Around the world, the feast of St Patrick — the patron saint of Ireland — on March 17 is celebrated with a pint (or several) of Guinness. Meanwhile, St George’s Day on April 23, when we could be raising a glass to the dragon-slaying patron saint of England, tends to pass by without a mention, let alone a drink.
But this year, that’s all about to change. Charlie Pountney, a man whose passion for British brewing led him to found Indie Ales, a London-based beer tour and tasting company that he runs alongside his full-time banking job, has put together a St George’s Day event featuring the best English beers.
The English Beer Problem
Until just a couple of years ago, the idea of an evening spent tasting English beers would not have been very compelling. At all. While craft brewing took off in the United States more than two decades ago, the English pint has been stuck in a rut.
It’s not that the English don’t like to drink beer. Far from it. World Health Organisation statistics reveal that British men drink an average of 1110 pints a year, putting the country in fourth place in the global alcohol consumption stakes (Americans only clock in at 720 pints a head).
It’s just that, until recently, going for a beer in England meant settling for a glass of fizzy Continental piss (Heineken and Stella Artois, I’m looking at you) or joining the middle-aged men in dubious sweaters for a flat, brown, extremely bitter “real” ale, complete with sediment at the bottom. It’s enough to drive you to alcopops.
Charlie Pountney points out that my assessment of the British beer scene is not quite fair. Both Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery and Frederick Louis Maytag III of Anchor Steam have gone on record crediting the diversity and quality of traditional English ales for their inspiration to start craft brewing in America.
The problem, Pountney explains, was that the UK’s dominant system of tied houses, in which pubs are either wholly owned or contracted to one specific brewery, pushed the industry toward consolidation and squeezed out ambitious new breweries by shutting off their path to distribution. Meanwhile, the English tradition of cask conditioning, in which “live” ale continues fermenting in the barrel and thus only has a shelf life of two or three days, meant that good beer had trouble going national. Pasteurized, mass-produced Carlsberg and Fosters picked up the slack, making beers that tasted the same every time and cost half the price.
Craft Beer Jumps the Pond
So what prompted England’s current, semi-miraculous craft beer revival? Pountney credits a 2002 tax break for breweries under a certain size, followed by the property crash of 2008, which left industrial spaces vacant and pushed newly unemployed home brewers to commercialize their passion.
The real push, however, came from America’s craft brew scene: Brooklyn Brewery, Anchor Steam, and Sierra Nevada, all originally inspired by English ales, started showing up in British supermarkets five years ago, and in turn got a new generation of both drinkers and brewers excited about the flavour possibilities of small-batch, artisanal brewing. From a low of 140 breweries of all sizes in 1970, Britain boasted roughly 400 by 2005, up to an incredible 1,500 today.
What to Drink on April 23
So, which of these new beers is worthy of a dragon slayer? If you’re in London, you should join Pountney’s tasting on April 23, or do your own brewery crawl along “Beer Mile,” a cluster of exciting new breweries built into the railway arches running southwest from London Bridge. For the rest of us, here’s a guide to some of the best new beer coming out of England.
The IPA style was invented in England, as brewers added extra hops to their beers to help preserve them on the long journey from the motherland to colonial India. Thornbridge, a small brewery founded in 2005, in Bakewell, Derbyshire, makes an American-style version that uses West Coast hops (Chinook and Centennial) to give a more fruity, citrusy flavour, while still retaining the English tradition of live ale by leaving yeast in the bottle. It’s a little less bitter and punchy and a little more grassy and floral than a typical American IPA, and has won pretty much every award going. You can find it at a handful of good beer shops and bars across the U.S., and in Waitrose supermarkets in England.
Brown Ale: The Kernel’s India Brown Ale
It’s an unpromising name for a style, first used by London brewers in the late 17th century to describe beers made with brown, rather than the more common pale, malts. Newcastle Brown Ale (widely available) made the Northern version of the style, with a coppery colour, mild sweetness, and very little hop aroma, ubiquitous. Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale is another, and, to my mind, better example of an English brown ale that is also relatively easy to find, at least in larger cities.
Drinkers used to the big mouthfeel of American craft beer will find both of these beers a little thin, however. Instead, Pountney recommends trying a more experimental brown ale being made by new London “Beer Mile” brewery, The Kernel. Their India Brown Ale is an odd drink (in a good way) — dark brown and with a promising, stout-like caramel aroma, but only a medium body and then a slightly hoppy, dry finish.
Porter: Meantime Brewing’s London Porter
Meantime is the grandaddy of the new craft brewery movement in the U.K., founded in 2000, and boasting a shiny new 60,000-barrel-a-year brewery and a distribution deal with the Young’s pub company’s network of tied houses. Their London Porter is extremely traditional and a bit lighter than a lot of U.S. versions of the style — which makes it more drinkable, but also somehow a little disappointing to my palate, trained by American beers to expect rich aromas of chocolate and coffee to be accompanied by an equally dense mouthfeel. (This is a recurring theme with English beers: Pountney explained that traditional British hop varieties, such as Fuggles and East Kent Goldings, are more floral and less bitter than their U.S. equivalents, which means they need less malt to balance them out, resulting in a thinner beer overall.)
Meantime is distributed reasonably widely in the US, but to try Pountney’s absolute favourite porter, Anspach Hobday’s The Porter, you’ll have to visit London — the tiny brewery only makes one barrel at a time!
Saison: Brew by Numbers
Pountney is including a Saison in his St George’s Day line up to reflect the growing fashion for Belgian-inspired sour styles among London’s new craft brewers. Brew by Numbers is a super smart experimental brewery that takes a style and tweaks it repeatedly, putting out each different version under a new number. They’re up to 9 on the Saison already, with 01 being with Citra hops, then 02 with Amarillo hops and added orange, and so on. I tried 06, with Motueka hops and lime, and could hardly believe how refreshing and zingy it was. Pountney declared himself a fan of the 08, which is based on Wai-iti hops and lemon and also sounds pretty good. Highly recommended, but hard to find outside of the UK, sadly.
Pountney’s not planning to serve a lager at his St George’s Day celebration, “because we’re not making any good ones.” Take that as a challenge, brewers of Britain!
Whether or not you think slaying a dragon is a good thing, St George’s Day offers a great opportunity to taste the results of England’s exciting, if late, craft beer revolution. Let us know your favourite discoveries in the comments.