British beer: Booming or Boring?

One American beer that no serious bar in the capital appears able to do without is Brooklyn Lager.

Written by Will Hawkes for blogs.independent.co.uk

British beer is enjoying a remarkable renaissance. There are now 767 breweries in the UK, more than at any time since the Second World War. According to Camra, 78 new breweries have opened in the past 12 months (and although a fair few have closed, too, there are still 56 more now than this time last year). Last month’s Great British Beer Festival was bursting at the seams with interesting ales and happy drinkers. Beer lovers in this country have never had it so good.

Maybe, maybe not. The growing popularity of American beers in the UK suggests that things are not quite so rosy. The innovative, hop-heavy character of Yank beers is clearly filling a gap in the market, a gap that British brewers have failed to fill.

One American beer that no serious bar in the capital appears able to do without is Brooklyn Lager, which has grown hugely in popularity over the past two or three years. The man who brews it, Garrett Oliver, is a long-term friend of British brewing, having learnt to love beer over here in the early eighties – but he feels the scene on this side of the Atlantic is nothing like as exciting as it should be.

I interviewed him for my recent article on American craft ales having first spoken to him for another publication three years ago. I asked him if he still thought British brewing was still too conservative, as he had done then.

“Unfortunately, it still is the case,” he said. “I was in London last week, and I was talking to importers. They were talking about how the British brewers are still making the same three or four beers: here’s our ordinary bitter, our winter warmer or something, not really branching out and being influenced by other countries.

“That provides an instant limitation. I’m surprised to see that to this day so few British brewers are brewing weiss beer (wheat beer), for example.”

Oliver’s view seems pretty common in the US: where once there was reverence for British brewing, now there’s respect tinged with a certain amount of gentle condescension.

I think he is being a little unfair: after all, American brewing had to be re-built from the bottom up – meaning everything was up for grabs  – wheras for all that the situation was parlous when Camra was founded in the early seventies, at least there was still the remnants of a great tradition here. And that’s the key: innovation is thrilling but the reason beer drinkers have fought to save real ale is because they liked it as it was. That’s conservative, sure, but conservatism doesn’t always have to be a dirty word.

Still, it would be interesting if a few more of the new microbreweries tackled foreign styles. Some already are: Meantime and Brew Dog, among others. Just as long as a great tradition doesn’t get lost in the process, we’ll all be better off.