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.