Destination: London, England.
The country of England enjoys a long and renowned beer brewing – and drinking – history. In fact, many of the local communities are set up specifically around pubs being within walking distance of your home – usually no matter the direction you head. There are breweries operating in England today that have been making and selling beer since before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock.
Having never been to this lovely country before it wouldn’t be far off to say I was giddy to try a few of beers straight out of the tap. And of course, as a red-blooded American – and a native New Englander to boot – it is my civic duty to test how the Brit’s fares stack up against the U.S. of A’s. As a man with colonial beers and spirits running through his veins I would be remiss if I didn’t imbibe, at least a little. Because, as we all know, beer and liquor tourism is the best kind of tourism.
So what were my criteria? During this trip I tried to rate my experience based on two very basic categories:
1) Culture – This is ambiance, drinking environment, expectations, etc.
2) Taste – This is the aroma, style, flavor, mouthfeel, and so on.
As a cultural outsider looking in, the traditions and expectations that exist, in comparison to that of the United States, is really quite fascinating. For instance, post-work drinks with coworkers seem to be the norm rather than the exception. In the US, you might go to get drinks with coworkers after work and, while you’re there, grab a bite to eat as well. In England, on the other hand, we found it was customary to have a couple of drinks at the local pub for a couple hours before heading home for supper (we even ended up at a restaurant that didn’t even start serving dinner until after 8:30PM!). This seems to be one of the reasons that many of the traditional British beers tend to be lower ABV and less carbonated than the ones you find in the US. When I asked one of the barmen at a pub we were at he told us that these characteristics are remnants of working days past and are that beers were meant to be drinkable and enjoyed as a community.
One fascinating element I found while doing research (aka drinking) and chatting to a couple locals is that over the last several years subtle divisional lines have been drawn in the sand of the English pub scene. As I mentioned a little bit earlier in the post, there is a distinct difference between traditional brews and microbrews – at least in regards to taste. England’s traditional brewing culture has been for many years been dominated by a few large brewers. Large breweries such as the popular Fuller’s brand – which has been in business since 1816. However, in recent years, a strange phenomenon has begun taking place. Craft beer mania has begun to infiltrate even this stoically traditional bastion.
In fact, if you were to look at today’s England you would not be remiss in identifying three basic types of pubs/breweries:
PubCo's – these are pub chains that have no loyalty to any one particular brewery, beyond what sells (it’s a poor comparison, but this would be like your British Beer Company or Yard House in the US).
Microbreweries – these are the exhibitionists; they are looking to push the envelope, trying new brewing technologies, and combining flavors to reinvent classic styles.
Small Pubs and Breweries – while they may not be mainstream or large brewers or beer purveyors they are also not microbrewers. Rather, they are a collection of small institutions that operate within their communities and tend to offer more traditional options that can vary widely in style due to location and the cultural expectations of the patrons.
Sometimes the lines between the three are finer than one would expect, but the differences remain an important distinction to keep in mind when traveling this new beer world. When you take the time to stop and look around you will see a society that enjoys its traditional brews, but it is starting to accept a new breed of craft brewing. The dichotomy of tradition meeting modern style is at once fascinating and inspiring to me as an avid beer lover.
But at the end of the day it's all about how good the beer tastes, and the bottom line the Brits know their beer. There are some pretty darn good brews out there; so do yourself a favor and book a flight!