Friday, 19 October 2018

Ale Britannia

Regular readers will be aware that I’ve not always seen eye to eye with beer writer Pete Brown. He can talk a lot of sense when he sticks to the subject, but unfortunately too often he can’t help bringing in his own political agenda. However, he’s recently made an important point in asking why this country has such a downer on its indigenous brewing tradition. The UK, along with Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic, is one of the world’s four great traditional brewing nations. Our beers have influenced brewers all over the world, and were the inspiration behind the original microbrewery revolution in the USA. And yet, all too often, both in popular culture and amongst beer enthusiasts, we tend to either ignore or disparage them.

It’s very common to see British beer styles dismissed as “boring brown bitters”, “twiggy” or “old man beers”. If pressed, a beer enthusiast will sometimes grudgingly say “Well, there are some really good traditional beers. Harvey’s, example. And Adnams are pretty good.” But the trail goes cold there, and it’s not long before they have returned to gushing over mega-hoppy US-style IPAs and salted caramel stouts. To be honest, it all comes across as a bit “some of my best friends are Jews”. And most of the beers that were championed by the original 1970s real ale movement are now dismissed out of hand and considered to be no longer of much interest.

Pete wonders whether this is part of the general British tendency to downgrade our own achievements. After all, self-effacing understatement is one of our national traits. He writes, slightly uncomfortably:

And I know of no other nation of people who are so quick to agree that their national cuisine is the worst in the world, when it patently isn’t. The problem is, even if we wanted to stand up for our national food and drink, being proud of what we do is undoubtedly one thing that we Brits are genuinely terrible at.

Anyone who dares to say they’re proud to be British, or of British achievements, faces the danger of being lumped in with Nigel Farage. A majority may have voted for Brexit, but even most Leave voters rankle at being compared to red-faced, racist ‘gammons’.

And what drink do you associate with Nigel Farage…?


Is it just another manifestation of the tendency described by George Orwell that “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality”?

However, I’m not too convinced that the answer really lies within “culture wars”. After all, the archetypal “gammon” sneered at so condescendingly by the Woke drinks lager, not traditional bitter. And the modern beer enthusiasts are keen to embrace every trend emanating from the land of Trump.

Partly it is a result of changes in fashion. The original real ale revival came in the 1970s, when there was a general tendency to embrace the old-fashioned, quirky and traditional as a response to the modernising spirit of the 1960s. The current zeitgeist, which is very much in favour of the new, shiny and innovative, runs right against that, so anything that was around in 1978 is just dull, stodgy and out-of-date.

And much of it stems from the beer world itself. After all, we don’t take the same attitude to many other aspects of our heritage from Scotch malt whisky to Shakespeare and Dickens. Pretty much every major country has adopted pale lager as its dominant beer style. The UK, with its long and honourable tradition of ale brewing, was late to that party, only really arriving at that position in the 1980s. There is still a tendency, even when many who have drunk lager from adolescence have now retired, to see traditional British ales as old-fashioned.

Within the beer community, there is a general desire to seek out the novel and experimental, which goes back to the beer ticking trend of the 1990s and long predates “craft”. Anything that is a permanent fixture on the bar, and has been for years, is just one of the “usual suspects”. And, when the craft beer movement crossed the Atlantic back from the USA in the current century, rather than taking aim at the global brewers, it set itself up in opposition the established real ale culture and the beers associated with it. Punk IPA is not so much the antidote to Carling and Stella as to Pedigree and London Pride.

But beers in traditional British styles, from the huge variety of pale ales and bitters, through milds, stouts and old ales, are one of the great glories of the beer world, and something entirely unique. Whatever your political standpoint, they are well worth celebrating and enjoying in their own right. As Pete concludes,

If we turn away from and deny our own tradition, we turn off a big flow that’s been going into the global creative mash tun. And if that happens, the whole global brewing scene is diminished.
And Marston’s have now removed the St George’s flag from Bombardier pumpclips and bottle labels!


  1. The irony is that many craft beer fans in the USA actually rave enthusiastically about our 'boring old' products. The versions of Bass, Boddies and ESB that they get and even everyday Guinness and Newkie Brown still carry 'premium' reputations and appear on the beer lists of craft bars, not as an afterthought, nor as an irony, but as part of the trend. They'll reminisce about the time they had a trip to Birming-ham, England and had Pedigree on draft and how amazing it was... but they're coming at it largely from a blank canvas with fewer established prejudices than us, for various historical reasons.

    I'm obviously a million miles away from Pete politically, but I can sorta see what he is hinting at with the Farage jibes. There is a certain type of person - usually an older white male - who loudly and proudly proclaims British drink/food/culture to be the finest in the world - but who does so from a position of insularity and ignorance, having deliberately garnered very little experience of most of the alternatives available. Lager?!? Pah! Foreign muck! Pad Thai?!? Give me fish and chips any day! and so on...

    This somewhat undermines the more informed opinions of those who have genuinely sampled all the world has to offer and concluded that, in fact, our indigenous stuff really isn't all that bad, on the basis of something other than blinkered xenophobia. We have this slightly awkward, very 'British' sense that one cannot talk something up for fear that one is perceived to be talking it up for the wrong reasons.

    Of course, they do have this sort of contrast between blind patriotism and a conscious wish to avoid it in the USA too - but just not usually when it comes to beer.

  2. I think the problem is, talking from a S.E point of view , the vast majority of pubs are awash with multi produced national brands such as Greene King IPA, Bombardier and of course Doom Bar, which from a beer nerds point of view are BBB's, bet then the vast majority of drinkers are casual and just want what they think is ordinary English beer,wet, brown, maybe a little froth and has a taste a little different from tap water,hence the popularity of the above brands. It is just the relative minority of geeks into their beers, like myself who deride BBB's and it's only the relative minority of enthusiasts who read blogs and various beer related literature who take notice of such terms, so there is a balance, of sorts in perception. Of course there are good interesting Brown beers out there, we need to see more of them in more pubs, but the simple fact is they won't out sell Doom Bar and it's ilk.

  3. Very interesting piece I must say. I'll give you my three penneth perspective. When I set up my microbrewery there were a couple of objectives. One was to brew traditional British beers and the second was to produce a real lager as in 16th century style as no-one seemed to do that. I use Fuggles and East Kent Goldings hops a lot in my beers. They are traditional old English hop varieties. However, a lot of people like the refreshing new world citra style hops. So I found an English variety that gives citrus notes (Jester) and use it in combination with fuggles and it does the refreshing taste job superbly. I do make an American style pale ale with chinook and fuggles too. The lager is quite popular but for too many it doesn't have much fizz. Well, it does when bottle conditioned! The one I use jester in, the refreshing citra hop, is based on an 1859 recipe by William Younger. I increased the abv to 3.7% and voila, a beer that hadn't been drunk for 100 years. I make a session pale ale, a medium brown best bitter, an Americal style pale ale (4.5%) a strongish best bitter very similar to Blue bass (5% abv), a strong pale ale (5.5%), an East India IPA (based on an East India company recipe from 1820s) but hopped a bit less (7.4%), a porter (5%), an imperial stout (8.4%)and the lager. I renamed the lager Grand Commander (Of the Tutonic Knights) because the original name of Doctor's Orders might have had problems with Environmental and food agency inspectors because of perceived medical claims, of which there were none of course. It's 6% abv. I know a bottle shop owner who got leaned on regarding some Belgian Beers with nurses on the labels.

    My beers are not seen as old men's beers either but seem to appeal to a cross section. Some pubs only serve the high powered stout in halves. It was originally brewed for the Cambridge beer festival but was so popular locally I had to brew another 500L of it. Again I use fuggles and East Kent in combination in a three stage process during the boil. I also use Burton salts for the brewing of my Blue Bass clone. I think we don't make enough of our heritage so I have put my money where my mouth is to make decent beer with traditional English hops with a couple of variants. I am fed up with seeing what I consider weak light brown beers all over the place. It simply isn't right and it is not our beer heritage. Obviously no-one wants to flout the drink drive laws which is why I am a firm supporter of having a local you can walk to. I have a couple like that. One is a free house and takes some of our beers. The other takes bottles as it is tied. I am a firm supporter of strongish beers and brew several to cater for those who like to drink a fiercer pint.

  4. At least you'll never see the halal symbol on a beer bottle!

    1. Never say never. I look forward to it. To that, and to being able to browse bijou residential mosque conversions down at the estate agents, as we can those of chapels and churches.

  5. For better or for worse cask beer is now associated with merrie England and, in general, all things "merrie England" are kryponite to a certain class of liberal "urban sophisticate". You're being very parochial if you think that this phenomea is unique to the Uk. On positive note the latter is very small in number and foregners come here to explicitly seek out the former; my brahmin indian, computer programmer, ex-lodger is now hooked on purity's ubu.

  6. Class is to the Brits what wine is to the French or sausages to the Germans

    Historically domestic beer was for prols & imported grog for the moneyed. Whilst imported grog is now affordable for all you cannot simply remove those associations of what is and what isn't an aspirational drink.

    You can drink in Europe and see prosperous men and women of all ages drink out drinking the local grog and believing it better than either imports or the grog of other regions despite it being little different. You don't and will never see that in the UK.

    It's no bad thing. Enjoy an Argentinian Malbec and get over it. Or stick to your boring brown bitter. Either way, it's only a drink. An alcohol delivery vehicle.

  7. Very interesting and you're right there is a certain "cultural cringe" about home grown/produced food and drink. Perhaps it's because when we're younger we like the new and experimental stuff and it's only as we grow older that we begin to appreciate what we already have or maybe, it's because we open our doors to all comers and we get to experience the best of other cuisines and drinks from all around the world. I reckon that you cannot find a greater diversity of food and drink from around the globe than you can in Britain.

    Unfortunately, this leads to people lauding the exotic and thus downgrading the local to the status of ordinary just because it is familiar. I like both. I love the exotic diversity we have available to us, but I appreciate the home-grown market as well!

    1. My favourite beer style I drank when I was 16. I am in my early thirties now. I've never forgotten it and I look forward to being able to experience it again.

  8. Years ago I remember reading somewhere (would have been in one of the papers then) that dishes like chicken tikka masala were actually devised in England, possibly Bradford. I've only been to India once, and that was 30 years ago, but I do remember that dishes that would been staples over here were not featured on most menus there.

    1. The tale I've heard most is the one of the Glasgow restaurant that got a complaint about Chicken Tikka being too dry. Chicken Tikka Origins

    2. They say much the same thing about pizza; and Chinese food for that matter. :)

  9. Professor Pie-Tin20 October 2018 at 07:41

    I share your lack of enthusiasm for Mr Brown's tendency to infuse his prose with all sorts of right-on claptrap and sneering.
    But I stopped reading him years ago when he went off on one about being in an American bar and falsely accused a nicking a beer sign.
    He might as well have just written DYKWIA.
    A pompous ass I'm afraid.
    His missus wrote a much more interesting blog.

  10. The Stafford Mudgie20 October 2018 at 10:21

    “And what drink do you associate with Nigel Farage…?”
    Well he likes to be photographed with a pint of proper English beer but for a “Lunch with the FT” article 2½ years ago it was not just six pints but also a bottle of wine and two glasses of port

  11. Many of the first microbreweries in the USA were inspired by boring old brown beer from Merrie Old England. Before all the exotic mashups of IPA, they were brewing pale ales, brown ale, porter, stout and IPA. Every microbrewery produces a pale ale, IPA, Porter or Stout in my neck of the woods. It is only recently that they have been getting into brewing lager. If I travel to the UK I want to drink the indigenous brew on cask. I can get the rest here at home.


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