Last week I had a seven day early morning run on BBC Radio Devon. It turns out that the Monday through Friday spots are archived (but not the weekend spots) so I plan to link last week, and the run I had last Autumn here some point soon. Last year every spot was all politics, as it was the week prior to the US election. This year, I was scrounging more for topics and material, so in the middle of an over-arching theme of identity and nationalism for the expatriate, I slipped one in about beer. The basis for this post is that script, with some outtake paragraphs added, other ideas thrown in, and general elaboration. The spots were only 2:30, which really isn’t that very many words (ideally 250 to 300). Given the pitch of the segment, that it’s the BBC (so needs to be balanced), and the sensibilities of the audience in question, these were surprisingly difficult pieces to write.
Before I became a full time professional academic, I was known for something else entirely — beer. Well, I was known for beer; people in my field in political science are vaguely aware that I exist somewhere, and have probably cited a couple of my papers. I was an award winning amateur brewer. I honestly don’t know how many awards I won during the 1990s, but I did have the advantage of competing in the 1990s, when all it took to win a ribbon was a modicum of proficiency, a decent recipe, all-grain brewing, good yeast and yeast management, and temperature controlled fermentation. The highlights of this run were the national gold medal for stout in 1993, a best of show for my AIPA in Canada, and how that IPA became something of a classic in the broader home brewing community. I remain active on a mailing list of a dozen or so beer geek friends from those early days, and on occasion someone will forward a link like the previous. My favorite is here, where it is suggested that this recipe “comes from the “dark ages”…..”. Rob, Scott L, and Dave might remember several occasions having this particular beer at my house back in grad school. Or not, as there was a lot of it.
This hobby branched out into beer writing. My first two published articles were about beer, and remain on my cv to this day. One defined the style of American Amber Ale (and many still ask me why to this day), while the other defined American IPA. The resulting BJCP recognition of these sub-styles and the guidelines followed the suggestions in those articles pretty closely. I also contributed reviews to rec.food.drink.beer on Usenet, when there were such things, and friends in the beer world invited me to begin publishing those on this new thing called the World Wide Web, which I did from 1994-2003. They’re, remarkably, still available here (and holy crap, it’s still averaging a couple hits per day even though I haven’t added anything there in ten years). I was also an occasional beer judge, and judged a few competitions / best of show rounds.
First firing up my kettle in 1990 placed me in a rare position: I was right in the midst of a beer revolution. In those early days, development was simple: move away from beers heavy in adjuncts common to industrial lagers of the United States (think corn or rice), and towards classic styles, typically German lagers and British ales. These early days of the revolution saw the odd juxtaposition that typifies periods of accelerated creativity: for example, applying the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot to every style, including British ales, a beer to which it was neither historically nor stylistically accurate. Or the particularly nefarious example of Sam Adams Cranberry Lambic, which most certainly wasn’t. To this day, especially on the west coast, brewpubs will take their biggest, hoppiest IPA and serve it as real ale in the British tradition, cask conditioned, cellar temperature, either dispensed by gravity or beer engine, and call it good. It’s not. The flavors in a huge AIPA are overpowering for the temperature and serving method, which are better suited for nuanced, subtle ales common to this island.
But, largely left to their own devices taking guidance from Britain, Germany, and the Czech Republic (back when it was still known as Czechoslovakia), American brewers pioneered styles with the ingredients most convenient to them, which in turn put the distinct flavors of hops grown in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. in the spotlight.These beers were different from British ales. Not only did the domestic hops have a wonderful citrus note not found in Europe, but they could be stronger. Taxation of beer in the UK was, if not still is, based on alcohol percentage; thus the brewer has an incentive to make beers lower in alcohol. This is one reason why Greene King gets away with an IPA that has little resemblance to the historical origin of the style, let alone the American adaptation on the west coast of the US. Of course, the rampant creativity of the American brewer has turned that lovely style into a bit of a monster in the past decade. Yet, while many old timers like myself on occasion rant about kids and their over-hopped, 12% IPAs these days (give me something around 6.5% and 90-110 IBUs, please), and their box-ticking mentality, the reality is that we helped create this, and the beer world in the US is a much more interesting place than it was 30 years ago.
When I first moved to England ten years ago, it was common to encounter British people who bought into the stereotypes of American beer, reflecting an understanding of the beer culture in my home country more accurate to the 1960s or 1970s. That seems to be changing now, which is refreshing from my point of view. Indeed, when I was walking from the BBC studios to my office at 645am after doing that piece on beer (and as I think it was the same morning after the shutdown ended, an interview on a different show) I walked past a JD Weatherspoon in the neighborhood I had called home for nine years. While they do a terrific real ale selection and have low prices, I typically avoid them as the low prices are partially a function of light staffing, and the venues have all the soul of an airport bar. But this one had a string of American flags on a rail opposite along the sidewalk, which prompted a “what the hell?” It turns out that they’re advertising an ale festival “featuring 50 ales, including 10 guest craft breweries from the USA”. Right here in little old Plymouth.
During the Great British Beer Festival this past August, The Guardian published an article denoting its top ten favorite beers at the festival. While all are ales (perhaps some habits are difficult to break), three are directly influenced by the now 30 year-old American brewing revolution, one is brewed by an American in Somerset, and one an AIPA from California itself: Sierra Nevada Torpedo. This reminds me of a Dutch brewery which specifically sought to replicate west coast American beers (to the point where all their hops were imported from the PNW) and remained a going concern throughout the three years I lived in Holland, and I’ve heard a story courtesy of the beer geek mailing list I mentioned above about one or two craft breweries in Franconia that are, gasp, brewing American-inspired ales.
I should also note that the West Country is represented by four entries, and two alone in Devon and Cornwall. I’ve been pretty harsh on the beers down here in Devon and Cornwall over the years (a sentiment that of course did not get broadcast to the coffee and toast set here on Radio Devon last week). While there are a couple standout beers — Summerskills Bitter for one, and South Hams occasionally will release a porter that is just sublime — overall the regional stylistic tendency is “eh”. However, I clearly need to revisit the local beers with a fresh perspective if they’re starting to garner some positive press.
When I started in the beer world, the influence only went to the west from the east, across the Atlantic. It’s nice to see the favor returned, and the side effect that is having on old world appreciation of our new world beers and brewing culture. Globalisation often gets unfairly criticized – I teach an entire class that to some (if they’re not paying attention) might appear to be an assault on this phenomenon. But if its helping bring us all better beer, isn’t that a point in the win column?