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.
In the week that Thornbridge announced it would begin canning beer after years of resistance we happened across an amusing article on the same subject in a 1935 edition of the New Yorker magazine.
It appeared without byline in the ‘Talk of the Town’ section in the issue for 30 November and begins like this:
We resigned from the Foreign Legion last week and joined the war between the beer-bottle people and the beer-can people. It is a lot more fun. We spent the entire week teasing bottle men about cans, and can men about bottles. “Is it true,” we asked Mr. Hopper, of the Continental Can Company, “that glass is a better insulator than tin?” “Is it a fact,” we asked Mr. Norrington, of the Glass Container Association of American, “that beer in Continental Cans is how beer ought to taste?” “Is it true,” we asked Mr. Odquist, of the American Can Company, “that the use of the can is complicated by the uncertain vicissitudes of international trade and amity?” We even called up Ruppert’s and asked them if it was a fact they were still put beer in funny old-fashioned bottles, instead of in “keg-lined cans” that have that “fresh from the brewery” flavor. They got so excited they made us come up to the brewery and take a blindfold test to see if we could tell draught beer from bottled beer. We failed, time and time again, time and time again. Gol darn, we’ve had fun lately!
The article goes on to describe attempts by the various different can manufacturers to talk down each others products as resembling tomato tins or oil canisters respectively.
Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn joined on the side of the can, and presented us with twenty-three reasons it is better than the bottle, including Reason No. 13: “The housewife is used to the can.”
It was during this period of intense competition, the article suggests, that the ‘stubby bottle’ was invented as the glass answer to the can’s compact form, but there were dirty tricks, too:
The can people, hearing that glass men were openly branding a can-opener as a “deadly weapon,” developed the “cap-sealed can,” which opens just like a bottle. The bottle people, a little bit sick of some of the extravagant claims of the tin folk, quietly placed chemists at work, with a view to showing that the can group is a bunch of liars…. It’s hard to know whom to believe. Champions of the can say that light hurts beer. The glass people say that’s nonsense — heat, not light, hurts beer.
There’s some surprisingly detailed technical talk about lining for cans, too, designed to prevent the beer tasting metallic, with one manufacturer implying that their lining was similar to the resin pitch used in beer kegs, which, as the New Yorker gleefully points out, it really wasn’t.
It’s fascinating to read something from a moment when the can had yet to prove itself:
At present, most canned beer is sold in the South; but Continental now has a contract with Schlitz, and American with Pabst, so Milwaukee is now beginning to can its brew. So far, no New York brewery has gone over. Piel’s and Rubsam & Horrmann are blossoming out with “stubbies,” the new-day bottle. The steel industry is counting on 1,500,000,000 beer cans in 1936.
As we know, the can certainly did take off, and after decades of association with the most commodified of commodity beer, has had a strange resurgence in popularity and credibility in just the past decade. And yet more or less the same criticisms are voiced and the same claims are made — “cools faster” says the 1935 ad above, and that’s still a major selling point today. It’s a sign of the times, though, that disposability, a key benefit in 1935, has been replaced on the checklist with recyclability in 2018.
The concoctions those knights dispensed fill an even richer lexicon, veering from the euphemistic ‘tiger’s milk’ to the blatant invitation of ‘strip-me-naked’. Add those to the 3,000 words English currently holds for the state of being drunk (including ‘ramsquaddled’, ‘obfusticated’, ‘tight as a tick’, and the curious ‘been too free with Sir Richard’) and you’ll find that the only subjects that fill the pages of English slang more are money and sex.
(But has she quite got that bit on Bride-ale right?)
Americans are finding their palates, which is a sign of maturity. This is not a new point here at the blog, but it’s becoming more pointed. When a country develops its own beer culture, diversity declines. This is why Belgian and British ales don’t taste the same, nor Czech and German lagers. Americans have found their groove, and it is lined with the residue of sticky yellow lupulin.