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.

3 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.

      Gary

    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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