What the hell has America done to beer?

I am much like Ding: an englishman abroad; A key difference though is that I left in 2012 rather than in the heyday of CAMRA in the UK. So my perspective is radically different. In short America has made interesting and exciting. And whilst I agree that America is not making the best beer in the world right now, it is the best place to be drinking beer. Furthermore, to me it feels like the US is currently going through a radical shift in brewing and beer culture. For me, it remains well ahead of the UK. But to frame, let’s revisit Ding’s own 10 myths and see how they fare up nearly two years later:

10. All craft (non-macro) beer is good, and all local beer is good.

The first half of this remains — American craft beer is largely anti-macro, though the general concession remains that macro beer is well made, but categorically dull. Local beer remains good to me — the difference being that local beer is generally good. Sure, the big IPAs are still popular but the local IPAs are just as good. I’d much rather have a growler of a local IPA than an older bottle of a big IPA. Furthermore the local beer is not standard US beer anymore — artisanal brewers are coming of age and the quality of local beer is ramping up dramatically. I would drink Linden Street’s Common Lager over any US brewed lager anyday. And Speakeasy’s Tripel IPA is as good, if not better, than Pliny the Younger. With time the local beer options (at least in the bay area) are serious contenders to quality world beer.

9. It’s wonderful to have more beer in cans.

It is, but cans are still in a minority. Cans still feel somewhat of a novelty to me.

8. It’s limited, it must be great!

The US has pioneered the concept of limited beers. In short, it’s turned beer into an event, rather than a trudgery. That it’s limited is clear, but I think that the connection Ding makes between limited and great is disingenuous . I was dedicated enough to get Pliny the Younger this year: one of the first limited beers in the US. Was it the best beer I’ve ever had?, no. Was it the best triple IPA I’ve ever had?, no. Was it fun, getting in line, making an event of it? yes. The thing that the US understands is that even if the beer isn’t the best made in the world, the process of engaging with people, with being part a larger crowd is a good thing.

7. Session beer is now gaining popularity in the USA.

Now. To be clear, Ding is absolute that “Session” Beer has to be 4% or less. I don’t know what pubs he frequented but I sincerely doubt that you could go anywhere in the world and be faced with an abundancy of beers under 4%.

However, I think the US does pretty well on the Session front. Whilst there remains a number of 40-tap type establishments with an abundance of IPAs over 7% and the like, pretty much every bar I go into in the bay area has a number of sub 5% offerings. For sure they ain’t bitters or british style ales, but more typically Berliner Weisses or low ABV witbiers. America, like other countries, has it’s own definition of what a ‘session’ is: in short, it is not 6 pints of 4% abv. For me a session is 3 drinks max.

6. More is always better (number of breweries and number of beers).

Newer breweries have to distinguish themselves, that’s the market. The numbers feel like a bubble, but looking at the types of breweries opening around the bay area — it is clear to me that they all distinguish themselves and complement each other. In terms of number of beers, this trend remains the same but the real strength is in the nature of those beers. That US breweries tend to make a large number of beers, rather than a small number of core brews is a strength and follows the line of US beer being fun, rather than boring. There was a time in the UK when any new brewery would make a bitter, a strong ale (5%), and a dark beer. Always the same 4 or 5 hop varieties, always completely dull — whilst the US can be the same: and IPA, a stout or porter and a random German style; now breweries seem to defining themselves in difference to the market. Artisanal brewing is taking over and, yes whilst these are different types of beers, these are differential at least.

5. More is always better (taps in bars).

Again, this trend feels like it’s dying. The best bars in the US right now, are not the ones with thousands of taps. The best bar in the Bay Area (for me), has 9 taps. They rotate and are always interesting. The age of the 40-tap pub have gone.

4. Imperial and highly hopped = better.

I don’t believe this was ever true. Imperial fits the drinking culture better, and highly hopped is often better though simply because the hops are better here. American beers are more brash and flavourful but then you drink less of them. It’s just the drinking culture. Yes it can be difficult to drink 6 pints of 4% beer here, but that’s a little like moaning to Rochefort that you can’t drink 6 Litres of their beer and walk home. Or going to Bordeaux and moaning that you can’t get a decent Italian White.

3. British beer is undergoing a massive revolution inspired by American brewers.

Chuckles. Of course it is.

“The reality is quite different and remains that the overwhelming majority of magnificent beer drunk in the UK is traditional in its style, ABV and brewed by low-key brewers that still put substance over style. Don’t be fooled by the juvenile posturing and adolescent attention seeking”

The reality of beer in the UK, is the same as the US. The majority of people will drink traditional beer. The majority of brewers in the UK that make traditional beer make flavourless dishwater — the standard cask beer is of a similar flavour profile to standard US light lagers. That Thornbridge is included in the list along with Brewdog and Kernel suggest that Ding has never tried their beers. Thornbridge epitomise forward thinking brewing in the UK right now: a brewery which makes some of the best traditional style cask beer alongside some of the best foreign influenced beers in the world. That the world is undergoing a massive revolution inspired by American brewers is factually indisputable whether we like it or not. But brewers are not idiots, they do not replicate — they assimilate. Hence British interpretations of US styles (Ding needs to try some fresh Halcyon) are both true to UK style and influenced by US beers.

2. If it’s from a country with a (relatively) new brewing tradition, it MUST be great.

Not sure about this. My general take away of drinking in the bay area is that whilst the US may not be making the best beers in the world, it’s certainly the best place to drink beer. Why is it that I come all the way to other side of the world to discover a German brewery that completely blow any other into dust. The reverence for Cantillon extends way beyond geeks here. American beer culture is hungry for the new, but this follows an assimilation of other beer cultures. Sometimes this is out of whack (US style pilsners, and british style beers are generally bad but the imports are equally bad) but that’s forgivable.

  1. You can put ANY beer in a cask and get a good result.

At the last we agree. American cask beer, and English styles in general are uniformly bad. Cask beer requires pubs, and putting a firkin on the bar doesn’t cut the mustard. That US brewers will only cask a beer if it’s spiced or dry hopped is understandable: Cask beer is strange. So let’s put this beer in a container whose main selling point is that people enjoy it as it spoils. Yes cask beer is great and requires significant outlay to do properly. But be clear: Cask is a form of dispense. It’s not a magic process which turns shit beer into wonder: the number of beers which seriously benefit from oxidation is small. And, to play devils advocate, I can completely understand why US brewers dry hop the casks: what otherwise is the point?

Clearly cask beer here is shit, but given the abundance of quality beer from keg why bother?

In short: US terroir is high abv, highly hopped beer, but this is not the totality of american beer. It is strange how people project other beer cultures onto the US. You don’t go to Belgium and complain that the ABV is too high, and that the beers all have sugar in. You don’t go to Germany and complain that all the beers have the same ingredients. So why go the US and complain that you can’t get decent cask beer?