If the embodiment of British beer is a pint of mid-brown best bitter (flat in the South, creamy head in the North) then the emerging epitome of American ale is an assertive IPA or Pale Ale, assaulting the senses with a cold, brash hop-attack of carbonated golden liquid.
Before I launch into a more thorough comparison of the nations’ beer-guzzling preferences, I suggest you head to the nearest supermarket and pick-up a couple of bevvies to keep you company and better make my points! Head to Safeway’s in either the US or the UK, pick-up a bottle of Bass Pale Ale (arguably a better representation than a Newkie Brown or a Boddingtons) and a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Leave the Bass out so it’s warm and put the Sierra Nevada in the fridge to cool. All done? Great! Crack them open and enjoy!
Over the last few months I have come to appreciate the depth, enthusiasm and variety of the American craft brewing industry, determinedly weaning the nation away from the crime of anaemic Lite beers (shudder). However, the locals obviously have the local palate to consider and work with, hence the tendency towards cold, carbonated and lightly coloured beer. If this raises doubts in British readers, just take a swig of the cold Sierra Nevada in front of you and note how the distinctive American Cascade hops cuts through, resulting in a beer that is still flavoursome and satisfying. I now keep my cute six-packs of beer in the fridge as the best crafted brews here are designed so that the flavours balance when drunk cold. On the other hand, this means I am still questing for a truly satisfying Porter or Stout as their dark depths just don’t come through cold.
Something in an IPA obviously appeals to Americans on a deep, subconscious level – this isn’t just a beer, it’s a BEER!!!! …with HOPS!!!! …and STRENGTH!!!! Hops can clearly cut through cold beer and IPAs have always been strong but what you are too-often left with here is a predominance of high ABVs (it’s extremely rare to find anything below 5.0% and 5.5%-6.5% is more common) where malt is sadly neglected, skewing the balance of the brew (compare here with the Bass). Finding a session beer is harder but although the pints are only 80% of the size of a British pint, the extra carbonation and ABV keep your pint consumption about the same (note that I’m not the best judge of this though as I’ve always been a slow drinker who only has a few!).
Looking around here, you can even find Double IPAs (when you need even more hops!). There is also an emergence of Imperializing other styles too (for this read stronger and hoppier!). The hoppier-lighter-colder-fizzier phenomenon is also expressed as far into the beer lexicon as the venerable Barleywine, a true favourite style of mine. I’m looking forward to comparing British and American Barleywines in another blog… but may need a friend or two to help or I won’t get very far!
So, do you prefer the Bass or the Sierra Nevada? I myself have a soft spot for Sierra Nevada, having drunk many of the cute little bottles while in Pasadena (near L.A.) working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a month as part of my PhD. If you look hard in the UK you can also find their Porter, Stout and Barleywine (if you’re in Leeds head to Smokestack or North Bar). In latter years I’ve generally steered clear of best bitters in Britain as far too many of them are disappointingly mediocre but catch myself here wistfully wanting something that is a little bit more malt forward.
Enough rambling for now… signing off in the words of “The Most Interesting Man in The World” from Dos Equis (look him up!)… “Stay Thirsty My Friends”…