I openly and freely admit that I am a beer snob of the first order, to the point that I have not partaken of a Budweiser, Coors or Miller beer in more than 20 years. Here’s the story of how I came to discover the complexities and varieties of beer – and why I’ve begun to take on the hobby of home brewing.
The Ship in South Norwood, London. Where I first discovered my love of beer.
Early on, as a young adult living in New York City, I did partake of Guinness Stout, initially because of my Irish heritage but came to appreciate its bold flavor and aroma. Outside of Guinness, however, my idea of “exotic” in the early 80’s was to drink a Molson Golden or Moosehead (Canadian lager), Foster’s Lager, Löwenbrau (Helles lager), Beck’s (German pilsner) and Heineken (pale lager). Back then, even Coor’s was virtually considered an import and all I knew. That all changed on my first visit to England as an adult in 1988 and my first taste of an English Bitter (i.e. English pale ale) – WOW, it was packed with flavors and aromas I had never encountered before!
Abbot Ale from Green King Brewers in Bury St. Edmunds, Surrey UK was my very first taste of an English Bitter (a.k.a. Pale Ale). I’ve never been the same!
Now, the first thing that comes to mind when most American’s think of English pubs and English beer is that it’s warm. That, however, is relative to context. The typical temperature of an English Bitter is 55°F – commonly referred to as “cellar temperature”. Budweiser requires it’s retailers to store their product at 36°F to 38°F so yes, English beer is warm when compared to the typical American pale lager such as Bud, Miller or Coors. The problem with serving beer at such a cold temperature is that it dulls the taste buds thereby masking the flavors in the beer (also the reason why salt is added to ice cream, to excite the taste buds). As an experiment, take a bottle or can of Bud out of the fridge and allow it to warm up on the counter for 20 to 30 minutes, unopened, and then drink it – it’s foul!!! Due to the “warmer” temperature of your typical English Bitter the flavors and aromas come alive: malty, floral, raisin, biscuit-y are some of the many flavors and aromas that may greet your palate depending on the style.
The Royal Standard pub in Croyden. My favorite London pub for more than 20 years now.
Fuller’s London Pride, the best beer in the Greater London area.
In addition to the local beers in England, English pubs also introduced me to a variety of styles of beer from not only Europe (primarily Dutch, Belgian, German and Czech) but from such disparate locations as India (King Fisher), Singapore (Tiger), China (Tsing Tao), Australia (Castlemaine) and the Caribbean (Red Stripe from Jamaica & Banks from Barbados). Even the Heineken that is served in Europe tastes radically different – and for the better. I stopped drinking beer from Budweiser, Miller & Coors in 1988 and haven’t looked back.
The Heineken served in Europe is very different, and vastly superior to what is available in the US.
In the United States, the beer landscape has been radically altered in the past 30 years. According the Brewer’s Association, by 1980 there were only 44 brewing companies extant in the United States. As of 2012, there are more than 2,100 brewing companies! I can now drink domestically produced beers that are on par with anything I have enjoyed in my subsequent travels and excursions. It’s no coincidence that I blog about food and beer. They are closely related (brewing is simply a form of cooking) and offer a not only wonderful taste experiences, but the opportunity to experience the world at large – geography and culture play an important role in both food and beer. Do yourself a favor and do your best to enjoy it all!