American vs. British Beer in 1996

GABF 1996 logo.

In the autumn of 1996 Britain sent a delegation of beer experts to judge at the Great American Beer Festival: Roger Protz, veteran beer writer; Alastair Hook, pioneering UK lager brewer; and Sean Franklin, generally reckoned to be the first British brewer to make a feature of American Cascade hops.

All three con­tributed to an arti­cle in tech­ni­cal trade mag­a­zine The Grist for November/December that year. Protz com­plained that the cold Amer­i­can beer gave him gut-ache while Hook reflect­ed on the logis­tics and cul­ture sur­round­ing the event. But Franklin’s com­ments, which focus on the dif­fer­ence between British and Amer­i­can beers in those days before ‘craft beer’ was the phrase on every­one’s lips, are the most inter­est­ing.

He judged the Märzen, robust porter, Eng­lish bit­ter and bar­ley wine cat­e­gories, not India Pale Ale as you might assume from read­ing this:

In ret­ro­spect I saw four com­mon denom­i­na­tors. First because the Amer­i­can small brew­ers are much more into bot­tling than we are, the beers, in the main, looked very good. Sec­ond­ly, as you’d expect, there was a lot of Amer­i­can hop char­ac­ter in the beers, plen­ty of grape­fruit, flow­ery cit­rusy aro­mas – Chi­nook, Cas­cade and Cen­ten­ni­al. Lots of very char­ac­ter­ful, drink­able beers. Third­ly, some of the Amer­i­can beers have more ‘weight’ to them than UK beers. Cer­tain­ly to give a bal­anced beer at the US serv­ing tem­per­a­ture the beers need to be big­ger in ‘weight’ and char­ac­ter than our own. Fourth, and most impor­tant, most US micro­brew­eries now see beer as a ‘qual­i­ty’ prod­uct. They have pro­ject­ed  fash­ion­able edge onto their prod­ucts. The qual­i­ty match­es the mar­ket­ing.

Cold, weighty, char­ac­ter­ful, per­fumed… It’s easy to under­stand how that turned the heads of British beer drinkers, and brew­ers. And even if the details have changed and new styles have emerged it still feels like a fair sum­ma­ry of the dif­fer­ences between Amer­i­can beer in gen­er­al and the more tra­di­tion­al British approach.

4 thoughts on “American vs. British Beer in 1996”

  1. It was a few months lat­er, June 97, that I first went to New Eng­land and sam­pled the local beers. To be hon­est, I was sur­prised to find any­thing worth drink­ing; I was aware of brew­eries in Wash­ing­ton State and Cal­i­for­nia, but noth­ing on the east coast. IPA was scarce­ly a thing back then, very few micros (not craft yet in gen­er­al use) offered one – I recall Har­poon and Ship­yard off the top of my head, but I will have to check my notes. Amer­i­can Pale Ale was fair­ly ubiq­ui­tous, and well on the way to IPA in many cas­es, and quite a few brew­ers con­cen­trat­ed main­ly on Ger­man styles. Absolute­ly noth­ing with Bel­gian ori­gins then, even Blue Moon, which was there the next time we went.
    The one non-local beer that cropped up fre­quent­ly (apart from all the Big Beer rub­bish, which I avoid­ed save for one exper­i­men­tal Pab­st Blue Rib­bon) was Sier­ra Neva­da Pale Ale.
    The hop char­ac­ter was cer­tain­ly there in all the APAs, but I don’t recall it in any oth­er beer, or for that mat­ter in any of the pale ales not described as Amer­i­can. Nor was it sig­nif­i­cant­ly fur­ther for­ward in the IPAs of the time, although that did change over the next 5 years.
    The stouts all appeared to be decent exam­ples, but if I’m hon­est, the oth­er styles were all a tri­fle dull – that said, I do find that to be the case for some of the styles in gen­er­al – nev­er been a huge fan of Kolsch, for exam­ple.

    1. I agree sub­stan­tial­ly with Nick, and the dich­to­momy claimed endur­ing in the post. This Amer­i­can taste actu­al­ly starts in the 1970s. Refined, inten­si­fied, it’s basic char­ac­ter remains as it akways was and this is why I style it APA/IPA often.

      The weighty qual­i­ty RP and many noticed in these beers was the all-malt. The Eng­lish use of sug­ar light­ened its beers in con­trast.


    2. Also, it’s prob­a­bly fair to say that what Sean was say­ing was fair­ly use­ful in terms of self-pro­mo­tion. Roost­ers was well and tru­ly on the go, and any nar­ra­tive that pushed the Amer­i­can hop char­ac­ter was, er, grist to the mill of self-pro­mo­tion. For which I blame him not one jot; he was always evan­gel­i­cal about the hop, even when I met him a decade or more before at Franklins.

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