London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

Beer

08/12/2004, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 17120 votes


Hereís the scene: youíre in London, youíre having a wonderful time, and youíve already seen the Houses of Parliament, Piccadilly Circus, St. Paulís Cathedral and Westminster Abbey as well as the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. All of all sudden you realize that in midst of all this activity youíve worked up a bit of a thirst, spotting a friendly looking pub across the street you decide that a refresher might be a good idea.

So in you walk, where youíre greeted by a friendly atmosphere as you saunter up to the bar and say "Gimme a cold beer". Whoops, youíve just made a mistake, but never fear you can still save the situation if you take a few moments to learn more about the offerings the publican has "on tap". Oh, yes, as for that "cold beer" remember in England they like their beer at cellar temperature, which Americans would consider warm, however it allows the true taste of the beer or ale to stand out.

By the way, your mistake is understandable and forgivable because most Americans, until recent years, what with the growth of boutique beer phenomenon and micro-breweries, have been accustomed to think of most beer as pretty much all alike. Maybe in other places, but thankfully, thatís not the case in England, where under the heading beer or ale you will find will still find a wide variety of different and pleasant brews waiting to make your acquaintance.

The past few years have witnessed a process of consolidation and a series of mergers involving major brewing companies and the growing fear on the part of beer lovers of a world comprised of beer that has homogenized not only in the brewery but also in the boardroom; in other words men in pinstripe suits deciding that "whatís beer here is beer there". The Carling brand was recently purchased by the Adolph Coors brewery in the United States and London based South African Brewing Corporation this summer purchased Americaís Miller Brewing to become, as SABC Miller PLC, the third largest brewing corporation in the world.

The good news is that in England beer lovers are still passionate about their "pint" and while youíll find a number of corporate brews, you will also find a good selection of various types of beers and ales that retain their unique flavor and regional character.

A word here about CAMRA or the Campaign for Real Ale, which was began in the 1970s to preserve and protect traditional English brewing practices and to ensure that, at least in the realm, folks would have a choice other than one of the increasingly similar corporate brews that in most cases have filtered and pasteurized and, in the opinion of many drinkers, where all alike.

You can almost think of CAMRA as a revolt or backlash against the globalization of beer. To say CAMRA has been successful is an understatement - since the 70s the number of breweries in England has doubled, even the corporate boys have brought out traditional brands and the movement to promote traditional brewing practices has spread to other countries including the United States, which has witnessed an explosion of specialty brewers and brands.

What follows is not meant to be an exhaustive or comprehensive study of beer and ale in the British Isles but instead an introduction. Any in-depth study of the issue is best conducted in person and in the field.

Among the brews to be found in England are porter, stout, bitter, and various types of ale such as pale, brown and old ale - traditional forms of top-fermented beer. Letís learn the differences.

Bitter is probably what youíll find most people drinking and similar to an American style beer (which is really closer to the lager or pilsener style beer found on the continent). Bitters are lower in alcohol content than some other types of ale and can range from gold to a sort of copper tint in color. Besides ordinary bitter there is also special or best and extra special, which in stronger in both taste and alcohol content.

Next up, is porter and stout, stronger brews that are more heavily hopped and darker in color. There are a couple of stories as to how porter developed. One says it developed from a drink called "three threads," a combination of pale ale, new brown ale and aged brown ale while another claims that porter came about when publicans would mix lighter beer with heavier darker beer. As to the name, one story (maybe a myth) is that the drink was a favorite of porters at Victoria Station. (To be continued next month)

David McIntosh

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