In recent months, we’ve enjoyed some virtual journeys: I pick a country and take a look at it from the perspective of beer (which is not unlike how I choose to travel for real).
After visiting Belgium and Germany—both with extremely rich histories in beer—we’re heading to the United Kingdom. Many styles we cherish now in the U.S. have roots in the U.K., and one of the most important inventions in beer’s history comes from England. So enough introduction—let’s dive in.
It makes sense to start at the beginning, and technically, that means brown ale—”brown porter” in particular. This was the dominant style in England for centuries, but there was an issue with its recipe: The brown malt required to make it was very inefficient regarding the amount of sugars that could be extracted in the mashing process. A significant proportion of pale malt, which is much more efficient, had to be used, but if too much was added, the beer’s prized color would be diluted. What’s more, the malt had to be direct-fired, and that meant smokiness.
Then came Daniel Wheeler and his game-changing invention of the drum roaster—a way to use fire to indirectly toast or roast malts. This saved brewers lots of money by giving them a way to use a much smaller portion of brown malt, fired indirectly, alongside the majority pale malt, and still get the desired color and flavor that was desired.
While we don’t have any living examples of what the old brown porters tasted like, we do have some similar options today. The Taddy porter by Samuel Smith—get used to seeing this brewery mentioned here—and Fuller’s London porter are two shining examples. Samuel Smith’s oatmeal stout and imperial stout both deserve mention, since stouts are merely the bolder cousin of porters, with some added strength and roast to the mix. The rich, dark fruity flavors of raisin, plum and prune all dance together with the roast, and the earthy, woodsy hops find a welcome home on my palate.
Now, for actual brown ales: As I planned this column and did research (and yes, I consider buying English beer “research”), I quickly realized that I was going to come off as a shill for Samuel Smith Old Brewery.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One, their beer is widely available locally; and two, I absolutely adore their beers, and I’m happy to have another chance to drink them whenever the opportunity arises. It is with this caveat that I come to Samuel Smith’s nut brown ale. Every time I have one, I am greeted by an old friend who smells of rich toffee; fruity malt goodness with a hint of pear and apple; and just a touch of pepper from the hops. It is one of my all-time favorites.
Newcastle Brown Ale also deserves a mention here, because it, too, played a part in awakening my interest in beer. Unfortunately, ownership has changed couple of times, and the last few times I’ve tried one, it was a sad, watery husk of the beer it once was.
Let’s avert our eyes from such things and quickly move along to pale ales. We travel to Burton upon Trent, where the pale ales (known as “bitters” since the early 1800s) gained a reputation for being of the highest quality—Bass Ale in particular. This was due to the sulfates in the water, which allowed the beers to be more aggressively hopped and helped the beers gain more clarity. Once the water was analyzed, breweries in other regions began adding brewing salts in a process that became known as “burtonisation.” As the popularity grew, the opportunity to export brought with it the need to make the beer survive the journey unspoiled. I won’t elaborate here, as I discussed this particular topic in depth earlier this year, but suffice it to say that the need to strengthen and add more hops is what helped create the India pale ale style.
But enough history … we’re here to drink, right? Samuel Smith steps in again and shows us the way. Their organic pale ale and their India ale are both supreme examples of the style (in my mind, at least), and they are both available year-round in our area.
Though it might seem gimmicky, the band Iron Maiden (I might be biased, because I have been a fan for decades) collaborates with breweries to make beers, with very good results. The Trooper is an extra special bitter made by Robinsons Brewery, inspired by “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (which, if you’re familiar with their music, is completely appropriate and fitting). It’s a relatively dry beer with a slight citrus note, a little grassy finish, and a biscuity caramel malt note underneath.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask my friend Andrew Smith—fellow beer writer, Independent contributor and Englishman—about his experiences with English beer.
“It was a different scene when I lived in England,” he said. “My pub years were 1989 to 1998. We didn’t have the choices that were around today. Most pubs were still in the ‘tied house’ model. Even though we were drinking English bitters, corporations were taking over, and cask ale was waning away.”
The “tied house” model meant pubs only served a particular brewery’s beers.
“For the most part,” he continues, “pub choices were limited. You’d have to drink the house bitter, and if you didn’t like it, they usually had Guinness on tap or Newcastle in a bottle.”
He also mentioned a visit in the 2000s by which point the tide had turned, with the help of the Wetherspoons pub chain and its continual rotation of different beers. I also asked him what his impression was of Samuel Smith, my favorite English brewery.
“When I first discovered their oatmeal stout, it was a groundbreaking moment in my craft-beer discovery. I wrote something back then: ‘It was on my doorstep and I never even knew it,’” he said.
This confirmed to me that I indeed wasn’t crazy, and that their beers are just that good. Andrew also mentioned that Samuel Smith’s popularity was waning in the U.K.—and it’s because of their willingness to import to the U.S. that the company found a second life.
There is so much more to say here about British beer. English barleywines, strong ales, stouts and more are all worth exploring—not to mention the burgeoning craft beer scene that ripped a page out of the American playbook and draws from not only its own heritage, but others’ as well. Alas, I only have so much space—and you already have enough “research” to do thanks to this column.