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Britain: Home of Real Ale

Not drunk is he who from the floor can rise again and drink some more. - Old English field sobriety test

The United Kingdom is still very much an ale-drinking culture at heart, although "international-style" lagers brewed under license are much in evidence on many bar tap handles. Britain has had such a long history that the notion of what "beer" is has undergone numerous transformations. "Ale" was a fermented malt beverage seasoned with herbs until English brewers, learning from the Dutch, introduced the notion of hops as a preservative in the 15th century, and thus transformed it into "beer." The 1600s brought the change from home-brewed old-fashioned ale to commercially brewed beer, and thus commercial brewing became a major business activity. Darker ales such as porters and stouts were the mainstays of the brewing industry in the 1700s, until the advent of pale ales, which supplanted dark beers in public favor.

Beer has had its rivals as the tipple of the masses in England. In the 1700s claret (red wine of Bordeaux) was as much in evidence in English taverns as beer, and for a brief, unfortunate period gin was much favored by the masses in London until punitive taxes forced the poor to improve their drinking habits.

The 20th century has seen its fair share of change in the British brewing industry, and most of it has occurred in the latter half of the century. Despite the collective will of the big brewers in the 1970s to dominate the British beer scene, "real ale" continues to survive and prosper in Britain. Real ale, in a British context, is what people generally mean when they talk about "warm" English beer. Such beer is hand pumped, by pulling on a large tap handle at the bar to bring the beer up from a cooled cellar where casks of unfiltered, unpasteurized, natural beer reside peacefully. Real ale is a living beer that must be handled carefully and fussed over by a good pub owner.

The continued existence of real ale, which all right-minded corporate brewers wanted to replace with carbonated, stable beer, can be attributed to the success of organized consumer resistance in the form of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale), a British consumer body with a passionate membership. CAMRA , organizers of the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), a celebration of real ale, inspired a similar festival in the United States, the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), as well as numerous smaller festivals that focus on real ale as well as microbrewed and craft-brewed beers.

Buyouts and rationalization in British brewing have taken their toll on the independent regional brewers, who are a dwindling presence in the United Kingdom. Large brewing concerns dominate the U.K. market and the climate is not favorable for microbrewers as it is in the United States. Nonetheless, the large concerns have become more serious about good beer, as the public has demanded it and voted with their wallets. Whitbread PLC, a giant concern that has gobbled up many regional breweries only to close them down, has been steadily reintroducing real ales from their library of dormant brands: it now has 26 regional and national cask-conditioned real ales.

It is hard for a U.S. consumer to understand British beer without tasting a good British ale. British ales are generally fruitier, softer, and more delicate than their U.S. counterparts, and often have more nuanced hop character. Getting a feel for what CAMRA has been able to preserve in Britain involves going further than just seeking out a pint of the ubiquitous Newcastle Brown Ale or Bass Pale Ale. In many major U.S. markets there is a thriving niche market supported by smaller importers of bottle-conditioned British ales. King and Barnes, Young & Co., and Fuller’s are independent British brewers with bottle-conditioned (containing live yeast) products represented in the U.S. market. Many other labels from more eclectic, outstanding small brewers are also sporadically available. Some enterprising importers have even managed to successfully air-freight cask-conditioned (i.e., with live yeasts) real ale to the United States for a select handful of American bars.

Beyond the artisanal beers there is an increasing selection of canned and bottled English ales available to the U.S. consumer, most of which are of good quality when fresh, and represent a contrast to the styles of beer available from U.S. micros. For instance, Yorkshire brewer Samuel Smith’s ales represent a good cross-section of the diversity of ale styles from England, and are readily available in well-stocked beer retail shops.

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