Having just returned from England, I couldn’t help but notice that the beer is slightly different there than it is here in America. For starters, it’s cheaper, warmer, and less flavorful. The stereotype about warm beer in England is half-true: much of the beer served in English pubs is cask ale, which is pulled out of room temperature kegs using a hand pump. (Side note: I believe a compromise would be perfect, because as I’ve mentioned before, much of the draft beer in America is served far too cold.) I admit that I don’t know why beer is cheaper there, though Southern California probably isn’t the best rubric by which to measure America’s beer prices. As far as flavor is concerned, I suppose it depends on what you consider the standard here in the U.S.—if the three most popular beers by volume (Bud Light, Coors Light, and Budweiser) are the norm, English beer has considerably more flavor. But if you’re reading this, you probably have somewhat of a taste for craft beer and would find the average cask ale in England to be somewhat lackluster.
While I would like to say something about the appreciation for subtlety and the importance of keeping true to style constraints, I actually found most of the beers I tried to be rather unexciting. And I believe there are a few reasons for that. First, English hops are quite different from the American hops of the Yakima Valley that we’ve grown accustomed to. English hop varietals don’t usually have the characteristic pine, resin, or citrus notes that we find in our Pale Ales and IPAs; instead, they are known for their floral and grassy flavors. English brewers also tend to use fewer hops and the resulting beer has a less bitter and somewhat muted (to my palate) flavor. Additionally, the malt used in many of the cask ales I tried was on the sweeter, but lighter, side with flavors of honey and crackers instead of the rich caramel notes we often find in American ales of a similar color. So overall, the majority of cask ale I tried was light in body, amber in color, and slightly sweet in taste with no real bitterness (this last bit being somewhat of a curveball as the style was often just “bitter” or “extra special bitter”). This adds up to a beer that can be consumed surprisingly quickly and voluminously, which I believe is the point. They even serve them in imperial pints, which hold 25% more beer than our puny American sixteen ouncers.
So, did I have any good beer in England? Absolutely. One night in London, after much research on both BeerAdvocate and CAMRA (the CAMpaign for Real Ale, an organization that nearly single-handedly saved cask real ale from going extinct), I went to Euston Tap, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bar near the Euston train station. Behind the bar were about fourteen taps and eight cask pumps, each pouring a noteworthy beer. I started with was the most exciting brew to me, Founders Breakfast Stout, a world-renowned beer that I’d only had a sip of once before. It had all of the rich coffee and chocolatey goodness I was hoping to experience and was also able to grab their last to-go bottle of it as well. With that out of the way, and some water to clear my palate, I tried the bartender’s choice of cask ales, both of which were done in a hop-forward West Coast style. Clouded Minds Luppol Golden Ale came first and was filled with a classic Cascade hop aroma and flavor in a hazy golden package. Next up was Summer Wine Brewery’s Oregon Pale Ale, which was a successful American Pale Ale in my eyes, as it balanced citrus and pine flavors with a clean malt backbone and an ABV around 6%. I was starting to think that the two best British beers I would havewould be near-replicas of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the quintessential American craft beer; however, a few nights later on New Year’s Eve, I opened a can of Magic Rock Brewing’s Salty Kiss Gooseberry Gose, which lived up to its name with plenty of salt and berries on the palate and satisfactorily ended 2015 for me.
I was happy to see a few breweries branching out stylistically in these ways, and I think that bodes well for the future of English craft beer. And even though I wasn’t particularly impressed by most of the cask ales I tried, I do believe it’s a good thing that they continue to satisfy the average beer drinker’s thirst and carry on a centuries-old tradition in pub culture. As long as they’re not drinking Coors Light, Heineken, or Stella Artois, I’m content.
What do you think? Was I too harsh on cask ale or was I missing something? Or do you agree that the beer in England has as much flavor as the food?