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These days, the UK is awash with American craft beers, some of them better than others. Anthony Gladman finds out what it takes to jump the pond

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Imported beer can be a crapshoot, but beer drinkers have long been a curious lot when it comes to the contents of cans, bottles and kegs from breweries with exotic sounding names. It’s like a liquid lottery ticket from a far-off land. When it comes to sussing out the odds that you’ve picked a winner, some countries have always inspired more confidence than others; Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic.

Back before craft beer came along, the USA was not one of those countries. American beer used to be a joke. Literally. You remember the one about the canoe? It worked because the common image of beer from the states was cheap, tasteless, and weak. Fizzy swill for clueless rednecks. Who on earth would want to drink that?

Of course this handily overlooks the fact that we had plenty of terrible beer over here in the UK too, and the good stuff – the laurels we liked to rest upon as one of the world’s great brewing nations – was in danger of disappearing. But things never seem too bad as long as you’ve got someone else to look down on.

How things have changed. The dramatic transformation that American brewing has undergone has created a beer culture unrecognisable from the one that went before, and spread similar revolutions from country to country across the world. It’s like a fermented and double dry-hopped version of the Domino Theory – the McCarthyite fear that nation after nation might fall to communism – only the reds under the bed are now bearded dudes talking about IPAs and sours.

This beery renaissance came about because American brewers took inspiration from British beer culture. But now the momentum has shifted and the pendulum is swinging back across the Atlantic. Bob Pease is CEO and President of the Brewers Association (BA), the not-for-profit trade body representing small and independent American craft brewers. Pease says BA export figures demonstrate that the demand for hop-forward, complex and interesting American beer styles continues to grow amongst UK beer lovers. “We like to think that UK brewers continue to seek inspiration from American craft brewers across the pond.”

American craft beer has been making its way to the UK since the early 1990s, but it remained something of a rarity until the last few years. The BA set up its Export Development Programme to promote American craft beer overseas after securing a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture in 2004. Since then the profile of US craft beer in the UK has steadily grown. It’s no longer unusual to see US beers at events such as the Great British Beer Festival or Craft Beer Rising. American craft beer is readily available in many specialist retailers, and even in supermarkets.

The most recent figures from the BA back this up. The USA exported 482,309 barrels of craft beer in 2017, valued at $125.4m. The largest share went to Canada, which has chugged its way through about half of all American craft beer exports each year since 2013. The UK was the next largest market; in 2017 we imported a little over fifty thousand barrels, which means we drank 10.5m pints from across the pond. The growth in total exports is slowing, and was just 3.6% in 2017 compared to a heady 71.8% in 2012. But interestingly the share taken by the UK has remained fairly stable, which means that we actually buy more each year than we did the year before.

Boxfresh

So what does it take to bring an American beer over to the UK? Freshness is paramount. Pease says that one of the key principles behind the BA’s Export Development Program is “an unswerving commitment to quality to ensure American craft beer reaches the beer lover tasting as the brewer intended”. To put it another way, why bother schlepping your beer halfway across the world if it’s not going to taste good when it gets there?

This is the question that supposedly led to the birth of IPA back in the days of empire, when the beer had to outlast a four- to six-month sea voyage from Britain to India. Now, ironically, it is the same question that leads us to treat the same beer style in a very different manner; modern craft beer drinkers have grown to expect freshness and assertive hop flavour that other generations would likely have dismissed as ‘too green’ and needing time to mature. These days, brewers hustle their beers into temperature-controlled containers and across the Atlantic in 10 to 16 days, hoping to get it into the hands of drinkers as soon as possible, so they can drink it fresh.

The problem with this is that brewers have no control over what happens to their beer once it reaches its destination. They can insist all they like on end-to-end cold-chain distribution, only for a customer to stick the beer into a warm cupboard for six months before finally drinking it.

Of course, it’s not all about IPAs. Dark beers did well when Britain was slaking the thirst of its empire, and they do well now. Big, barrel-aged stouts for instance have higher ABVs, are less reliant on hops, and have more robust malt profiles. This means they take well to ageing, so a bit of extra time at sea is neither here nor there, at least as far as the beer’s flavour is concerned. They can stand up to a bit of cupboard time too. This makes them a more forgiving option if you already have a stash of beers waiting to be drunk.

The beer in your hand

Callum Stewart has what many beer fans might think of as a pretty sweet gig: he is a buyer at Beer52. He gets to sample hundreds of beers and then spend someone else’s money on sharing what he judges to be the best of them with a wide group of people who he’s fairly sure are going to enjoy them too. I know, right?

Callum explains the process of getting this month’s beers from Portland Maine into next month’s Beer52 subscribers’ boxes; a process which began back in September 2018, with a visit to the Leeds International Beer Festival. The poor lad. While he was there, Callum sampled ‘a good amount’ of beers from The Maine Beer Box — a custom-built, 12-meter long, refrigerated shipping container, complete with 78 beer taps on the side and a fully self-contained, CO2 draft system.

Having identified some interesting beers and brewers, Callum began a period of further sampling, discussion and wheeler-dealing. He had to ensure there were enough Portland brewers capable of producing enough of the right beers at the right time to fill all of the slots in the box — including allowances for the various options subscribers might choose such as a preference for light or dark beers. This was completed by December 2018, with all the beers organised and paid for.

Then followed six weeks of brewing, fermenting and conditioning, after which the beers were collected at the end of February 2019 and put into temperature-controlled containers to begin their 16-day transatlantic crossing from Portland to Hull, arriving in the UK during the third week of March. From there, still kept at a constant 4ºC, the beers were taken to a refrigerated warehouse in Birmingham before being shipped overnight to customers during the first and second weeks of April.

This amount of organisation and work is representative of efforts throughout the wider beer industry to get American craft beer to British drinkers. With so much great beer available locally, and quality only partly guaranteed by cold-chain, why bother? Bob Pease says any growth in the market here is good for beer as a whole. “As long as quality is maintained throughout the process from brewery to glass, then the more breweries that open and flourish the better”. Ultimately though it’s about meeting demand; they keep sending it because we like it and we keep drinking it.

An online survey during January 2019 suggests British drinkers look to American beers for their creativity. “Those crazy Americans always seem to be coming out with something new,” said one respondent. Another feature often praised was boldness of flavour. This was equally true for pale, hoppy beers and dark beers, where barrel-ageing came into play. Respondents felt that US brewers led the world in this area. “The barrel aged stuff tends to be fearsome, knock your bollocks off in style - and I’m very keen,” said one.

On the next tide

It’s not all barrels and ‘joose’ though. While IPAs, NEIPAs and barrel-aged stouts will no doubt remain popular for some time to come, Pease says the emerging trends look distinctly different. “We’re seeing continued growth in lighter craft beer styles with the biggest growth coming from blonde ale, cream ale, Kölsch and pilsner. Lighter sour variants such as gose and Berliner weisse are also seeing growth”.

There’s no denying that American beer has improved hugely since the bad old days of the canoe joke. But among the great and exciting beers there are still plenty of mediocre ones, bad ones even. And there’s still more beer that can become bad by the time it reaches us, despite the industry’s best efforts to mitigate the effects of its journey halfway across the world.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so exciting to come across a truly tasty American beer here in the UK. When it’s good, it’s very good. Drinkers thrill to the bold flavours, the new twists on old traditions, and the exuberant energy that inspires brewers here to push their own beers into more interesting directions.

Just remember to treat your American beer right when it gets here, and drink it before it out-stays its welcome. If your beer is very hoppy, the fridge is probably the best place for it and you should drink it sooner rather than later if you want to taste it the way the brewer intended.

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