Beer Necessities

Both UK and US have an astonishing variety of beer styles

Special Brews   Cuisine a la bier  London Pubs

Beer Necessities

Both the UK and USA have astonishing variety of beer styles

First Published:  South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

June 24, 2002


Once upon a time, in some rainswept corner of England, a gentleman was injured when a car accidentally bumped him off the road. He sued the driver, alleging that he lost his beer-tasting ability as a result of his injury. The judge agreed with him that it was a great loss and awarded him compensation of  £14000 !< XML="true" PREFIX="O" NAMESPACE="">

A story to be taken with a pinch of salt perhaps, but one that illustrates how dearly the British love their beer. Not suprising of course, considering the wonderful and rather considerable selection of great ales to choose from in Britain.

Served at room temperature and with almost no head, the English Ale is a unique beer, redolent with history and full of character and flavour. It comes in quite a variety of styles – Milds and Pale Ales and Bitters and Stouts and Porters – and a few billion litres of it is drunk every year, most of it in the 70,000 pubs around the country.

The Bitter, as much a London thing as the Black Cab, perhaps represents English ales at their distinctive best. The first sip hugs the tongue with an unmistakable bitterness, the spicy marmalade taste slowly befriends the palate and the finish lingers on long after the drink has made its way down. The best Bitters come from London and Kent breweries – all-time favourites like Fuller’s ESB and London Pride (“It’s London Pride that’s put hair on my chest” says teen sensation Robbie Williams), Young’s Special, Marston’s Pedigree – and tend to be made with very English-sounding hops called Fuggles and Goldings. The ubiquitous Boddington’s Bitter comes from Manchester and the slightly sweeter Eldridge Pope from Dorchester.

Burton-upon-Trent, a small town in the midlands provides Britain with many of its famous Pale Ales. These are often the colour of lightly polished gold and have to be conditioned in casks for just the right amount of time and poured with skill for their hoppy taste to shine through. Most Pale Ales have been around for a couple of centuries – Bass, Double Diamond, Whitbread, Samuel Smith’s, Abbot Ale, Adnams Champion, Worthington White Shield are names that ring with history.

India Pale Ales have extra hops, a practice that dates back to the imperial days when these ales had to remain stable during the long sea journey to the colonies. This style is today a classic and many breweries like Batemans and Bass still produce superb IPA’s reminiscent of the empire’s days in the sun. Yorkshire Ales like Black Sheep and Smith’s are very special; they have a wholesome rounded taste from being fermented in stone squares. And Old Ales like Old Peculiar and Gale’s Prize, made by blending aged ales with young ones, often have a rich fruity flavour. Mild Ales like Banks’s and Highgate are less bitter and slightly darker, dignified brews that cry out for a roaring fire to be drunk by.

The strong, dark, and thick Porter, originally a mixture of Pale, Mild and Bitter Ales has surprisingly died a slow death in England, after enjoying almost two hundred years of fame. Fortunately its close cousin the Stout has survived, and modern English versions like Mackeson and Watney’s Cream often have chocolate or coffee notes leaping out of the glass. A famous name is the Russian Imperial Stout, described by beer-expert Michael Jackson as “liquid Christmas pudding” !

The Great English Ale Collection goes on and on. There are Brown Ales and Winter Warmers and Christmas Specials and even Dessert Ales. The strongest ales are called Barley Wine, really potent brews like the legendary Thomas Hardy's Ale (12% alcohol),  described on the label as "luminous as an autumn sunset, full in body yet brisk as a volcano..."

In neighbouring Ireland, respondents in a survey put “going to the pub” on a higher pedestal than “going to church”. Not surprisingly, the Irish drink more beer per capita than the English, the Germans, the Americans - in fact more than anyone except the Czech. Pubs in Dublin, known as the Capital of Black Beer, pump out gallons of dark stout like the remarkable Guinness and Murphy’s, made with roasted malts, and foaming Irish Red Ales, whose caramel malts give them a reddish tinge. Scotch ales like McEwan’s and Traquair House are slightly sweeter and go well with Haggis, while the Welsh enjoy their whoosh (welsh for pint) of Brain’s Dark from Cardiff with its bittersweet finish.

Across the Atlantic, in the USA, there was a time when beer started with Bud and ended with Miller. The six giant breweries – Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser), Miller, Coors, Stroh, Heileman and Pabst – straddled the market and anything other than a light lager was a rarity. Beer lovers elsewhere scoffed at what they thought were dull, watery American beers, bought in sixpacks at the supermarket and drunk ice-cold, some said to mask the lack of taste.

That was before the craft brewing revolution swept the country and turned USA into the world’s greatest producer of speciality beers. Today the giants continue to dominate but there are about 1500 craft breweries around the country churning out distinctive, characterful brews, brimming with taste and flavour, and selling US $3 bn worth every year.

The sheer variety of beer styles in America is simply mindboggling. Many styles that are hard to find in their countries of origin, are available here in plenty.

Porter, almost extinct in its homeland UK, is available in USA in tempting avataars. The Alaskan Smoked Porter is high on the desirability stakes along with the deliciously, devilishly dark Perfect Porter from Grant’s – the first modern brewer to serve cask-conditioned ale in North America. The creamy Rogue Shakespeare Stout and the lip-smacking Black Chocolate Stout from NY are sexy, sinful brews, packing dollops of pleasure in every pint.

A more dignified appreciation of life is had from a properly poured cask-conditioned English style Bitter , like the Pyramid Ale or the Bridgeport ESB. The character of the Pale Ale is best brought out by the famous Sierra Nevada, and hoppy India Pale Ales are plentiful: the IPA from Bridgeport Brewery, Oregon, and the summer refresher Free State Copperhead IPA from Kansas, made with caramel malts.

Brown ales aren’t rare either and top choices are the bitter Red Thistle Celtic Ale from Oregon and the yeasty Finger Lakes Nut Brown Ale. For tasty powerful kicks there are the potent Barley Wines, like the Arctic Devil from Alaska and the malty Old Knucklehead from Bridgeport,Oregon. Or even the curiously named Hair of the Dog which is actually a kind of Adambier – an extinct German brew that is said to have knocked out Frederick Wilhelm IV, king of Prussia, for a full 24 hours.

The juicy barley of Moravia and the fragrant hops of Bohemia come together to form many Czech style Pilsners, like the Tupper’s Hop Pocket Pils. Original American brews include the superstar Samuel Adams Boston Lager and the frothy Anchor Steam Beer which makes a hissing sound when served on draught. From San Francisco comes another true blue American – the Liberty Ale, a kind of half-lager half-ale, with a malty base and bitter taste.

Bringing in a flavour of Europe to America are the Belgian style ales like the La Folie from Colorado and Blue Moon White from Coors. The bitter-orange Biere de Mars and the Cherry Beer from Wisconsin are close cousins of Belgian Lambics, beers that are fermented with wild yeasts. The spicy refreshment of wheat beers, a German/Belgian speciality, are found in the crisp Wickham Wheat of Florida and the tarty DeGroen’s Weizen from Baltimore. Truly, America brings you the world in a glass.

And where can you find these beers in Hongkong ? Draught on tap at English pubs like Mad Dogs, Irish ones like Dublin Jack, Murphy’s and Delaney’s and Scottish pubs like Caledonia. Bottled versions at gourmet beer stores like The Beer Bay (Star Ferry Pier and Discovery Bay Ferry Plaza), and supermarkets: Great (Pacific Place) and CitySuper (Times Square). Good collection of American brews at Oliver’s (Central).

So pour your pint, raise your glass and Enjoy !