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If You Can’t Get X Try Y

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?

Thornbridge beer bottle caps.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:

https://twitter.com/CaveNorthJim/status/672076016282705921

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.

22 replies on “If You Can’t Get X Try Y”

I go to the US fairly frequently – it’s been twice a year for the last five years – and often to different areas.

Some beers travel well to the UK (Lagunitas IPA, Odell, Stone when you get it fresh, plus the stouts and sours) but most just do not and are old, oxidised, sweet and just not great (which comes with a comical side note: there are beers brewed to taste like these stale IPAs because the brewers assume that’s how they taste in the US… Luckily that doesn’t seem to happen in the UK).

For me, there are not many great examples of comparable beers. I’ll focus on IPAs as they are the beers which benefit most from freshness. Brewdog’s Born to Die is one of the best ones – it’s just like a fresh US IPA in how dry and clean it is. I agree that Halcyon is also comparable. Kernel do things their own way and without trying their IPAs are tasting like what more of the newer US IPAs are tasting like – the lightly hazy, super fruity, low-bitter IPAs. I also disagree with Gary. Heady Topper is not like any of those beers. Cloudwater’s DIPA isn’t too far off HT, but it also isn’t that close – HT really is like tropical juice.

I find that the malt profile is one notable difference: more malt here, chewier rather than subtle, and the better US beers have a very clean flavour profile (more like Camden’s IHL). The hops are also typically fresher, brighter in the US. Something like Beavertown Gamma Ray is almost chocolatey in its malt body, whereas a comparable Californian Pale Ale would be biscuity and toasty, if you notice the malt at all.

These are, of course, generalisations made about the better-known beers. There is a lot of great US beer but there is also variable quality.

On the flipside, I’ve rarely had a great English bitter in the US, not have I had legit German-style helles, for example (some notable standouts: Mr Kite’s English Pale Ale from Social Brewery, San Francisco, and the lagers from Prost in Denver and Urban Chestnut in St Louis)

Very interesting and informative ta, I think for 2016 my aim is to forgo US imports in favour of their fresher British cousins so huzzah for that sort of thing.

Off topic, but the thing that always strikes me about the US craft beer scene is its sheer ubiquity. Go into any bog-standard bar, and there will be 5-6 local draught craft beers on the blackboard. I literally didn’t go into a single bar where there was no draught craft beer. Some of them are weird too – Black Goses and Berliner Weisses and the like.

Go in any supermarket or convenience store, and 50% of the beers will be craft beer. and not sold in single bottles like they are here as if they’re some kind of premium product like its an occasional treat, but sold in 6 packs, like its stuff that everyday Joe might put in his fridge to drink in front of the game. Americans have realised that craft beer is not a niche product. Given the choice, a significant proportion of people would drink it day in, day out.

I picked up a 6 pack of Sierra Nevada Torpedo for $10. That’s about £1 a bottle. Over here, you might get that in Tesco, if you’re very lucky, for about £2.50.

I’d love to see something of similar quality available at such sensible prices over here. I won’t hold my breath.

I would kill for cask Proper Job* here in the US. Well kept PJ (ideally in a random country pub) is a drinking experience that, in my humble experience, matches that of Russian River or many other ‘Premier League’ American breweries.

*Amongst others Dark Star American Pale Ale, Oakham Citra, or Salopian Oracle may also be substituted, but these are less likely to be chanced upon.

One of my favourites when I visit Cornwall. Also enjoy Porthleven from Skinners and almosat anything from Penzance Brewining AKA the Star Inn in Crowlas.

One suspects the enjoyment of a beer can be equated to a sense of space and time. Nostalgia, memory. My Bootleg, your Proper Job, their Pliny.

Born to Die — one of the best riffs on the west coast style I’ve had outside Oregon, the nose has that appetising savoury note mingling in with the Carmen Mirandas. Magic Rock do the west coast thing good as well.

Well, even 4 years ago I remember drinking – in Leicester Square – Jaipur IPA – on cask – and I assure you it’s like a 1000 U.S. IPAs then and now. Punk IPA same thing.

To be sure new hop varieties are coming out all the time but they tend to be variations on a theme. British brewers – those minded to make these styles which is an increasing number – get the same hops we do from PNW on the East Coast. They store very well today and British brewers, from my own experience and what I’ve read,. are doing exactly what we are.

While I haven’t been to England for 3 years or so, I regularly sample beers, often on cask, from the “hot” English breweries, and not a small number as we get them at cask festivals held locally or as imports to Gingerman in NYC and other bars there.

Once again, the taste range is very similar to what we get here. Two weeks ago I had a Hill Farmstead dry-hopped beer at Gingerman. It was nice with a touch of peach in the finish but no different, once again, to countless local and American IPAs and beers in that genre.

As for imports, I fully understand that many beers reach destination too late but that was a problem before the IPA craze and before the craft beer era and will always remain one. All you can do is sedulously read date codes on labels … they are your friend. The bigger-bodied and ABV beers won’t be harmed too much though.

England is there, and then some. I wish it would go back and accent its own hop heritage more, but that’s another story (or is it?).

Gary

But… they just don’t taste as nice. None of the tropical fruit juiciness so beloved of young drinkers. That’s the bottom line here.

Not my experience at all and this autumn I’ve tasted pints – cask – from Beavertown, Magic Rock, Siren, Moor and Harbour amongst numerous bottled exports.

Of course, it’s a subjective thing, all beer talk is, but that’s my view.

Gary

Y’know, someone should really come up with a beer style that actually tastes better after being shipped halfway round the world. That could be a winner…

(Trying again – think I bodged my own email address last time!)

As a temporary St Louisan & friend of Urban Chestnut, nice to see a name check from Judge Dredge & I heartily agree!

Interestingly I’d say St Louis has another hero of fresh authentic European-style beer in Civil Life Brewing. A chilled-out, welcoming bar, good fresh-made food & delicious (generally non-murky!) cask & keg beers, often in modern or trad UK styles.

Understated, relaxed, community-minded, great session beers, good food, an ace annual music, beer & BBQ festival, but as their name suggests, brooking no incivility – they embody some of the best things of UK & European beer & pub culture, but in their own style too.

Remind me why I don’t get over there more!?????

That sounds very good Mike, I hope they have St. Louis raviolis there too – maybe it`s a safe bet you can`t get them in London – yet – but I`ve had few if any American beer styles I haven`t encountered in England or in exported in keg, cask or bottle.

The only limitation would be, there aren`t as many such beers there as here, that point was made in a comment above and is fair enough. But good beers are easy to search out with a little work, hey we managed somehow before the Internet and before 1980…

Gary

There is nothing in the posts above that makes me want to drink more than the odd U.S. I.P.A. We’ve got cask beer, bottled beer like Fuller’s Vintage Ale and wonderful Belgian beers are just a Eurostar trip away. Grapefruit isn’t my favourite flavour in beer.

This is an interesting observation which I think speaks more to culture than the offerings. I’ve had comparable beers in the US and UK since the 1970s. The entire micro boom in the US was based on an interest in UK beers, Pugsley in Maine training with Austin (right name?) in England. Yorkshire Squares still dot the northeastern states. Recent trips to the UK found me facing high hop IPA on many menus and chalkboards. Imports fill in the gaps even if stale and pricey. In the 5000 brewery universe, over 20,000 brands make for little chance that everything can be found everywhere. So many identa-beers. The only issue for me is price. So much mention is made in the UK discourse about commonplace gas station US big craft like Sierra Nevada Torpedo or Six Point Bengali Tiger that I fear there is a gap in the discourse, that somehow these are thought rare. This wouldn’t be a question with good wine where value and substitution options are a major topic. Why hasn’t that happened with good beer?

” I fear there is a gap in the discourse, that somehow these are thought rare.”
Slightly confused what you mean by this – any chance you could expand / clarify?

I think that value seems to be a fairly major topic in beer – mentioning the price of craft beer pretty much guarantees 500 comments on a blog post – but it’s seldom talked about in a particularly constructive fashion. I wish that more people would say “this beer seems overpriced here when I can get that beer more cheaply there” rather than just “the price of this beer is ridiculous”.

Sure thing. Relative value is not much discussed, if you like this have that at 20% less. You will hear it, though, about a beer like St.B Abt 12 or Fullers Porter as they are classics and classic value. And, to be fair, the U.K. benefits enormously from CAMRA as a counterweight to beer communication aggrandizements and the praise of the high priced experience. We might call that the Team Tandy approach to good beer. But I believe it is not being given the voice it deserves and is silent if not silenced here in NAm. It is certainly nowhere near the forefront of the discourse that it is in good wine.

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