had rounded off, it was nothing like the fresh 2 week old stuff I had in CA.
So, what compares?
Pliny The Elder is a tough one, its an old school American DIPA so not a huge tropical fruit zesty hit like more modern IPAs deliver. It’s 8% and crystal clear, balancing the malts with a real thick piney hop hit. Extremely pintable, the nearest beer I’ve had to it in the UK would be something like Thornbridge ‘Jaipur X’, Roosters ‘Baby Faced Assassin’ – these comparables show you what I mean when I say it’s a real malt balance rather than huge hop delivery. I wouldn’t go out of my way to find Pliny any more; there are better beers to my own IPA taste.
Heady Topper is easier to compare… The likes of Buxton Axe Edge, BrewDog’s Born To Die 27/11/15, JackHammer and Thornbridge Halcyon, Magic Rock Human Cannonball all taste just as good.
Where the UK beers come into their own is when you come down the ABV scale a little.
The likes of Siren Soundwave, Wylam Jakehead, Vocation Life&Death, Magic Rock Cannonball/HighWire, Oakham Green Devil, Kernel S.C.A.N.S, Redchurch Great Eastern, Summer Wine Diablo all would be lapped up across the pond. There’s no need to go running to your nearest bottle shop to pick up a dusty old Sculpins, Hoppin’ Frogs, and Lagunitas when we’ve got these great UK beers all fresher on your doorstep. Drop down the ABV even further and little old UK comes into it’s own – the US have nothing really to compare to the likes of Kernel Table Beer, Magic Rock Simpleton, Siren QIPA and Vocation Heart&Soul all wonderful session ales.
Stouts are a different beast, the ‘queue round the block’ beers are still all American: Founders CBS, 3 Floyds Dark Lord and Goose Island Bourbon County still pretty hard to beat over here, although the likes of BrewDog with Black Eyed King Imp and Siren’s collaboration brewed and barrel aged stouts are top notch.
So there’s a starter for ten. If you’re someone who knows both US and UK beer scenes and you’ve spotted some family resemblances, let us know in the comments below.
It might also be worth extending this thinking. The well-travelled Velky Al at Fuggled has some strong ideas about which beers in his current location come closest to the experience of drinking in Prague, for example.
PS. We do realise that, on the flipside, we’re lucky to be able to drink and appreciate cask conditioned bitter any day of the week, which many beer geeks worldwide no doubt envy.