American craft beer: the hippest of hops

  • Reading time:4 min(s) read

From tasteless mass-produced beers a decade ago, innovative, flavoursome American ales from a thriving craft brewing scene can now be found in the UK. Is this a welcome invasion?

If you have ever drunk Budweiser, Michelob or Miller Lite, the phrase, craft brewed American beer, may sound like an oxymoron. A joke, even. But, for several years now, it is US microbreweries which have been setting the pace internationally, exciting beer geeks and inspiring several radical new British breweries.

If, however, that Stateside creativity was previously an open secret, mainly of interest to a small beer-drinking cognoscenti, all that is about to change. Thanks to the advocacy of new wave specialist beer bars like Manchester’s Port Street Beer House, Bradford’s Sparrow, Leeds’ North bar, London’s Rake, the Draft House venues, the Euston Tap, and Brewdog’s small chain of Scottish bars, US craft beer is suddenly gathering a significant momentum in the UK. Previously obscure beers from Flying Dog, AleSmith, Stone, Odell and other small US breweries are gaining exposure here, among discerning drinkers, like never before.

At the same time, several of the better-known American craft beers are beginning to form a bridgehead in Britain’s supermarkets, with both Brooklyn lager and Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale (the beer that Brewdog used to try and mimic in their first garage-based home-brewing experiments) now widely available. Goose Island’s beers will appear in 250 Tesco stores from mid-August, reinforcing the sense that, like it or not, the Americans are coming.

Which, if you are looking for excitement in your glass, is reason to celebrate. In sharp contrast to their often conservative UK counterparts, America’s 1,600 microbreweries specialise in big, bold, punchy flavours. Their beers are typically dosed with huge quantities of hops – both hops high in alpha acids, early in the brewing process, for bitterness; then dry, uncooked hops later on for fruitier flavours – in order to cram taste into their beers. As Steve Taylor co-owner of London bar, Mason & Taylor explains:

“Over the last 30 years or so, American agricultural universities and hop farms developed a multitude of new hop strains, like Amarillo, Cascade and Citra, most of which have bold aggressive bitterness and huge, fresh, largely tropical flavours. Those hops inspired a pale ale revolution which elevated US beers beyond the unremarkable brown session beers which had previously, and to a certain extent still, dominate English cask beer production.”

First and foremost, British beer drinkers are responding positively to the exuberant flavours characteristic of US craft beers. That those beers are slickly packaged, however – not just in terms of memorable or modish branding, but in the way the labels tend to clearly explain how said beer was made and how it might taste – is an important factor, too.

It is easy, for instance, to see how Flying Dog’s bottled beers, and their Ralph Steadman-designed labels, might capture the imagination of 20-something drinkers. As a product, it looks a lot cooler than the average real ale pump-clip. “Americans are bloody good at branding,” says beer importer James Clay. “They stand out, and that’s backed up by some of the most innovative brewing in the world. We don’t import novelty beers.”

Still, US craft beer will need to overcome some serious obstacles if it is to cross over in earnest. For one, it is shipped across the Atlantic, subject to export / import taxes and is made from large quantities of high-quality raw ingredients. All of which makes it considerably more expensive than British real ale (and the stronger US beers will be hit again, in October, by the new beer duty premium).

In Port Street Beer House it is around ?3.50-?6 for a bottle of imported US beer compared to ?3 for a pint of real ale. With those higher prices in mind, people should drink less but taste more, says Port Street owner Jonny Heyes. This is much part of the bar’s ethos; draught beers are available in ? pint tasters and Heyes would like people to share bottles and experiment with new beers, rather gauging a night out by the number pints drunk.

There is, of course, the question of just how much flavour the average British drinker actually wants in their beer, and how much longer the big-hitting US beers will retain their novelty. A notable hardcore of forward-thinking British breweries, such as Darkstar, Meantime, Kernel, Otley and Marble, are already playing the Americans at their own game.

They are all, to varying degrees, producing modern beers that push boundaries and make big statements in terms of taste, packaging, and the way in which they are consumed. There’s enormous potential for a generational shift in our drinking habits which American craft beer brewers, and their British admirers, are perfectly positioned to exploit.