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British Beer, Craft Beer, and Cask Ale

If there is one thing Brew Britannia taught me, it’s that there is more to British beer than just pints of Bitter. (Also, the book is five dollars off in our Amazon store.)

For almost forty years beer on the British Isles has been dominated by the Campaign For Real Ale and their insistence that the best beer is that made with British ingredients and served the British way: unpasteurized, unfiltered, and conditioned in casks. Kegs were for fizzy, boring lager.

But starting in the Early aughts a new wave of brewers and beer drinkers started to rebel against CAMRA and their strict interpretation of what beer should be. Lead by antagonistic brewers like BrewDog and inspired by American craft brewers a new class of British beer emerged. (Just a side note: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale apparently lead many down the path toward hop heaven. That single pale ale gets mentioned at least half a dozen times in 250 pages.) 

This new class of breweries is bring pungent American hops, spicy Belgian yeast, and bourbon barrel aging to the isles. They are less interested in how the beer is made and dispensed than whether it tastes good. Kegs, bottles, casks, pint glasses, stemware, cans — they’re using whatever best serves the beer.

Among these new breweries is Wild Beer Co. in Somerset. They specialize in farmhouse ales fermented with — what else? — wild yeast. In Brew Britannia, founder Andrew Cooper says some beer drinkers might say their product “is not really beer,” but they’re fine with that. Wild Beer uses all sorts of ingredients hardcore CAMRA-ites would dismiss. From coffee and chocolate to mint and cucumber or roasted apricots.

Wild Beer’s Iduna Cru is a strong saison fermented with champagne yeast and apple juice. The beer is pale yellow with just enough haze to show it’s wild roots. The bouquet blooms with funky green apples. The palate is dominated by a spicy yeast but the apples sneak up on you in the finish. The aftertaste has fresh cidery dryness. The nine percent alcohol isn’t easily apparent but places the beer squarely in special occasion category.

Brettanomyces can be challenging for the uninitiated, but Wild Beer Co. is clearly positioning themselves outside the mainstream pub. They make beer for fans of wine and cocktails, and in my book, there is nothing wrong with that.

Traditionally Non-Traditional

In 1996, Widmer Brothers Brewing wanted to release a London style porter, a bit of a risk for a brewery who made their name making German style beers. They brewed Big Ben with a dash of molasses and licorice, a small addition that made it difficult to get label approval. They had to prove that their beer was, in fact, traditional.

But is it? I decided to do a little research myself.I went back to my handy copy of the Oxford Companion to Beer and read up on porter. The article only contains an aside saying licorice and other adjuncts were added for color in early porter. That’s something, but not enough to close an argument with the most powerful man in beer, the head of the Tax and Trade Bureau

I decided to dust off Martyn Cornell’s Amber, Gold, and Black to get the full story. The full story inevitably revolves around money, and — this being England — taxes.

There was a period in the evolution of beer when all malt was brown, and not uniformly brown like it is today. Malt was made over fires fueled by coal, straw, or wood. The resulting malt was burnt in places, raw in others, and some of the grains were even popped like popcorn. This malt made great porter in the eighteenth century. But with the introduction of cheaper, more uniform pale malts, the trick became making a beer that looked black like porter without using expensive brown malt.

Thus brewers begin adding licorice, brown sugar, and I am sure, a bit of molasses. It worked for a period, but eventually the tax collectors got nervous. In those days beer was taxed on the ingredients going into it, especially malt. If brewers were using adjuncts, they could get away with making beer without paying the tax. Licorice was outlawed as a beer ingredient just as patent malt, or black malt,  entered the market making it cheap to darken a beer without resorting to tax tricks.

Big Ben Porter, the Widmer Brothers’ beer is traditional in that no single porter is traditional. Porter has been around for hundreds of years and brewed a thousand different ways. Perhaps, that’s what makes Big Ben traditional it attempts mimic earlier porters using new ingredients.

Big Ben is a strangely clean beer with a vague bittersweet blackety flavor. It’s not as chocolatey or roasty as you’d think. It’s thinner than most commercial porters, as well as a hint of tartness. Big Ben has more in common with a cold-fermented Baltic Porter than a full bodied Black Butte Porter.

High-res Blimey! That’s Limey
Myrtle is the farmhouse equivalent to a Berliner weisse. It’s very tart, like a citric acid laced gummy candy. Myrtle has a distinct lime flavor, but unlike the Commons’ Bier Royale, there is no actual fruit in here. The lime flavor in Myrtle comes from a mixture of lactobacillus and citrusy Meridian hops. The beer retains a healthy malt backbone that keeps you from puckering up. Just look out for the yeast cake at the bottom, it’s thick and muddy.

Blimey! That’s Limey

Myrtle is the farmhouse equivalent to a Berliner weisse. It’s very tart, like a citric acid laced gummy candy. Myrtle has a distinct lime flavor, but unlike the Commons’ Bier Royale, there is no actual fruit in here. The lime flavor in Myrtle comes from a mixture of lactobacillus and citrusy Meridian hops. The beer retains a healthy malt backbone that keeps you from puckering up. Just look out for the yeast cake at the bottom, it’s thick and muddy.

Vanilla Extract

A cup of black coffee with a shot of sugar free vanilla, that’s what Vanilla Oatis tastes like. Sort of disappointing for a beer made with actual vanilla beans. Ninkasi Brewing took their Oatis oatmeal stout and added vanilla beans to the fermenting beer — exactly like dry hopping. The result has plenty of vanilla flavor without any that sweetness you usually associate with that taste.

Grains, Grains, Grains

People have been making beer from a variety of grains since forever. Barley might be the top grain today, but everything from rice to sorghum has found it’s way into the mash tun at some point. Each grain lends a different unique quality. Brewers used rice to dilute their thick mashes in the eighteenth century. Brewers have been using oats here and there for centuries, but since the late nineteenth century oats have found a special home in stout brewing.

Oatmeal gives Stumbler’s Stout from Columbia River Brewing its creaminess. Roasted coffee flavor mingles with a little molasses and a tiny hint of smoke on the palate. There is even a hint of nice hop flavor around the edges. But the mouthfeel is what really makes this beer sing. Oatmeal has a lot of protein, like wheat, which gives the beer texture and increases head retention. Stumbler’s has velvety body without being too heavy — full and thin at the same time.