Great British Beer Festival, Part 1: The American Dream

About four years ago, I had a conversation with an English friend about beer. You know, one of those chats about great pubs and lovely new beers we had tried. I was talking about some American craft beers I’d tasted recently, and by way of a nonchalant aside, I let slip that I though the USA was the most exciting brewing nation on the planet at the moment. I don’t think I was taking notes at the time, but if I had been they would probably show evidence of rapidly spat-out mouthful of London Pride.

It wasn’t a joke and I was right. Now, it’s hard to escape the influence of American craft beers – even in the highest bastion of British real ale: the Great British Beer Festival. There’s a bar at the festival: Bières Sans Frontières, which has, for as long as I can remember, had all manner of great Czech and German beer, and also a growing number of lovely beers from across the pond. This year’s offering is twice as big as last year, with two very long rows of casks, from the familiar (Sierra Nevada) to the less well-known (High and Mighty). This is where I’d add a picture, but I must have been drooling too much to think of getting the camera out.

As last year’s festival, the selection ran out very quickly, I thought it wise to devote most of my first visit to GBBF 2010 to sampling America. I surveyed the bright yellow labels on the casks, but unlike a twitcher in search of a rare wood warbler blown over the Atlantic in a freak storm, it seemed like the storm had blown me in the opposite direction. I began to feel a bit sorry for the rest of the festival. It’s not easy going from Smuttynose Big A, a 7.7% ABV IPA from New Hampshire to Otley O, a 4-point-something golden ale from Pontypridd). Not that Ponty’s finest is inferior, but you can buy it readily(-ish) here, and well, it’s like eating a poached scallop after prime rib of beef with a chipotle glaze.

There is a fair smattering of imperial porters and double IPAs at high ABV percentages, but not all are overwhelming. I started with Stone Levitation with Simcoe hops, at a very manageable 4.4%. An obvious attempt by Stone brewery to make an American version of a British cask ale. Masterly it was too, and a great way to start the festival. It would have been wise perhaps, to try the Stone Levitation against Hopping Mad from the Durham brewery or Thornbridge Jaipur IPA, two British beers doffing a baseball cap to the US craft brewing scene; especially as Jaipur won Gold in its category (Strong Bitter) in the festival competition.

Thornbridge from Bakewell, Derbyshire, make some wonderful beers, and there are others that want do something to push the UK beer scene forward: Marble, Otley, and of course, BrewDog. And not just the UK; it seems every new brewery from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads knows the way to Amarillo (a hop variety popular with craft brewers). But it’s not just about throwing in bucketloads of American hops, welcome though that is to this hop-head, we need more established British Brewers to join the likes of Fullers in their more adventurous moments. In their Brewer’s Reserve Number 2, they have produced a big hitter of their own: a barrel aged 8.2% version of their Vintage ale. Not to be missed.

I’m very wary of Brits appropriating baseball metaphor, but here I think it is appropriate; I’d love to see our own brewers step up to the plate and show off our own “noble hops”: East Kent Goldings in spades, Goldings and Bramling Cross bursting the barrels. If there is now a corner of Earl’s Court that is forever USA, at least in August, let’s see if the UK can do it our way too.

Now, I’m off for Session 2 to see if UK breweries are already catching up. I might be out of date. I hope so.

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