Part 1: Culture Shock
I spent a week in lovely, misty, craggy, beery Edinburgh, Scotland, walking everywhere and drinking everything. This was my first time in the UK as a full-fledged beer nerd, engaging immersively with the beer culture that is perhaps dearest to my heart. I’d visited London and Dublin years before; I’d researched as extensively as might be considered reasonable from the other side of the ocean. So I wasn’t completely oblivious. Indeed, I thought myself quite well-prepared. I thought I knew what to expect.
Some of the difference should be obvious: the UK never went through a Prohibition, and their beer culture predates ours in the same way everything of theirs does. They have Beowulf, alewives and epic odes to beer surviving from at least 600; we have Benjamin Franklin and Robert Frost. But the obvious doesn’t cover it: the lion’s share of beer I drank was dry, surprisingly light-bodied, and under 4% alcohol—even the IPAs and Scotch ales! Laughable, considering that here in the US we’ve recently had to invent a new commercial subcategory, the “Session Ale”, to distinguish anything under 5%. A Scotch ale, thought I, should be malty! An IPA, surely, ought to be high enough in hops and alcohol to survive the long overseas journey to India—I thought that was the point. What was going on?
It took a bit of hands-on research (quite a bit), but I think I get it now—though I may have a bit of trouble articulating.
On one side is tradition. Before Prohibition, before sanitation, beer used to be for hydration. You drank beer instead of water because it was safer. And you couldn’t get much done if the liquid keeping you alive made you walk off curbs and under the wheels of carriages. While that hasn’t been the case for a century or more, no doubt those times still influence drinking culture in some small way. More than that, though, people just drink differently there: slowly and savoringly, over many hours, in a pub, with friends. The bar is a destination and the beer the excuse to be there. If you’re done drinking, you’ve run out of excuses. So an IPA that’s 3% alcohol instead of nine means three hours instead of one. Not that nobody thinks that way in the US—I certainly consider the bar a destination—I plan my vacations around it—but beer and beer appreciation aren’t quite as pervasive here. At least not in the same way? Social beer drinking in the US isn’t as mainstream…. Or is it? Football hooligans vs football tailgate party? What’s the difference? Better beer? Sort of a chicken and egg prospect, isn’t it?
Ok, that didn’t get me anywhere. A week in Edinburgh: very probably not enough time to fully grasp the nuances. To the other side then: the Campaign for Real Ale, or CAMRA, a wonderful grassroots political movement of the 1970s wherein lovers of traditional beer culture successfully fought down the beer monoculture INBEV equivalents of the day, setting against them a resurrection of the cask ale culture that had originated in the 17th century and was perfected all the way up through the 19th, before almost being elbowed out by mass production in the 20th. Cask ale, naturally carbonated (without using compressed CO2 or nitrogen), served at cellar temperature, quick to spoil, difficult to transport and therefore locally-made by definition, has been something of a holy grail to me these past few years, since climate makes it largely impracticable in the southern half of the US, and even in the northern half it’s still about the farthest thing from mainstream beer culture I can imagine. Consider the cold-activated can, the notion exhaustively established at absurd advertising expense that if your beer isn’t cold enough to numb your tastebuds it isn’t worth drinking, and you’ll understand why Real Ale barely scrapes out an existence on my side of the Atlantic. (Though we did had our own beer revolution in the ’70s: the legalization of homebrewing in 1979, coincidentally the year of my birth…but back to that in a minute.)
Real Ale isn’t everywhere in the UK either. This is still the age of INBEV (ought I censor their name in protest, like with Am*zon?), of globalization. But it seems, amazingly, almost everywhere. Of fourteen pubs I visited in Edinburgh and surrounds, twelve had beer on cask. “What’s on cask?” replaced my usual “What’s on draft?” as my standard first words of address to an unfamiliar bartender. Glorious! Truly I had found the promised land! Funny thing, though: after the fifth or sixth 16 oz. Imperial pint of hand-pulled cask bitter, I started craving something a little different. And not because I was falling down. Not only does 4% ABV beer keep you hydrated and sober enough to walk home (most of the time), it also highlights the cask flavor. When you pull a pint from ye standard keg, the volume of beer gets replaced with non-reactive, comparatively flavorless, clean mouthfeel CO2. A cask, contrariwise, pulls in regular old oxygenated air. The mouthfeel is earthier, the beer oxidizes a tiny bit with each pint, and you taste it: tangy, slightly sour. Hop bitterness hits more at the top of the palate but dissipates more quickly. Still, after a few, you get something not dissimilar to “hop death” (you know, that utter inability to taste that comes on after exactly one 12 oz. West Coast IPA?).
I like my taste buds. I wish they were more sensitive, not less. And I like to try different styles: if I had my druthers, a different beer in every glass. I’m sure many in the UK wouldn’t disagree—but it’s a sad consequence of all wildly successful revolutions that revolutionaries become entrenched in positions of power and after a certain time turn into autocrats. The beer autocrats of CAMRA got what they want, and now that’s all they want: cask death, to coin a(nother) phrase.
Luckily, there are new beer revolutionaries to be found if you go looking. And I did. I tried several lovely smooth imperial stouts approaching 15%, an elderflower pale ale, a light red ale that had been oaked within an inch of its life, a spruce beer, and, to my unsurprise and only slight disappointment, several “American-style” pale ales and IPAs, where “American style” in this case means (1) significantly higher than 4% ABV, and (2) aggressively hopped with American or other international hop varieties. The hop use was indeed innovative and different from anything I’d tried in the US: Australian and New Zealand hop strains I’d never tasted, new combinations of familiar UK and American hop strains with more focus on floral and spicy aspects and less on bitterness, which I appreciate, and which no doubt draws subtlety and the knowledge of experience from the aforementioned wonderful thousand year beer tradition. But this is also where the homebrew-led American beer revolution of the 70s-80s comes back around. Partly because of the proverbial cultural melting pot, partly because a side effect of prohibition was to cut off the heads of old traditions, leaving a void, American brewers had nothing holding them back, were free to pull from whatever tradition they wanted. It may (and to the autocratic CAMRA whitebeard undoubtedly does) seem like American arrogance to say so, but the fact that so many UK brewers seem to look to the US for inspiration strongly suggests to me that American innovation is to them as cask ale is to me, a holy grail.
A moral to this story: The hops are always greener on the other side of the pond.
So much for culture shock. In part two, I’ll share my interactive Edinburgh drinking map, review some pubs, and dig more into the local beer scene. In the meantime: Sláinte!