Amid a Sea of IPAs, Traditional British Beer Styles Are Finding New Fans - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Amid a Sea of IPAs, Traditional British Beer Styles Are Finding New Fans

I fantasized about coffee, seltzer, kombucha, wine, cocktails, and even tepid tap water. After my three-day beer Ironman at last year’s Craft Brewers Conference, in Denver, any beverage seemed superior. Some days, even a beer journalist can’t find pleasure on his beat.“Want to grab a beer at a brewery?” a friend asked. I sat crossed-legged on the convention center’s carpeted floor, combing through excuses for a nap, my taste buds needing one most of all. “I’m going to Hogshead,” my friend added.

Hogshead? Heck, yes. A car service took us to a 1950s gas station converted into a convivial hub of traditional British beer, no milkshake IPAs allowed. Hogshead Brewery’s beers flaunt their malt character and minimize alcohol, served hand-pumped on cask like my 20-ounce imperial pint of AK Ordinary Bitter. Ordinary? It was anything but: earthy, smooth, and biscuit-y, cooler than a brisk fall walk and brimming with gentle bubbles that danced up the glass I drank down. No need to nap. A pint of classic cask was a pick-me-up for palate fatigue. “It’s old-school,” Stephen Kirby, Hogshead’s founder and head brewer, tells me later. But, he adds, “it should be the coolest thing in American beer.”

America’s modern beer culture rarely pays lip service to the past. On a fast-tracked hunt for unique tastes, brewers spice stouts with breakfast cereal, stuff sour ales with smoothie levels of fruit, and cram hops into IPAs like a clown car. The constant game of one-upmanship sends beers ascending to absurd heights. Yet the law of gravity remains undefeated.

“People are getting tired of a hop assault, and want something opposite,” says Will Meyers, brewmaster at Cambridge Brewing Company, in Massachusetts. Breweries are counterpunching excess with traditional British-style beers that spotlight malt expression, no outlandish adulteration required. Cultish hazy IPA producer Tree House Brewing produces the richly malty Old Man, an English-style bitter. Rhinegeist, the Cincinnati brewery famed for its Truth IPA, always offers Uncle, an English-style dark mild. The malt-forward, low-alcohol style, which can range from light amber to inky, is a taproom regular at breweries including Logboat Brewing, in Columbia, Missouri, as well as Forest & Main and Tired Hands Brewing, both outside Philadelphia.

Breweries are also cutting through America’s noisy clutter of 8,000 breweries by focusing on cask ale, including Seattle’s Machine House Brewery, New York State’s Seneca Lake Brewing, and Ohio’s Laxton Hollow Brewing Works. “Cask beer provides one of the few generally different experiences left in beer,” says Andy Black, the former head brewer of California’s Yorkshire Square Brewery.

British Beer
Erin McGarth pulls a pint at Hogshead Brewery. | Photo by Rebecca Stumpf.

Up To Cask America’s upstart craft breweries of the late 20th century sought inspiration in the brewing traditions of Belgium, Germany, and, in particular, the United Kingdom. They forged a flavorful new identity, one awash with stouts, barley wines, brown ales, IPAs, and bitters, a family of generally low-alcohol pale ales. In time, bars and breweries used cask ale to lend gravitas to draft lists, akin to commercials with British narrators. “Executing a good cask program with well-crafted, consistent product was a benchmark of a better beer joint,” says Hugh Sisson, the founder of Heavy Seas Beer, in Baltimore.

Cask-conditioned (or real) ale is beer in its simplest form. Unfiltered, unpasteurized beer is stored in a small cask called a firkin, naturally carbonated with live yeast, then poured via gravity or a hand-pumped beer engine, no extra carbonation required. The finer fizz and cool but not Rocky Mountains–cold serving temperature— around 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit—helps magnify nuanced flavor.

But subtlety is not America’s strong suit. Firkin Fridays became a weekly gimmick, casks tarted up with peppers, peanut butter, chocolate, and more. “Just because you can put it in a beer, doesn’t mean it belongs there,” says Kirby of Hogshead. (The name references a large cask that contains 54 imperial gallons.)

The British expat has bounced in and out of America for the better part of four decades, forever craving a “proper pint,” as he calls cask ale. In 2012, he launched Hogshead with three beers, including the agreeable Gilpin Black Gold porter and Chin Wag, an extra special bitter with caramel sweetness and less bitterness than initial customers. “I had a guy that came in our first week who said, ‘I don’t drink that warm, flat English shit,’ ” Kirby recalls. “I said, ‘How about a cellar temperature, cask-conditioned pint?’ ”

The adherence to the old ways, done fresh and new, has helped Hogshead develop a devoted clientele, competition tough to find. “We are the guys doing English-style beers in Denver,” Kirby says.

Owner Bill Arnott at Machine House Brewery in Seattle. | Photo by Charity Burggraaf.

Bill Arnott, the owner of Seattle’s cask-focused Machine House, knows firsthand how classic styles “transcend trends and hype waves.” The U.K. native spent just over a year professionally brewing back home, perfecting the cask ales that were seemingly a point of differentiation in the American market. “It was like, ‘Who needs another brewery making IPAs?’ ” he recalls, laughing.

Machine House opened in 2013, its location— within Rainier beer’s original production facility— and brewing approach rooted in history. The launch lineup included a coppery bitter and a darkly refreshing mild, the kind of have-several beers that clock right around 4 percent ABV. Big flavor and low alcohol should have been easy sells, especially since session IPAs such as Founders All Day IPA were gathering steam. But Arnott wasn’t making craft brewing’s most popular beer style. “How do you sell a bitter or a mild to people who aren’t informed by that culture?” Arnott says. Shouldn’t a mild be lightly flavored? Why is that bitter not so bitter? “I probably didn’t consider quite how challenging it would be.”

A helpful staff helped hand sell Arnott’s beers and brewing approach, chiseling out an appreciated niche. “All the brewers in town love what we do,” Arnott says, adding that popular Seattle beer bars such as the Pine Box regularly carry Machine House. The tide might just be turning on taste buds. “It feels like a maturing marketplace and culture.”

British expat Bradley Gillett also brought his liquid culture to America. He grew up southwest of London, one of 13 siblings. “For pretty much an eternity, a member of my family worked in a pub,” says Gillett, who followed suit. “Even when I had normal day jobs, I would still work in pubs in the evenings. I’m a big socializer.”

Gillett’s travel-industry career brought him around the world, eventually to New York State, where he bought a 20-acre property on Seneca Lake. He built a campground of sorts, a wedding venue, the eponymous Seneca Lake brewery, and the Beerocracy. The Tudor-inspired British pub is decorated with dark wood, dartboards, and his housemade cask ales, many containing local hops and grains. The cask list breaks the check-the-box mold of British beer. The brewery’s dark mild is poured alongside a hefeweizen, a saison, and even a hazy, juicy IPA. “We’re educating people that, in essence, a cask ale can be any beer,” he says. (Case in point: The SLB52 golden ale is an updated riff on Coors Light.)

A comfortable atmosphere also helps make edification easier to swallow. “You feel like you’re sitting in a pub in the U.K.,” Gillett says, right down to the curries, Cornish pasties, and focus on conversation, cask ale lubricating the banter. “A British pub is built around socializing,” says Gillett, who forbids customers from using cell phones by fining rule breakers $10 (the funds are donated to a local charity). “It’s all about community and making new friends.”

A Mild Difference IPAs once tasted like bitter anarchy in an orderly world of mass-market lagers. Now they’re bulk goods, hazy IPAs sold in supermarkets’ refrigerated coolers near the almond milk. In turn, traditional British beers are becoming alluring contrarians, the eternal trend cycle spinning round beer aisles, taprooms, and the family table. “We don’t want to drink our father’s beers, but at some point our grandfather’s beers become cool,” says Meyers of Cambridge Brewing. He has been at the brewery since 1993, watching fads blaze in and fizzle out, nostalgia an essential ingredient. I mention my hunch about British- style dark milds becoming a malty rebuttal to hop overload. Surprise! Cambridge has one fermenting away. (The beer has since been released as Letter to Terry Jones.)

A journalist’s job entails pinpointing patterns and wondering why. In December, Wren House Brewing Company, in Phoenix, released the 3.2 percent dark mild Pubber. The next month, Asheville, North Carolina’s Highland Brewing Company debuted Walk on the Mild Side. Maine’s Bunker Brewing canned a nitrogenated mild for its eighth anniversary party in February. My local Brooklyn bar poured Saunter, a dark mild from Suarez Family Brewery, in New York State’s Hudson Valley, then Temperance, from Brooklyn’s just-launched Wild East Brewing. “These days, it’s kind of exotic to pour something like a mild,” says Dick Cantwell, the head of brewing operations at San Francisco’s Magnolia Brewing.

English-style beers, such as Dark Star Mild and Blue Bell Bitter, have been Magnolia’s backbone since 1997. Cantwell, a co-founder of Seattle’s Elysian Brewing and author of Brewing Eclectic IPA, joined Magnolia nearly three years ago with a vision to bring his “sensibilities to a tried-and-true lineup.” That meant modernizing the brewery’s IPAs, bringing in experimental beers, and making plans to use the brewery’s oak foeders to add sour elements to traditional British beers, such as a porter. “I’m putting together a hybrid of what I love to do and what I inherited,” he says.

Increasingly, blending U.S. and U.K. brewing philosophies is helping breweries stand apart. European-inspired Away Days, which opened last summer in Portland, Oregon, makes a tropical “modern Northwest English IPA” using British malts and hops. Civil Life Brewing, in St. Louis, opened in 2011 with beers that veered toward Britain without adhering to dogmatic style guidelines. “I’ve never been particularly interested in copying things that are out there in the world,” says head brewer Dylan Mosley of following in other breweries’ footsteps.

Take the Oatmeal Brown Ale, which incorporates elements of the British brown ale and oatmeal stout, and the Angel and the Sword, a category- flouter featuring English yeast and hops in concert with a global mishmash of malt. “It’s an American interpretation of British beer,” says Mosley.

Dutchess Ales is based several hours north of New York City, in Wassaic, where the water is a dead ringer for London water’s chemical makeup. “It’s exactly the profile for the beers we want to make,” co-founder Michael Messenie says of his British-leaning brewery. It mingles classic styles, including Mizmaze Ale, an extra special bitter, with a blended outlook on British tradition. The brewery’s G.B. is built from English malt and yeast from California, Germany, and England, creating a sunny and citrusy pale ale that uses a British passport to travel the world. “I’m trying to marry brewing cultures,” Messenie says.

Dutchess beers, sold in cask, can, and conventional draft, have resonated with overwhelmed retailers. “Talking to beer buyers, there’s palate fatigue,” he says. During a recent Hudson Valley sales trip, “we sold beer to 100 percent of the places we visited. I wasn’t trying to sell them a double dry-hopped IPA.”

The Gilpin Black Gold, Chin Wag, and Lake Lightning at Hogshead Brewery. | Photo by Rebecca Stumpf.

You Don’t Know (Union) Jack In a typecast redemptive arc, I’d take this sentence to tout British beer’s reclaimed perch at the American bar, a long-absent pal welcomed back with a warm taproom embrace. But crowds aren’t quite going wild for mild.

“We’re in the early stages of a slight correction in the overall market,” says Sisson of Heavy Seas. He’s seen the fortunes of British beer, in particular cask ale, ebb and flow over his four-decade career in beer. “Ten years ago, I could sell almost anybody a cask,” says Sisson, whose brewery owns more than 500 firkins. “We probably do less than half the cask business we did.”

He’s found fewer bar owners up to task for cask, which requires extra steps such as venting firkins to remove pent-up carbon dioxide. “You have to treat this differently,” Sisson says. Tapped casks are ideal for a day or two before oxidation takes a toll. “That soured—pun intended—their appreciation.”

Seneca Lake’s Gillett can sell bottle-conditioned ales to local shops, no fuss, but rural New York’s firkin market remains limited. “Distribution is always going to be tough,” he says, acknowledging that few “accounts have beer engines or the knowledge.”

Andy Black understands the struggle. He fostered a taste for British beer while attending college in Burlington, Vermont, drinking cask at the legendary Vermont Pub & Brewery, before attending U.K. brewing school. He moved to LA to become head brewer at cask-focused MacLeod Ale Brewing, which debuted in 2014, before switching to Yorkshire Square. It opened in coastal Torrance, southwest of LA, in 2017, offering dark milds, light bitters, and oatmeal stouts.

Black banged an incessant drum for flavorful British session beer, only to watch craft brewers’ pilsners take the low-alcohol spotlight. “I felt left behind,” Black says. After seven years of flying LA’s British beer flag, he relocated to Rhode Island last summer. (He remains a shareholder in Yorkshire Square and helps guide the brewing program.) Black is working to open Martin Street Beer Co. in an old cotton mill, where he’ll serve up pragmatism: British beers and hazy IPAs. “You really need to be doing more profitable beer, then using that to feed your interests,” he says, adding that he’ll “always be brewing with a British sensibility.”

Beer trends don’t turn around as easily as canoes in a calm pond. They’re armadas of massed popular opinion, fueled by faddish exuberance, watching small watercraft peel off when the flotilla grows too big. British beers provide familiar ports to explore anew as incessant waves of IPAs and pastry stouts wash past.

A modern beer scene built on homogeneity, even if it’s double dry-hopped or packed with Cocoa Puffs, is no better than a lager monoculture. British beers can provide the balanced yin to the yang of excess, an oppositional force for good. Days and nights at Hogshead, you’ll find a lively crowd that’s young and old and every in- between age, rounds of beer served with plenty of conversational cheer. “It acts like a small English pub, but I didn’t set out to create that,” Kirby says. “It created itself. I just brew the beer I love and invite people to come have a pint.”

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