Being a Journal of American Beer†
"Why is American beer served cold? So you can tell it from urine." - David Moulton
"We find your American beer like making love in a canoe. It's fucking close to water." - Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl
It's a little over four years ago that I first came to California to visit the woman who later became my wife. Being a traditional real ale bore with friends to match, I admit to coming over with some trepidation, having heard that all American beers were, in the words of Eric Idle above, "fucking close to water". My experiences with American beers in the UK were enough to give me nightmares of beer withdrawal - Budweiser, Schlitz and Coors being indistinguishable in my taste from chilled cat widdle. As for "Bud Lite" and its many brethren, I hesitated to even mention them in the same breath as the word "beer".
There are many differences - doubtless to the American palate, British beer is too warm, too flat and too cloudy. For those of us brought up to beer kept in 400-year old pub cellars, brought from ancient breweries like the Black Sheep Brewery with its massive slate (not steel!) brewing vessels, we find American beer too cold, fizzy and insipid.
Not just the beers are different - the concept of "pub" is altogether different from the pubs I remember from the UK. That is to say, they are in California. Perhaps in other parts of the country that will be different, and there may be great pubs. There's also the size of the pub pint - at one local pub, the Fox and Goose in Sacramento, you have a choice between the US (16-ounce) glass and the Imperial (20-ounce) pot. Why the difference? Well, at one time I'd thought it was down to the wussy Americans not being able to take good ale, though I was wrong. But I digress.
The Quest Begins - First Light
Now I have been living here for nearly four years, I am ready to give a fuller commentary on this mysterious and elusive substance, good American ale. Now I have to admit that my US beer experience hasn't been that wide. That said, I live in groovy Davis, California, and work and shop in that grooviest of places, the Davis Food Co-op. I suspect that I'm probably spoiled for choice when it comes to beer, as the Co-op stocks a wide variety of brews, mostly craft beers, or as the Brits have it, real ale. Yes, they do sell some dross, including those mentioned above, but for the most part they have a great variety from American microbreweries, as well as a smattering of imported British and European ales.
So what's to be said that's good about American beers? Once you leave behind the big boys, the Buds and the "lites", what's left are the smaller businesses that have taken it upon themselves to produce beer in the old-fashioned ways, using fine malts and hops and less chemical methodology. The first reasonable beer I came across was Red Tail Ale, out of the Mendocino Brewing Company. It's an amber ale, which makes it a cousin to pale ale, and while I'm more a fan of darker, slightly maltier brews, this one passed muster for me, especially after my disastrous encounter with filtered and over-chilled draught Bass Ale. It's moderately sweet, with a fair body, and quickly gave me courage to try other amber beers. That in turn took me to Fat Tire, out of the New Belgium Brewery, thence to a range of fine amber beers, some bordering on the lighter of English draught bitter ales. Sadly I found that, pleasant as many of these beers were, they tended to lack in body. Even the famed Anchor Steam ales had the same effect.
It was time to look elsewhere for my joy. I tried IPAs but found them too astringent and hard on the tummy. Now this is no criticism of the local brewmasters, it's down to me - I never was much of a one for the Indian Pales, even in England. I've not found a good bitter ale yet, even in "pubs". My guess is that the good ones never make it here, and one is left with the Boddingtons and John Smiths. Neither of these are dreadful, just an insipid and frail ghost of Real Ale. I continued my search.
It was in what passes for my "local" that I rediscovered wheat beer, and especially the hefeweizen. These are always delightful - light without being insipid, refreshing without being gassy. Without doubt, these are the beers that I'm most likely to drink if I go out for a pint, which is most often at 'The Graduate" (a slightly rowdy and student-y sports bar. A local brewery, based in nearby Sacramento, Pyramid make a few very pleasant and different beers, including an "Apricot Ale", which I have no doubt is excellent, but I never got past their fruity Hefe Weizen. That and Murphy's (and the odd Guinness) are pretty much the only draughts worth chasing, in my opinion. Sierra Nevada's beers I can drink if necessary, but there's no comparing silk to rayon.
Into the Darkness: Porters, Stouts and Stouters
Porter is not a beer you'll see in the average British pub these days. Sweeter and fuller than a bitter, it's close to a stout in taste and texture, but generally lighter in alcohol content. I admit to not having tried many whilst living in England, but I came to realise that a great many American breweries have one in their armoury, and it was inevitable that sooner or later I'd get the taste. It was with the Black Butte brewery that I began, although folk did laugh at me as I pronounced it "butt" rather than "beaut". Please excuse me for saying so, but it is a beauty, truly. From there I zig-zagged through a range of breweries, trying many darker beers, including offerings from Samuel Adams, Otter Creek, and others. The Black Butte remains a favourite, though the Alaskan Smoked Porter was a keen one, if rather on the expensive side.
Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Next in the line of darks was a trial of Downtown Brown, from the Crabtree Brewing stable. As beers go, it wasn't the greatest thing I ever had, but it was certainly worth trying. A fair session ale, it holds up close to its distant cousin, Newkie Broon, and yet it's a little warmer and with a better finish. I've drunk enough of it for now, mind you, and found far better. But this was for science, remember.
Of course, there were many others along the way, and far too numerous to mention. There's the Flying Dog brewery, with a rich and diverse range, there's the understandably aloof Arrogant Bastard Ale, Pete's Wicked Ale, scrumtious ales from Alaska to Texas. There were diversions, too, into real root beer, a concoction I never dreamed I'd enjoy, never mind some wonderfully manageable ciders ("hard cider", to distinguish it from apple juice). But I would remember this journey for the dark and rich beers, with the delightful fruit of a good Christmas pudding.
The Grand Prize
This long journey had some great moments, and some horrors too. From the dreadful Coors and sundry "Lite" beers through some fair Canadian lagers (hats off to Molson), I traversed a taste of home in bottles of Bass beers and Monty Python's Holy Grail and moved, finally, to the finish. About a year ago, I uncovered a new joy in New Belgium's 1554, a luscious, dark and full ale, brewed in Colorado and drunk with great delight in Davis, and presumably, elsewhere too. This is reminiscent of the old Winter Ales of my mis-spent youth, 20's, 30's and 40's. It's a rich and fruity brew, based on a medieval recipe, so says the brewery. Nowadays I only have a sup now and again, and I'd like to call this one my clear favourite thus far. So between the extremes of wheat beer and the blackness of the 1554, I have to pronounce myself happy with American beers. Not that I don't miss a pint of Old Wallop or other falling-over water down at the Dog and Bollocks, but it ain't all bad, honestly.
Finally, to those intrepid folk crossing the Great Pond, please don't pick the first pot in the first pub and judge the beer by that - ask, look around, sample and savour. Whichever way you crossed, there'll be differences, and surprises. For me, finally, those surprises turned out pleasant.
† Okay, there's four years of research here, and not all the beers mentioned are American. This isn't for a doctorate, y'know
The amount of research can be seen from the bottle caps collected in the kitchen drawer, picture here.
I also found another crazy, sexy beer, which I reviewed on my blog