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.