Britain, or Great Britain, is generally considered to be one of the world’s great brewing and beer drinking nations. Like its counterparts Germany and Belgium, it has retained its unique tradition and specialness in the face of the globalization and corporatization of the brewing industry. While the United States craft brew movement has assimilated great British styles and in several cases improved upon them, when British brewers do what they do best, they remain peerless in their art.
Britain is best known in the world of beer for two things: cask ale and the great British pub. The British are, famously, a reserved nation, and the pub is a home away from home, a “third place” where people can relax and open up in an informal, benignly anarchic environment in which the rules are randomly devised and collectively imposed. It’s also an environment that revolves entirely around beer.
Cask ale is, in most cases, between 3.6% and 4.5% ABV, and served in an iconic English pint (20 oz, or 568 ml, compared to the American 16 oz pint). Whereas, say, an American-style IPA is famous for its assertive hop flavor, or wood-aged Imperial stouts for strong oak or spirituous notes, cask ale is all about balance: the perfect harmony of citrus or floral aromas, caramel and biscuit on the palate, and a dryness at the finish. It’s a convivial drink and helps create a convivial atmosphere.
This atmosphere is something that refuses to be bottled, standardized, or easily replicated. While branded chains of pubs have emerged in the UK, they are unloved compared to the hundreds of Red Lions, White Harts, and Kings Heads, which may share a common name and purpose, but are mostly unrelated in terms of ownership.
For its eccentricity, its randomness, its welcome that is at the same time quintessentially British and yet so unlike other aspects of the country, the British pub (and the British beer that fuels it) has become famous worldwide. According to some studies, it is second only to the Royal Family in attractions that lure foreign tourists to British shores.
Britain was notable in that for almost a hundred years, it resisted the tide of commercial lager brewing that swept around the world from Pilsen and Bavaria during the late 19th century. But in the 1970s Britain did succumb to lager, and cask ale was declared to be in terminal decline. Today, Britain resembles the rest of the beer-drinking world much more closely than it once did.
But the global revolution in craft beer brewing has reached British shores too. There has been an explosion of artisanal cask ale brewers, who are now combining a reverence for British brewing tradition that, while important, was threatening to become a little stifling, with a more forward-looking, inclusive appetite for experimentation.
This is the latest stage in a long and uneven history of brewing that has given the world at least two of its most important beer styles.
When the Roman Empire reached northern Europe, beer was waiting for them, and recent findings suggest brewing was well established in Bronze Age Ireland. But Britain was mostly forested, and therefore unsuitable for growing grain. Mead and spontaneously fermented cider would have been the predominant alcoholic drinks. The Anglo-Saxons colonized Britain in the 4th century AD, and brought brewing with them. Britain has been a nation of beer lovers ever since.
Brewing, like baking, was an activity every household performed. But some people were better brewers, and others better bakers, and gradually brewing became a commercial activity. A respected brewster (female brewer) would erect an “ale stake” over the door when beer was ready, and people would arrive to buy or barter for it. Clearly, there was something about this particular transaction that encouraged people to linger, and some brewers’ homes became alehouses.
The first moves to brewing on a larger scale came with the spread of monasteries throughout the country. As well as brewing for large populations of monks, they refreshed pilgrims en route to holy places. The provision of accommodation and food as well as beer saw inns emerge as a more sophisticated alternative to the ale house, and beer production became a little more scientific and standardized.
Medieval brewers used a variety of herbs and other seasonings to flavor their ales, but from the late 14th century hops became increasingly prevalent, after being introduced on a wide scale by Flemish immigrants. Traditionally, “ale” was brewed without hops and “beer” specifically referred to beverages containing hops. The two were quite separate for several centuries. The foreigners became famous brewers throughout London and southeast England, but many drinkers preferred traditional un-hopped ale. By the 17th century, however, hopped beer was increasingly popular. On pub signs today, it is still common to see offerings of “Ales, Beers, and Lagers,” as though “beers” remained separate from the other two.
After the religious reformation under Henry VIII, Britain’s monasteries were destroyed. Their place was taken by “common brewers.” Most pubs brewed their own beer, and perhaps supplied a few smaller local establishments. For some, brewing became a bigger concern than innkeeping, but it remained a very localized activity.
Beer was a vital part of everyday life. It was a source of nutrients, and of clean water when polluted wells and rivers in towns would have carried disease. Beer was used to bathe newborn babies, and weak beer was served in schools and in workhouses to the poor. While Britain has always enjoyed a dubious reputation for drunkenness, for the vast majority beer was seen as something that made the population strong and hearty. When the Prince Regent (the future George IV) proclaimed, “Beer and beef have made us what we are,” he was boasting, not complaining.
When the twin drivers of land enclosures and the Industrial Revolution transformed Britain into the world’s first modern urban population (of course, Rome might claim that prize), the demand for beer changed shape. Instead of diverse populations working as families, living in small communities on the land they tilled, we now had large, concentrated populations in towns and cities with men working together in factories, mills, and mines. The brewers who could capture the loyalty of the industrial workforce could take advantage of economies of scale, growing rapidly, improving their processes, and undercutting the price of smaller competitors, thereby growing further still. A cycle of consolidation began: when it became cheaper for an inn, ale house, or tavern to buy beer than to brew it themselves, large-scale industrial brewers supplying tens or even hundreds of outlets emerged.
The Industrial Revolution and the brewing industry developed hand in hand, driving each other on. Brewers were among the first to make use of steam power and coke smelting, invested heavily in transport networks, and pioneered microbiology.
The beer style of the Industrial Revolution was porter. Developed as an alternative to mixing together old ale and younger beer, porter is rumored to have been perfected by Harwood’s brewery in the London district of Shoreditch in the 18th century. It drew its name from the ranks of porters who carried goods and worked in and around London’s markets. A dark brown, full- bodied beer, it benefited from economies of scale and gained consistency and quality from being brewed in larger vats. As it grew more popular, its brewers grew larger, the quality of the beer improved, and it grew more popular still, until it was regarded, in the words of one foreign visitor to London in the 18th century, as “the universal cordial of the populace.”
Arthur Guinness was a Dublin brewer who adopted porter brewing after seeing its popularity in London. Stronger versions of the brew became known as “extra stout” porters, eventually abbreviated to simply “stout.” Arthur’s son, also called Arthur, perfected Guinness stout, which went on to become arguably the world’s most famous and iconic beer brand.
Porter’s supremacy in Britain lasted until the unlikely and much mythologized rise of India pale ale. Strong, hoppy beers for the thirsty westerners in British India formed a tiny fraction of British brewing for many years. George Hodgson’s brewery in east London was the first to become famous for brewing “East India Pale Ale,” but following an altercation with the East India Company, the company sought out brewers in Burton-on-Trent to compete with Hodgson’s Brewery.
They went to Burton because this small town had a reputation for brewing beers that stood up well to the rigors of sea travel, after decades of successfully exporting strong, sweet Burton ale to the Russian Imperial Court and other important cities around the Baltic States. This market had dried up, and Burton was left with a highly developed brewing infrastructure and no demand. Then, in 1822, the chairman of the East India Company approached Samuel Allsopp—the largest of the Baltic-focused Burton brewers—and suggested he replicate Hodgson’s India Ale. What neither company nor brewer could have known was that when the pale, sparkling ale was brewed with Burton rather than London water, it would reach a condition and quality that far surpassed the original. Burton brewers, led by Allsopp and his bitter rival Bass, grew rapidly to dominate the Indian market. Every other export market within the emerging British Empire soon followed.
By the middle of the 19th century, the small landlocked town of Burton-on-Trent was one of the most significant brewing centers on the planet. As the brewing industry’s scientific knowledge developed, it identified the fact that Burton’s special brewing water—the combination of minerals and salts it possessed after filtering through layers of gravel—was key to the appeal and longevity of its beers. Brewers from London were forced to open branches in Burton if they wanted to compete in the manufacture of this new, bright sparkling ale.
It’s rumored that Britain itself first developed a taste for IPA following a shipwreck off the coast of Liverpool in 1827, after which the locals enjoyed the salvaged India-bound cargo. Such a shipwreck may well have happened—they often did—but this one did not introduce India pale ale to Britain in such a dramatic fashion. Burton pale ales were already on sale, but only in minimal quantities.
India pale ale exploded in domestic popularity in the 1850s. The end of the tax on glass meant glassware became widespread. Compared to a pewter or earthenware mug, glassware showed impurities in beer and made adulteration of beer much more noticeable. Such adulteration was much easier to detect in pale ale than porter. It became a fashionable drink, a “Champagne of malt,” according to contemporary admirers. Attempts by a French chemist to suggest that the characteristic bitterness of Burton ales was achieved by adding strychnine was comprehensively refuted by Burton’s brewers, with the help of leading doctors of the day. The surrounding publicity—and subsequent endorsements of Burton pale ale from the medical profession—helped propel it to become the most fashionable and sought after beer of the age.
Huge domestic demand created a headache for IPA brewers. If the beer were not to be sent on the 6-month sea voyage that miraculously conditioned it, it had to be aged in cellars for a year or more, creating a lag between demand and the ability to supply it, and requiring acres of extensive storage space. But the influx of brewing talent to Burton, coupled with the huge scientific advances the brewing industry was making in the late 19th century, held the answer.
Both IPA and porter needed to be stored for long periods to condition, and brewing was confined to cooler months, when wild yeasts were less active. But advances such as microbiology and refrigeration allowed brewing to become a year-round activity. Beer no longer had to be stored, so it could be brewed all year round, and therefore need not be brewed as strong in alcohol. New, lower strength “running beers” emerged, and quickly caught on with the rising middle classes who had to keep a clear head for work. Reforms in taxation in 1880 saw beer taxed on its original gravity, which could now be accurately measured. This incentivized brewers to brew lower strength beers, and the average alcoholic strength of beer plummeted.
Low strength running beers became the norm. With India pale ale so successful, many were soon brewed as weaker pale ales, and their characteristic hoppiness saw them increasingly become referred to as “bitter.” Throughout the 20th century, IPA, pale ale, best bitter, ale, and simply bitter became increasingly interchangeable as names for beers in Britain.
What they had in common was live yeast in the cask for a secondary fermentation. This gave beer a natural carbonation and a satisfying complexity and depth of flavor. While some fans erroneously refer to it as “beer the way it has always been brewed,” cask ale is undeniably Britain’s national drink, unequalled as a style anywhere else. British drinkers continued to enjoy it in great quantities until the final quarter of the 20th century.
While it is incorrect to say that Britain ignored the rise of lager completely (there were British lager breweries dating back to the late 19th century, and lager caught on as a style in Scotland quite quickly) Britain for the most part doggedly stuck with its ale styles as lager swept the rest of the world.
Why? Partly because it had its own pale, sparkling, refreshing beer in the form of pale ale. Partly because refrigeration was much slower in becoming established in the UK than in the rest of the world. Partly because of the British tied house system, which meant that the large global lager brewers struggled to gain a foothold in a country that drank a lot of beer, but did so mainly in pubs owned by ale brewers. And partly due to national pride, a now-disappeared notion that anything British must by definition be better than anything foreign.
This notion of “British Is Best” outlived the Empire that had spawned it, but finally decayed in the 1970s, a decade characterized by economic near-collapse and industrial strife.
Coincidentally, it was also the decade when air travel became affordable to the majority of the population. Britons began taking foreign holidays in larger numbers, mainly to continental Europe. They began acquiring a taste for Italian food, French wine, and European lager beer.
Lager marketers had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Brits to drink their beers throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. But an advertising campaign by Heineken that made lager seem like a cooler, more fashionable product coincided with a record-breaking hot summer in 1976. This was lager’s moment. Over the next 30 years, Britons switched from ale to lager, gaining an international reputation for swilling cheap imitation pilsners, and seemingly abandoning its ale tradition to a niche of geeky enthusiasts.
The rapid consolidation of British brewing in the 1950s and 1960s, and the attitude of modernism that drove it, changed the landscape of British brewing. The “big six” brewers emerged, between them owning over 70% of all brewing capacity. In search of efficiencies (in what had until then been a very economically inefficient and naïve industry) they strove to build standardized, national brands, beers that could be brewed in any part of the country, were robust enough to travel long distances, and were able to stand up to bad handling from poorly trained pub landlords and staff.
When cask ale is good, it can be fantastic, as good as any beer, anywhere on the planet. When it is bad, it resembles vinegar, or pond water, or worse. By the dawn of the 1970s, much of it was bad, and brewers phased out cask in favor of keg ale. Filtered, carbonated, and pasteurized in the brewery, keg ale was almost foolproof, never as bad as the worst kept cask ale, but never approaching the heights of a truly great pint of cask. Keg ale and lager, which was also filtered and pasteurized, threatened cask ale with extinction.
The problem with standardization is that it wipes out the exceptionally good as well as the exceptionally bad. Those drinkers who had been lucky enough to have access to great cask ale suddenly found they were drinking vastly inferior keg ale instead. The breweries creating their treasured beers were being bought up by the giants who wanted to get their hands on their pubs, while the breweries themselves were quickly closed.
One group of drinkers decided to do something about this, and formed the Campaign for the Revitalization of Ale, or CAMRA for short. They coined the phrase “real ale” to refer to traditional cask conditioned beer, and duly renamed CAMRA the “Campaign for Real Ale.”
CAMRA was astonishingly successful in raising awareness of real ale and protesting brewer closures. It swiftly became regarded as one of the most successful consumer movements of its day but also benefited from catching a cultural wave that saw people begin to reject modernism for its own sake, and approach traditional, crafted produce with renewed interest.
After its initial success CAMRA stagnated. Its attraction to hobbyists, reverence for tradition over innovation, and militancy that cask ale was the only beer that could be considered worth drinking, gave cask ale a negative image. To be a real ale drinker was to be a bearded, pot-bellied, sandal-wearing geek when lager drinkers were considered cool. Image had become crucially important in beer marketing, with the leading lager brands spending millions on TV advertising campaigns. Not only did ale brands not have the same budgets, ale drinkers rejected the notion that image mattered and did nothing to combat the negative image they were giving their beloved drink.
The stagnation ended in the new millennium, when Progressive Beer Duty gave tax breaks to small brewers, leading to a craft beer revolution in the UK. By now the big brewers that dominated the British market had become or were becoming part of huge multinational corporations that were keen to build global lager brands, and were withdrawing support from once iconic ale brands like John Smith’s, Tetley’s, and Boddington’s. But influenced by tax breaks, a growing market for imported “specialty” beers, and the buzz coming from the craft beer movement in the United States, many British beer fans began setting up as brewers. Unlike the previous generation, these new brewers combined their healthy respect for tradition with an appetite for innovation, with American hops becoming commonplace and techniques such as wood ageing seeing the first genuine innovation in beer for decades. Once seen as a beer category in terminal decline, ale revived and began increasing its share of a declining beer market. By 2010, there were almost 800 brewers in Britain, more than at any time since the 1940s.
While mainstream beer in Britain will continue to be dominated by mass-produced lagers owned by global giants, the future of craft beer in Britain is secure. The beer market remains in steady decline, and economic hardship, crippling government legislation, and changing leisure patterns have led to a sharp reduction in the number of pubs in Britain. But British beer has been served in British pubs for a thousand years now. It would seem arrogant to suggest that it is about to disappear in the near future.
Pale ale—does what it says, covering a broad range from light summer ales that are almost the same color as standard golden lager but with a bit more personality, through to heady, aromatic India pale ales. Bitter—the workhorse of the ale world; usually mid-brown, moderate strength, all about the perfect balance of citrus or floral aromas, caramel and biscuit on the palate, with a dry finish. Porter and stout—a richer, darker roasting of the malt gives a fuller chocolatey, coffee, sometimes even vinous, flavor. Mild—dark, like porter and stout, but usually low in alcohol, full of mocha flavors while managing to remain light and refreshing. Old ale and barley wine—strong beers (above 7%) that have been aged to give a vast range of flavor complexity. These are not intended to be consumed by the pint, but they can rival sherry or port as an after-dinner digestive.
Pale ale—does what it says, covering a broad range from light summer ales that are almost the same color as standard golden lager but with a bit more personality, through to heady, aromatic India pale ales.
Bitter—the workhorse of the ale world; usually mid-brown, moderate strength, all about the perfect balance of citrus or floral aromas, caramel and biscuit on the palate, with a dry finish.
Porter and stout—a richer, darker roasting of the malt gives a fuller chocolatey, coffee, sometimes even vinous, flavor.
Mild—dark, like porter and stout, but usually low in alcohol, full of mocha flavors while managing to remain light and refreshing.
Old ale and barley wine—strong beers (above 7%) that have been aged to give a vast range of flavor complexity. These are not intended to be consumed by the pint, but they can rival sherry or port as an after-dinner digestive.
In a world of increasing standardization and homogenization, British beer and pubs provide a welcome point of regional and local difference. The large ale brewers remain regional in terms of their areas of dominance, while many smaller ones focus on providing an area no more than 30 miles’ radius from the brewery. Every part of the country now has its own unique specialties.
Having said that, there are some towns and cities worthy of note. London is of course unrivalled for its historic pubs and has seen a belated explosion in the number of craft brewers supplying them. Derby and Sheffield rival each other for the claim to have the most beers on tap of any city, with the latter felt to be the winner by a narrow margin. Edinburgh is an historic brewing town now enjoying an incredible rise in craft beer appreciation. But all key cities—Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff, Bristol, Leeds—now have their own brewers and great beer pubs.
The Cask Report: Celebrating Britain’s National Drink. http://www.caskreport.co.uk./
The Cask Report: Celebrating Britain’s National Drink. http://www.caskreport.co.uk./