Well, we’re back from our trip to Europe, and I’m finally feeling a little rested. Sometimes things happen so quickly that your head can spin (or was it the 80 new beers that I tried in Europe?). It’s taken me a little time to think through what the first Europe post would be, but here is a little ditty about London town.
We all know how lager dominates the market in America (and sadly starting to elsewhere). It happens that most of the lagers are largely the same with some subtle differences. I’m talking about big brewery lagers and even some “craft” ones. I think the situation is largely the same with a lot of beers in England. Bitters are the kings of pub-life, so far as I could see. Now they all have some differences, and I don’t want to make English bitters look like American macro lagers–I would drink an English bitter over American swill lager any day. But it is really surprising that the populace at large is drinking beer with less and less character.
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the bitters I had in London. However, it is remarkably sad that the land that gave us porter ales has very few in the average pub. I looked and looked but found very few things outside bitters to drink. Some shining anomalies were Brains Dark with its mint tobacco and medicinal qualities, Samuel Smith’s Extra Stout, Meantime’s Belgian Style Ale, and Teakston’s Old Peculiar. There were others, but bitters ruled.
But why is this the case? I’ll express my opinion on some factors I think may be behind this. One, people are sometime simply interested in being “pissed” (to use a British equivalent to being drunk). So, it simply doesn’t make sense to try to find a beer that is not a “session” ale (i.e., many can be had without feeling full…talk about real drinkability). Two, taxation. We have the great fortune of paying by the barrel tax in the U.S. Simply stated, it doesn’t matter if the beer is 2% or 20%, a company pays the same tax on beer. In much of Europe, tax is assessed based on percentage alcohol. Ergo, it is cheaper to make beer that is 3.8% vs. 10%. I think this adds to number one above, but it also explains why it doesn’t behoove a company to spend more money on a beer only to have it taxed more. Three, and saddest of all, people simply are losing their taste for complexity and depth in a beer. One can also see this taking place in the fact that Brits love bland food (that is just a joke on a stereotype).
That seems like a lot of negatives, so let me tell you some positives. Bitters in England are still terrific. When I finish my extreme beer, I think the “bitter” is the next one I’m doing. I’ve been inspired by British bitters. CAMRA, the campaign for real ale, is ensuring that approved beers are of the strictest quality and tradition. So pulled cask ales are also great. Although the culture is trending toward more drinking at home, most of the beer consumed in England is still in the pub. Consequently, the pub is a lively time for a foreigner to see England in all its glory. Another thing is that you can still find a good deal of variety in London if you look. I intend to publish a list of good beer places in London. I also want to note that the English countryside and suburbs is not London. I know that I missed out on plenty of unique beer because I was only in London. I’m merely telling you what I saw in the big city.
So here is my appeal to you. Go to London, drink a lot of bitters (because their ubiquitous), and find some unique ones if you are there. I don’t regret having so many bitters in London but would have loved to see a slight bit more variety…especially porters. So, it really was a bittersweet experience. Cheers!
I’ll be writing more in just a bit.