By Warren “BeerSensei” Monteiro
Temperate August favored London Beer City 2017, raising a 10-day cool umbrella over two major festivals and a barrel full of mini taste events. London’s brew scene here is just bursting with tastings and tap takeovers and fresh new product.
As we know, the Great British Beer Festival is the grand-daddy of cask ale events, shepherded along for 40 years now by the Campaign for Real Ale. Roger Protz, CAMRA’s avuncular elder statesman, presided over a Festival tasting of the Champion Beers. He revealed that a full five of the finalists utilized American hops. Not entirely sensational, since England’s been importing our bitter cones since the Industrial Revolution. Let’s look at some of the winners.
Overall Champion Beer of 2017: Church End Goat’s Milk, a 3.8% bitter, with Cascade and Chinook hops rounding out a healthy dose of malt. A nod to the past, with a little stinging hop trail at the end. Roger lauded it as unanimous winner in the closeted final round. That said, nobody on our sampling panel favored it enough. Our interest was specially piqued by two other category winners: Blue Monkey Affinity (Golden Ale 4.6%), single-hopped with Citra. And my personal favorite, Gray Trees Afghan (5.4%), melds Chinook, Cascade and Simcoe to great late advantage. The category was Strong Bitter, but the brewery called it an APA American Pale Ale); for my money it tastes like a classic-style India Pale Ale.
The Speciality winner is a terrific dessert beer and a previous champion: Saltaire Triple Chocoholic (4.8%); Fuggles and Goldings and bitter chocolate kept it very, very English. Tiny Rebel Cwtch (“cuddle” in Welsh) was voted Best Bitter. Heralded Champion Beer two years ago, Cwtch uses Cascade and Columbus and dry hops with Citra. “Too much grapefruit here” says Roger, a traditional malt man. Eschewing “hop forward” beers, he advised us that mild was the preferred beer style in the 1950s. Which explains a lot about Roger – and CAMRA. Tradition.
Once GBBF was the Jewel in the Crown of English beer. But there are sharks in the wort. Potent competition emerges with the London Craft Beer Festival, now in its fifth year in much larger premises off Hoxton Square. It trumpets what CAMRA refers to in its publications as “craft” beers. (I’ll explain the “quotes” a little later.)
Hundreds of people queued up at the old Shoreditch Electric Light Station in anticipation of the opening session. Each booth was slammed with drinkers chasing 45+ cult brewers like Cloudwater, Kernel, Weird Beard, Beavertown, and BBNo. (Brew by Numbers). These guys don’t care how the beer is made as long as it tastes good. Take Wild Beer’s Lobster Beer. Or several local NEIPA’s. Or any of Redchurch’s barrel-aged sours. They even nod to the Other Guys with a Cask Yard sponsored by Fuller’s, London’s great real ale survivor. They call their act London Beer Culture. A rough count yields 78 breweries within the circular highways around greater London with more on the way. Nearly all have taprooms.
Ah! The quotes. To my amusement, rather than horror, CAMRA defensively maintains that there is no clear definition of “craft” beer, except that it apparently isn’t poured from a cask. Hence the parens. In all their publications. Something that would never have occurred to us. Don’t want to bash CAMRA here. Cause they’ve done a lot.
Forty years ago the argument was cask v. lousy keg beer. Formed to foment, the Campaign for Real Ale stood alone helping real ale limp from the few remaining backwaters not ravaged by the multi-nationals and grow to industry prominence. CAMRA consistently lobbies for rate relief on punitive taxing of small brewers with growing political clout. They’ve achieved reduced excise duty and frozen tax rises. Today, it boasts 187,000 active members. They’re now raising hell about government’s arbitrarily setting ridiculously low alcohol unit consumption levels with specious health evidence. And each August they produce the Great British Beer Festival. That’s great, right? But an advocacy org’s got to know its limitations.
To these guys, a sour beer is “off”. An unfiltered, unpasteurized beer is anathema if it’s pushed by CO₂. Of only 10 judging categories, only one (Speciality) embraces the full beer world, pitting fruit beers against chocolate beers against lambics against saisons against lagers, etc., because they’re not locally recognizable ale styles. Sadly, a lumpen antediluvian attitude. What’s a poor unusual beer to do?
Well, about five years ago something happened. Good craft keg beer, which had been sniffing around London for a while (thanks to Kernel Brewery), over time ushered in a sweeping tsunami of change, particularly with younger, more adventurous drinkers. They prefer a chilled product with more spritz and a wider variety of taste options, very definitely not “old socks”, and they’re going for it.
Frankly, CAMRA had better stop building that wall. They cannot seem to shake the attitude that real ale only comes off a hand pump, by gravity, or from a conditioned bottle. And that runs the danger of making them face the bottom line: CAMRA can no longer tell the nation’s drinkers what beer is “real” (my quotes).
As we keep getting older (damn it!), the industry here gets not only younger, but more contentious. “Craft” pubs (now they’ve got me doing it!) are mushrooming up all over London and other major UK cities. One fine chain, actually named Craft Beer Co., sports six pubs citywide (and one in Brighton) with Craft Old Street/Shoreditch opening this month, all with a plethora of taps. Right behind them are Brewdog, Draft House, Mother Kelly’s, Brewhouse and Kitchen, all with multiple locations and sizeable lists of both cask & keg. Now http://craftbeerlondon.com currently lists 207 craft beer pubs. Time to remove the quotes.
Americans like myself, and a lot of young British drinkers don’t see a problem. My position is to find a self-definition that keeps yourself intact but doesn’t cut out the other guy. But that could be trouble too. Then you’d have to admit it’s all really beer. Anyway, I’ve been coming to London for 40 years and that’s my take. You use your own judgment. But make sure it’s informed by lots of craft beers and real ales.
Those of you who think to travel here next August – book early! Get a week of self-catering and you can do it all, even throw in a show. There’s a terrific craft bar called The Understudy at the National Theatre.