Ordinary to Britons, extraordinary to Americans

Had a great session last week with two Californian brewers, Mitch Steele and Steve Wagner of Stone Brewing in San Diego, who are in the UK researching India Pale Ale for a forthcoming book from the Brewers Association in the US.

Since I’m the man that has annoyed a large swath of the American beer drinking community by insisting that the story that George Hodgson of Bow invented IPA, a tale beer drinkers in the US grew up on, is completely untrue, they wanted to talk to me while they were in the UK. Thus we arranged to meet in the Dove in Hammersmith, which by no coincidence at all was serving Fuller’s new Bengal Lancer IPA.

I’m going to talk about Bengal Lancer in another posting, so I’ll say nothing about it here except that the new beer was evidently a success at the Dove: the barman told us that the pub was getting worried that it was running out, since the pub had a special £10 promotional offer curry night this week which was meant to include a free pint of IPA, and it was looking increasingly likely they wouldn’t have any IPA left by the time curry night came round.

Anyway, I love drinking beer while at the same time talking about beer and its history to an audience so appreciative it’s taking notes, so for close on two hours I talked about researching IPA and its roots to Steve and Mitch in the tiny public bar at the Dove. Great fun for me: not entirely sure it was great fun for them, especially Mitch, who appeared to be in a precarious position perched on the narrow public bar windowsill and scribbling occasionally. No idea what the barman thought, if he was listening.

By what did appear a coincidence, Fergus Fitzgerald, brewmaster at Adnams of Southwold, who had brewed an American IPA in January, was giving a tutored tasting of Adnams beers that night at the brewer’s wine shop in Richmond, just up the Thames from Hammersmith. (Actually, since Ireland were playing England at Twickenham the next day, I don’t think it was any coincidence at all that Fergus happened to be next door in Richmond, but it was a coincidence that Mitch and Steve were nearby.) I had acquired three tickets for the tasting, and we caught a taxi to Richmond, with me pointing out landmarks: the former Sich’s Lamb Brewery next to Fullers, and the former Mortlake brewery (Mitch used to work for Anheuser-Busch, and knew people who had been at Mortlake.)

We were too early for the talk, so took a detour for a meal at the White Cross. Not because the food is outstanding – it isn’t – but because the beer was likely to be good, it was very handy for the Adnams shop, and I thought Mitch and Steve would like the pub. They did – they took pictures – but they particularly appreciated the Young’s Ordinary, turning to each other with looks of great pleasure. In America, they pointed out, you simply won’t find beers like that: masses of flavour, beautifully balanced malt and hops, drinkability, and all at just 3.8 per cent alcohol by volume.

In large part this is because the punters don’t want it: the weakest of Stone’s own beers appears to be 5.6 per cent abv. American drinkers, outside the mass lager market, go for in-your-face, 7 per cent and upwards monsters, for preference. And many of those beers are very fine: I like, and enjoy, extremely hoppy, strong American ales. But because of the beers I grew up with, and the way I like to enjoy beer – over an evening – if suddenly the only beer left in the world was Young’s Ordinary, I could cope with that. I suspect, however, that Steve and Mitch, although they appreciate and enjoy beers in the “ordinary ” class when they come to England (they were off to Middleton after talking to me, to see JW Lees, which brews several beers lower than 3.8 per cent abv, won’t be rushing home to San Diego to make a Young’s Bitter clone, because they wouldn’t be able to sell it.

We got to the Adnams tasting just as they were handing around the Tally Ho, another beer I want to talk about elsewhere. One beer I was particularly pleased to drink was the William Godell, only the second beer brewed with New Zealand Nelson Sauvin hops that I have (knowingly) tried: its gooseberry fruitiness works very well with pale beers, but I might want to slap someone who tried it in a stout.

After the formalities of the tasting were finished, I warned Fergus that there were a couple of American brewers lurking, and left the trio of brewmasters talking about hop varieties they had tried, were about to try or wanted to try: unfortunately I had promised Mrs Z I wouldn’t be home late, and besides, spending much of my time in a largely “dry” country these days means my beery stamina is much reduced: that’s my excuse.

0 thoughts on “Ordinary to Britons, extraordinary to Americans

  1. Stone actually does have an ale in the 4% range and it’s quite good. But it surely does stand out in their range.

    I was at a Beer U. (tasting/educational event) and I asked Mitch “any chance for more low ABV/session beers”. Obviously you know the answer.

    It’s too bad, because there are at least some of us who’d love a “local” bitter 🙂

  2. What I wouldn’t give for a pint of Young’s Bitter right now (at 7.10 in the morning!), on cask at the King’s Arms in Oxford. When I brewed a 60/- Scottish ale over here, I gave a bottle to several of my friends, one each of course, and they loved it. One thing they said was they wished American craft brewers would make such easy drinking beers. I think there is a market, it is just drowned out by the extreme beer brigade who think they are hardcore.

  3. Their light beer is a 4.4% called Levitation. But it is still leaning over to the hops side rather than the malty chew. Still, if it was in my market here in Ontario it would be a regular purchase. But even that is well above a 3.8% which, as you say, no one would buy… except me perhaps.

  4. Not to detour the discussion, but Alan’s post made me think of another local (San Diego) beer that’s down the lines of Levitation… Ballast Point has one called Even Keel which they describe as IPA *.50.

    3.5% ABV, but like Levitation definitely on the hoppy side. I just wish it was bottled or at least brewed more often for growlers. Maybe we’ll get our San Diego style session beer after all… not a bitter, but still good on a weekday.

  5. I regularly homebrew malty beers in the 3.5% ABV range and those who I share them with really enjoy them. They are especially well received when we are lounging at the pool on a cool spring, cloudy summer, or early fall day. If these were more readily available here in the northwestern US they would indeed be received very well.

  6. I am not in any way being facetious when I say that adding a suitable sparkling water to any beer works effectively to bring it down to a desired strength. The palate will change somewhat but often the result is as good in its way or even better. Right now I have some Tenfidy Imperial Stout, at 9.5% ABV (from Oscar Blues Brewery, a well-regarded craft brewer in Colorado, U.S.A). If I added as much fizzy water again, I’ve got two glasses of excellent porter. Half as much again, something approaching more a typical brown stout strength from the Victorian era.

    If you add the right water it works very well. I have found in general a “hard” mineral water does not do well: soft, flavourless waters are best. Commercial soda water is too salty. (Malvern in sparkling form would be perfect I think). Does it turn around the brewers’ intentions? In a way yes, but that does not matter. In fact, often I find I prefer a beer let down from its original strength (i.e., in palate); sometimes a strong beer offers too much of a good thing. And I have mentioned this practice to numerous brewers and cannot recall one who ever objected. In fact, was it one of your books, Martyn, that stated that some early 1900’s brewers may have engaged in a similar practice to be able to sell, say, mild ale in three or four strengths? I did read this somewhere I know.

    This is less easy to do with real ale but it works well with regular fizzy micro draft in North America. So fizzy is most beer here that you can offer add still water just from the glass on your table and it brings the beer to a “better” condition.

    Gary

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