Category Archives: Burton

The Session #87: Local Beer History

the session beer blogging fridayThe Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts The Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing of all the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry (see link, posted to comments in due course). This month’s Session is by Reuben Gray at The Tale Of Ale (http://www.taleofale.com) on the topic of Local Brewery History – Reuben wants us to give a history of a local brewery – one that’s more than 20 years old. It may be alive; it may be dead or it may be the living dead…

 “To me, beer is much more a liquid in a glass. It’s about people, places and increasingly, terroir”  Ben Keene, ‘The Great Northeast Brewery Tour’

I am a beer writer who has lived and worked in one of the world’s great brewing capitals for over 20 years. I am also a historian or, as a friend put it, a ‘socio-geographer’ looking for the connections between people and place. To me, just as for Ben Keene who wrote in the preface to his brewery guide to the Northeast of the U.S., beer is much more than a liquid in a glass. It is much more than a way of easy inebriation. It is a connection – particularly, that is, if it is a local beer, brewed with locally sourced ingredients, by people who know people you know. This month’s Session weaves these strands: of place; of people; of time.

This piece is also something of a personal crossing of the rubicon. I will write about a subject I have carefully avoided to date.  I will write about a brewery where I still have connections, having worked there for almost 20 years – and therefore risk upsetting people I know. It is not however a wistful or nostalgic piece about great times gone by (certainly, it is not intended to be) – but it is a tail of a tragedy. A tragedy hardly befitting not just any old brand, but arguably one of the greatest ever brands. Not just beer brands. All brands.

This is the story of Bass.   This is the story of the first and once, most recognisable, trademark in the world. This is the story of its shockingly recent, quick and preventable decline.

The history. Unlike other writers in this month’s session, there’s not a lot I can add to what has been written about the story of Burton and Bass – painstakingly researched and recorded by Roger Protz in his terrific ‘The Story of Brewing in Burton on Trent’ (The History Press, 2011). In a nutshell, the history of Bass is interwoven with the history of British Empire and industrialisation.  William Bass was a local brewer, but successive generations expanded the brewery riding on the coat tails of the rise of the empire in India and coinciding with leaps forward in brewing science and chemical understanding.  Just as the first pale lagers were catalysed by the industrial manufacture of crystal and clear glassware, so Burton ales stole a competitive march on other British brewers through the understanding of malting (new paler & crystals malts that both gave up their fermentable sugars more easily & delivered a paler colour), of new fermentation techniques (in particular, the Burton Union system which allowed for both clarity in presentation and whilst leaving sufficient yeast in cask to allow for secondary fermentation) and embracing steam power which allowed them to brew consistently on a mass scale for the first time and also deliver more quickly to wherever their markets were established.  Go to St Pancras station in London today: as you sip your Cappuccino in Benugos, or buy a Thomas Pink shirt, enjoy the magnificent cellars. They are beer cellars, with columns one Beer-Butt wide. They are in fact, Bass cellars.  And when the Indian trade declined, brewers such as Allsopp and Bass revolutionised domestic beer, using their international brand reputations to effectively exploit the trend for paler, lighter beer styles (pale ale and bitter in particular), coming up with new classics in their own right.

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Bass, of course, was only one of many Burton brewers. At the start of the twentieth century, there were 29 brewers in Burton on Trent. The architectural and logistical legacy still exists today – with some stately architecture and even, roads – Guild Street for example, one of the main routes connecting central Burton to Derby and the north, was built by Bass, and is leased by their successors to the local council today (plus it’s home to The Manzil curry house & The National Brewery Centre – a double whammy).  Elsewhere the former Everards Oast House still looks down goatily on the town, waiting for someone to raise the funds to restore it and appear on Grand Designs.

But Bass survived them all.  Commentators tend to agree that it did so because it diversified into lager earlier; it acquired public houses faster and was incrementally better-run that its competitors.  And it made good decisions along the way.  One in particular was fundamental – history will record Bass as owning the world’s first registered trademark – the red triangle – registered in 1876. Along with Allsopp, Bass moved quickly on the decline of the Baltic trade to establish trade with India and elsewhere in the British empire.  And where the liquid went so went the red triangle – growing the reputation of the company and brand.  The red triangle sold not only within the empire but across continental Europe and across North America. The red triangle got painted by impressionists.

Recent times. The troubles for Bass as a British brewers began with The Beer Orders.  The Orders demonstrated that the British Government was more than rationally interested in the structure of the British brewing and pub retailing industry – it believed that the price of a pint was a vote winner / loser and was desperate to retain a high level of competition in the UK.  Every brewery merger would be investigated – for Bass, when the first major attempt failed (a UK joint venture with Allied – now Carlsberg), the writing was on the wall.  Why would the Bass plc management stay in what they perceived as a low growth, low margin business with active government interest, when they could invest in higher growth, higher value businesses, like hotels?  History was cast aside. The brewing business was put up for sale and ultimately sold unconditionally to Interbrew of Belgium. Many executives ordered a new Aston Martin that day (I met one of the merchant bankers representing Bass plc and they could not believe that they received an unconditional offer). Yet, the government intervened again and ordered the new business to be split – in the end between Interbrew and Coors of the U.S.

And here were the seeds of demise of Bass, the brand.  Interbrew kept the name & red triangle trademark; but the breweries and brewing assets in Burton went to Coors. With Interbrew breweries throughout the UK and in Europe it was inevitable that Bass would have to cut ties with its home.  Perhaps a deal could have been struck between Coors and Interbrew to prevent this: but why would Coors help Interbrew protect one of the inherent strengths of a now-competitor brand? And why would Interbrew pay a premium to do so?

Bass & me. It was hard as someone who cares about these things to witness the company and the brand unfold as it did. From being someone who had worked on and sold the Bass brand to see it go was tough.  But my history stems from before I joined Bass. Indeed, I fought hard to join Bass Brewers because of draught Bass.  Me and my University mate Duncan, enjoyed a pint or three in ‘Ye Olde Shippe’ just off Exeter’s Cathedral Close, or in the Great Western near the station or best of all, at The Bridge in Topsham. Oh, there were good beers available from smaller brewers, but draught Bass was the daddy. Story goes that Bass was strong near the railway stations – being on a direct line from Burton the beer was always as fresh as it could be even with the distance covered.  It was a lovely quaffable ABV, 4.4%, with a bit of everything: a snappy, struck match, sulphurey aroma, an off-white creamy head and that lovely nutty flavour from the two strain Bass yeast. My brother always summarised it well: whereas Pedigree and Bass were both great beers, Pedigree is that bit agricultural – a bit farmyardy. Bass though, whilst also enjoying the Burton character, had better balance, a touch of sophistication.  If a beer could be this good, it must be a good company, I thought.

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**Fiddling: One bottle, three triangles.  Today, Bass can’t seem to make its mind up on even how to represent the red triangle – or indeed Bass’ signature – on its bottle.

Long term, there have been two big losers. The first were the people of Burton who had to endure seeing the Bass name, of which so many were proud, disappear (topping off a list of all the other great Burton beers – in particular, Draught Burton Ale (Pedigree is the exception, thankfully)).  Down came the red triangle. Off the brewery. Off the maltings. Off the trucks. Off the sheds. Even off the (Bass) Museum (it’s like Prince: ‘The Museum formally known as Bass’). Even off the wretched little brown signs that point to Burton’s brewing heritage*.  Second and tragically was the beer. Draught Bass and Bass Pale Ale have, to mis-coin a wartime expression, ‘Gone for a Burton’.  Sure, draught Bass is still brewed (ironically, by its long time competitor, Marstons). And cans and bottles are brewed by ABInbev up in Salmesbury. Bass Pale Ale for the U.S. is now brewed overseas (Belgium I believe, so it can still claim ‘imported’). But, unlike other Burton breweries – Thomas Salt, James Eadie, Allsopps, the list is long – which are properly dead, Bass has to endure a living dead status. Shorn of its home ties, brewed where convenient, unloved by its new parents (it has apparently been up for sale by ABInbev since 2010) it now stumbles along, all the while withering on the vine.  Commercially I understand that ABI has to prioritise, yet in the U.S., not so long ago Bass was the largest imported ale (800k U.S barrels a year); today it is less than a quarter of that – and on their watch. From being the U.K’s largest cask ale at the turn of this century (180k UK barrels) today, it gets lost in the rounding, with a parent who makes some noise about the brand but isn’t really doing anything other than fiddling** (Molson Coors, ironically, have now acquired Cornwall’s Doom Bar which is the UK’s largest cask brand – done, it must be said, for balance, on their watch).  Today seeing draught Bass in Burton is a rare sighting indeed – in fact, not so long ago, the new owners insulted Burton drinkers by insisting it came out of many pubs to be replaced with a keg version. Piss on my chips why don’t you?

Yet, it’s not nostalgia or wistfulness that makes me angry. What hacks me off is that today, premium UK brands are so exportable. Look at our car industry – a laughing stock 10 years ago, today Land Rover can’t keep up with demand – Jaguars, seemingly, are becoming as common as BMW 3 series. Or clothes brands – not just luxury brands, but ‘British look’ brands like FatFace or Boden are successfully building their businesses abroad. And over the last twenty years, ale’s time has not only come again at home, but in so many markets worldwide too.  This should be a new frontier for Bass. Indeed the beer is still great – a tad sweeter in the palate perhaps, but still the delightful aroma; still the restraint, the balance. But no new frontier. Rather, it languishes in a long tail; slighted and suffering due to the greed of Executives and the bodged intervention of government Civil Servants.

The tradition and memory of Burton, Pale Ale drinkers, brewing history and Bass deserves better.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

*One still persists, A38 northbound, just south of Branston.

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Capital Idea

1989 was an auspicious year. First year at Uni and loving the new life away, it was a time of tremendous discovery – about myself and about life in general – much of it quite mundane, like how to actually make some food. It was also the start of my real years of beer discovery – living in the south west, enjoying pubs like the Drewe Arms at Drewsteignton, The Nobody Inn at Doddiscombleigh, The Warren House Inn right in the middle of Dartmoor and the pubs by the river and canal in Exeter – the Double Locks, The Turf and The Bridge in Topsham.

Against this rural setting of beer swigging idyllic yokels, three of us made a trip during a holiday to Burton upon Trent. Rumour had it, this was the ‘home of British brewing’ but we knew little of it truth be told. There were breweries, there were pubs and it wasn’t that long a drive from our home town in the north west. My brother, Wilko and I made the trip. We tossed for designated driver, but we planned a long enough day trip to allow for a couple of guilt free pints early doors.  The details are unimportant – we visited the Bass Museum, The Burton Bridge Brewery, the now defunct Thomas Sykes brew pub in the grounds of the recently close Everards brewery and otherwise took in the ambience of the town. The ambience being rough round the edges and distinctly whiffy, with the sharp tang of Marmite, meat processing, coffee from a nearby Nestle factory and beer all mixing together to form an aroma that gagged in the throat and flared your nostrils wide as they flapped on autopilot attempting to beat back the nasal assault.

Twenty or so years on the town has changed a little.  Few nasty niffs today but still the sense of brewing nobility; in fact a sign outside Molson Coors (then Bass) is supported by the words ‘Burton on Trent: World Brewing Capital’.  Which got me wondering: because let’s face it. It isn’t is it?  It was, sure; and yes, there’s no denying a lot of beer is produced each year across the different breweries in the town, but the truth is, this innocuous phrase is puffery, a product of our heritage mentality.  It’s so easy to revere the past above all else and as our Primary Industry – manufacturing – declines, so our Quaternary Industry – Nostalgia – booms.

What is a ‘capital’?  What do you need?  Power is one:  government, authority, bureaucracy.  Culture another – museums, art, music. Industry – or business power, not necessarily the manufacturing.  Creativity, influence…  collisions that throw off opportunities, possibilities.  Burton as a place of brewing influence had these once. Not today.  You can level the same at other brewing ‘capitals’ – Milwaukee; Berlin; St Louis.

Today it seems there’s emerging a new array of brewing hearths – cities, towns, regions, that can lay claim to the title of ‘world brewing capital’.  The strongest for me is the west coast USA – from San Diego in the south of California up through the sequoias to Portland, Oregon and beyond. Brewers united by being unfettered by ‘rules’ of the past;  pushing at the edges and in some cases long-jumping into a new space altogether.  And these aren’t just micros here – Widmer, Sierra Nevada, Anchor, Stone – all have scale – big enough I’m sure to be on the radar as potential acquisition targets for the global brewing concerns.  Only here, I would contend is there a culture of experimentation, trial, listen, tweak, improve.

Watch for the future, my vote would have to go to Italy. Craft brewed beer is about 2% of the market in Italy but it is growing in double figures year on year – with again, the spirit of curiosity, of discovery driving it forward – free from a burdensome legacy assisting a vibrant brewing scene. So too in parts of Scandinavia where brewers, fuelled in part by a healthy food movement are beginning to push into rediscovering and experimenting with indigenous raw materials, styles and ingredients.

The old capitals, Belgium, Germany (Munich in particular) and the Czech Republic are on a watching brief.  Belgium in particular has always had a culture of inventiveness but it remains to be seen if the domination by ABI and Heineken of the local brewing scene will create a market structure that stifles or creates the next wave. Likewise Czech, with so many of the big brands in the hands of multinationals and an industry structure whereby water is more profitable than beer, signals warnings for the future. Consolidation, focus, scale will be the watch words – the space for small scale, inventive brewers will be there to take.

Where does that leave Blighty?  Well, we seem to have come full circle. The big brewers and big retailers have managed to fight over the train set and break it.  The flair, the Heath-Robinson Garden Shedness, has passed elsewhere.  Far from being concentrated in one town, inventive brewing is scattered again across our towns, cities and villages.   Burton’s particular challenge is to grab this mantle back – but even if it doesn’t, the future is beginning to look bright again.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, October 2012

Extra mature.

There was a case of it dustily resting behind a shabby curtain in a rented house. Not an old suitcase but a proper case of old beer; thick, corrugated card on the inside with dividers between the bottles and brightly decorated, old-school style decoration on the outside. On opening, red and silver crowns looked up at us like baby birds expectantly waiting for the next worm from their mother.  This was a beer I hadn’t heard of at the time and was long out of date: Worthington’s White Shield.  It was the early ‘90s, but the beer had gone out of date in the late ‘80s.  Back then, my brother worked in beer distribution and when they closed an old warehouse in Wolverhampton or Grimsby or some such place, a few pallets of mysterious, out of date products had been found – in the days before SAP operating systems this sort of thing could actually happen.  It seems that they were products returned by customers because they had damaged labels, but as far as my brother could see, only one bottle in the 24 had a scuff.  So he happily handed over a couple of blue notes and carefully sat two cases of the beer in his boot.  From there, the last leg to his ‘cellar’ behind the dusty curtain could be transacted.

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Not quite the label on the mystery bottles, but not far off.

My brother you see, was in the know.  Not only did he know about White Shield at the time, a beer often referred to in hushed reverential tones, but he also knew that on big beers, proper beers, a sell by date was misinformation.  That’s why he had tiny nips of Thomas Hardy’s Ale uncomfortably lying at funny angles in his wine rack – decorated with thick gold foil and wire and string wraps over their crowns.

White Shield has travelled, in many senses of the word.  Born out of one of the Worthington brewery’s original India Pale Ales, it fell out of favour after Bass and Worthington merged in the 1920s as gradually focus fell onto the red triangle.  But for years, decades in fact, the beers were kept separate, Bass becoming predominantly a draught beer (red triangle on draught, blue in bottles) whilst Worthington’s India Pale Ale got renamed ‘White Shield’ and stayed in bottles. It also retained its secondary bottle conditioning – the art of adding a small glug of yeast before sealing the bottle. This seemingly inconsequential but tricky act is the key to bottle aging.  White Shield was also travelled during its many unloved years, being brewed by King & Barnes and Shepherd Neame if I recall correctly. Today it is brewed back in Burton at the National Brewery Centre and bottled by Fuller’s (who have the kit to add yeast for bottle conditioning).

Sadly I don’t remember the taste of the bottles found behind the curtain. I do know that they were 7 years past their drink by date, that the colour had a canal murkiness but the beer got drunk.  And it did leave a mark, as to this day, I age White Shield…and just last week I broached a case of 2007 ‘vintage’.  White Shield tasting notes normally conjure up cake. Not Victoria Sponge with cream and strawberry jam but deep, dark fruit cake, all raisiney & packed full of currants, glace cherries and shavings of almonds.  I always consider it a malt led beer with just an edge of oranges or citrus fruits. When young, it also has a distinct sharp, metallic character, is a bright red brown and tastes strongly alcoholic despite its modest strength (5.6% ABV). So it’s a cracker, no doubt.

Yet it’s a cracker that gets better with age.  The beer I drank last week would have been brewed in January 2005, its use by was July 2007, so that means it had over 5 years of additional bottle aging, 6½ in all.  And it drank much softer, with just a slight vinous character like Madeira or sherry. Its colour had darkened substantially, conker-brown now like Tudor furniture. Hop character was virtually non-existent but the malt complexity was as pronounced as ever – with none of the harsh metallic edges. Still a cracker, but a cracker of a different kind.  We’ll see how it stands up to another few years.  The only rub is the yeast, or lack of it. When my brother and I drank the beer from behind the curtain it had a centimetre of yeast at the bottom.  You had to pour with a steady hand which given the murkiness, we failed to do well enough.  But the 2007 vintage has a mere dusting across the bottom of the bottle – less yeast, less secondary fermentation, less potential to develop character.

IMG_2262Proof of the fruit pudding is in the drinking

Saying all that, a famous beer brand stoutly advertised for many years that ‘Good things come to those who wait’. Right message. Wrong brand.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, October 2012

The brown signs to Burton-upon-Trent

There must have been a slightly incredulous look on my face when a colleague at work, who is part owner of a small brewery in the south east, suggested to me that Windsor, and not Burton on Trent was one of the original homes of UK brewing.  In fact, there seems to be the root of a hypothesis here and in truth, Windsor, like many towns (and perhaps more than most) did have many breweries – some burgher breweries, started by influential locals to ‘control’ the trade for some purpose, most, ‘alehouses’, more akin to modern-day brewpubs.  The claim though is ultimately hollow: you can argue all you like that is was Fry’s chocolate of Birmingham that was the first real brand of chocolate, but it was the Cadbury Family who unequivocally made the city famous for the product and their company with it.

I will not repeat the story of Burton in any great detail: the discovery of the ‘miracle’ water by Saint Modwen; the growing fame of ‘Burton Ale’ with the growth of the canal system & the Baltic trade and latterly, ultimate fame for the town and many of its companies with the annexation of India Pale Ale by the likes of Allsopp’s and Bass and the trade with India.  Industrialisation & imperialism catapulted Burton into a famous brewing town and with it a secure place in history – along with Plzen, Milwaukee and Munich.  It is one of the great hearths of worldwide brewing. Or was.

This week, after their purchase of StarBev, a conglomerate of eastern European businesses stretching from the Czech Republic through Romania, Molson Coors announced that it is centralising its European operation into one, based out of Prague. Geographically it all makes sense, yet you can’t help but feel that the legacy of brewing passed down to the current management team has yet again been forgotten – terminally so in this case. Of course, the company is at pains to point out that Burton will remain the UK headquarters, and they are investing a pretty significant amount into the brewery in the town at the moment bringing as much as they can onto one site in the town.  But they know it; we know it.  The impact of this announcement will be profound: Burton or UK based support roles will move; UK brewing will be consolidated; marketing will centralise to Prague as much as is possible; local sales teams will need to cow-tow to central diktats – Burton for Molson Coors will become, just as Edinburgh or Manchester are for Heineken, or Plzen is for SAB Miller, a town where they happen to have a beer factory.  It is a clear case of brewing Darwinianism: the commercially fittest adapt and survive.

They join the list of brewers who started, or relocated to the town for its raw materials and skills:

Brewer Date of Closure / Acquisition
Benjamin Printon 1729
James Musgrave & Sons 1803
Samuel & William Sketchley 1790
Thomas Dickens 1800
Benjamin Wilson 1807
Joseph Clay 1813
William Worthington 1927
William Bass 2000
John Walker-Wilson 1790
Hill & Sherratts 1820
John Greaves 1815
Samuel Allsopp 1913
Thomas Salt 1927
Lewis Meakin 1822
John Marston 1898
John Allen Bindley 1914
Burton Brewery Company 1915
Ind Coope 1913 (merger with Allsopp)
Charrington 1926
Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co 1971
Mann, Crossman & Paulin 1958
Peter Walker 1923
Sydney Evershed 1909 (merger)
John Thompson 1898 (merger)
J Nunneley & Co Mid 1900s
John Bell & Co 1901
Henry Boddington & Co 1892
James Eadie 1933
Thomas Sykes 1898
William Everard 1985
Marston, Thompson & Evershed 1999
Molson Coors Brewing Company 2012

Note there were other companies but their dates of demise are less clear.

Yet in all of this, there are signs of hope.  The raw materials, skills and passion to brew great beer in the town are still there.  Burton Bridge is testament to it; and other brewers, although tiny, do exist – Tower Brewery and Old Cottage are small acorns.  Great beers are still brewed – Molson Coors are brewing some great Worthington beers, including White Shield, at the National Brewery Centre, and Marston’s are brewing Bass as well as Pedigree at the Albion Brewery.  But you know, something happens when the brewery leaves the town.  The Marston’s brewery is no longer the humming centre of energy it once was; Bass has declined six-fold since the Government intervention into the acquisition of the old Bass Breweries by InBev – who immediately lost focus, put it in keg and generally gave it a proper back-alley beating.  Let’s hope it survives (and pray someone buys the brand off them).

It will be a sad day indeed when the only remnants of brewing in Burton are the brown tourist signs directing you to the National Brewery Museum, shopping centres with statues of Coopers of yesteryear (ironically, the one in the main shopping centre has a time capsule built into its base – how prophetic) and walking trails prompting you to see the towns former brewing glories.  I’m hopeful the new management of Molson Coors can turn their business around whilst having just the occasional glance in the rear view mirror to remind themselves of the great brewing legacy they inherited and for which they should feel a responsibility to pass on to future generations.

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The National Brewery Centre: what will the attractions of tomorrow be?

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, October 2012

1776 and all that

Very soon, it will be a year since I finished working for a large, multi-national American brewer.  As with any job change, it’s been a year of excitement and nervousness, peaks and troughs, many surprises and most of all of new friendships and old friendships reborn.  Of course,  I still have many friends in the old country  and I meet and talk with them at regular intervals – what’s good, what’s bad, what can be learned.  And the curious thing of course is how re-energised I feel about beer again. It’s my passion once more, not just my job.

The most striking thing I have noticed as a ‘drinker’ is the ‘before’ and ‘after’ world.  At University, I was developing my interest in beer (both consuming it, and being interested in it).  And the focus was ale – critical of what I saw as mundane lager, this was a world of real ale. Of cask beers; of bottled conditioned ales where I could find them; of experimentation.   I was extremely lucky to be living in the West Country which had, and mostly still has, a vibrant and energised population of free trade pubs.  And of course, the off trade was not what it was today – there was still a reasonable range of beers without the stack-it-high mentality (24 pack slabs didn’t exist for example).  These were days spent at The Beer Engine at Newton St Cyres; over pints of Directors at The Jolly Porter, or Bass at The Great Western.  The Turf Locks, jutting out into the Exe estuary, was a promised land that, back then, could only be reached on foot or by private boat, yet put on a wonderful selection of local beers (as it does today – if anything, nowadays it’s better).  The Double Locks, higher up the river towards Exeter was and remains a superb cask beer shrine, where tasty pints from an ever changing range are served direct from the cask in an elbows tucked-in-tight bar amongst ruddy-cheeked locals and braying Sloans.

Yet the world I emerge into today is different. Ironically, the world of cask and bottled beer is more vibrant than I can ever recall. The positive unintended consequence of the Beer Orders now sees a cask and micro brewery movement that is building a new beer culture and growing respect for beer again. New breweries, new beers, limited editions are coming to market at a rate where it’s virtually impossible to keep up. Age old ‘problems’, like the young men drinking cask, and women drinking beer (at all) are being slowly eroded by a groundswell of new news that seeps into our consciousness on a weekly basis.  One factor is where I now live.  Despite its Grail-like reputation in the brewing world, Burton and the Midlands don’t have a pub scene like the West Country.  Don’t get me wrong – there are some terrific individual pubs. The Yew Tree at Cauldon Low, The Burton Bridge, The Brunswick in Derby is an insultingly short list to all the great pubs I’ve missed. No, the issue is a structural one.  Whereas in my Exeter days you just didn’t know what choice of beers you would get if you chose a free house, in the Midlands, you have to go looking hard to break free of the yoke of a Marston’s, or a Punch, or an Enterprise.  Great beer is frequently served, but the range means I’m often peering into the fridge to eke out something new.

But actually, despite this, the irony is that the context has changed.  When I was last a free man in beer, I hadn’t seen the world.  Aye lad, I ‘adn’t travelled much beyond me own shores.  Serendipitously, while I have broadened my horizons, so the brewing world has broadened its horizons.   My love affair – for ‘tis that – with craft US beers really picked up Steam in 1998.  My wife (who in a commitment to the cause, I met in a pub whilst drinking, if I recall correctly, a pint of Marston’s Oatmeal Stout) and I travelled to California the year after we were married.  We had picked up the bug a bit for the ‘States with a first trip to New England, and now wanted to see the land of the American dream.  It was a pilgrimage too – I had places I wanted to tick off the list. Anchor was one of course – the mythical place it all began. An inspiring place – one day, I will have an office that overlooks a copper.  Yet it was the vibrancy of the beer scene that struck me all over – and this when it was still juvenile. In San Francisco on our first night, we wandered down to Pier 39. Mostly this is tourist tat shops, but in a great setting overlooking Alcatraz Island and the spectacle of the seals underneath the pier barking like infants with Croup.  We went for a drink in a bar called the Cannery – an oak clad wall with beer taps peeking through confronted us; locals and tourists alike animatedly chatting and discussing hot topics.  I drank an Anchor Porter which was biscuity and baked yet refreshingly moreish too.  Later, we drove to Napa and Sonoma  – beautiful valleys, filled with lime green vines stretching up into the hills, weaving roads enticing the eye up to a distant col. The wineries (we went to Mondavi and Mumm) had fantastically run tours, free samples a go-go and were just great places to kick back enjoying the sun and the scenery.  Yet my fondest memory was a little brewpub in Napa itself.  I can’t remember its name, but I can remember the experience.  The building was an old fire station with tall, arched windows stretching floor to eaves in beautiful Amsterdam-style brick.  We ate straightforward food: wood fired pizza before it was the rage; a rocket salad; home made sausages with garlic mash and gravy.  Pub grub, done well.  And of course a fantastic range of beers – I had a Hefeweizen, a Pale Ale and an IPA, my wife had a citrusy Summer wheat and a glass of Zin.

The drive down the Big Sur coast was as legendary as the reputation would suggest, sweeping through the precipice-hugging bends – dream like open-top cruising in our 1 litre Yugo.  We stopped overnight in Santa Barbara and ate a fantastic meal in The Brewhouse, a recently opened brewpub.  It was my first experience of properly hoppy ales – a taste of things to come if you follow the scene today.  We bypassed LA and headed to San Diego – where the brewing scene was only just kicking off. We drank beers from Stone Brewing and popped into a couple of Brewpubs which sowed the seed of yet another dream back home.  We went to the Zoo and Seaworld, in case you’re asking. Mrs P didn’t suffer too much.

And the love affair spread – Denver, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Tampa, Seattle…great brews are popping up all over.  Yet it was only the other day, when I finally got round to drinking a beer from the Big Apple. For whatever reason, Brooklyn Brewery had passed me by.  The label didn’t catch my eye; the story on their Lager (a Pre Prohibition beer) seemed to be an afterthought.  ‘They don’t care that much’, I thought, ‘I won’t bother’.  So I didn’t.

Until last week. I bought three bottles of Brooklyn Lager in Mr Tesco’s corner shop.  3 for £2, if you’re asking, which I reckoned was a good deal, and good enough to try something new.

Silly, silly, me.  A blast of leafy, green, hop aroma swelled out from the bottle top as soon as I levered off the crown. The colour, a deep copper brown, with red hues just glinting in the corner of your eye. The head, a deep lemon meringue of headiness, topping off a bigger, fatter, mouthful of lager loveliness with a balanced sweet malt, and hop linger. Silly, silly, me.

And so the love affair grows. Pick the stereotype you wish – America: the young upstart. Brash, big American beers.  No class, just in your face. Yep – all of those.  And the dynamism they bring to beer – the respect for the past with the excitement of the legacy being left for the future is palpable.  I love British beers; I’m basking in the warm glow of what some of our brewers are doing at the moment, but love them or hate them, there’s another American Revolution going on at the moment. It’s entirely peaceful and changing the world all over again.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, Originally posted on Posterous, May 2012