God save the pubs
From the front lines of the UK craft-beer wars
By Chris O'Neal 10/24/2013
Sitting in a building that’s more than likely older than the city of Ventura, drinking an ale that just moments before sat in a cask 10 feet below the bar, looking at an even older church. This is England.
Specifically, Shropshire, and my cask-ale lesson had just begun at an independently owned pub known as The Black Bear. Cask ale, the tried-and-true staple of the old fish-and-chips shops of the UK, is fighting for survival.
The journey to this particular battleground began a week prior in a garage in Camarillo, when Curtis Taylor, writer/host of pints&pairings and the Happy Hour with Joby and Curtis podcasts, invited me to his home studio.
The discussion moved from local (is Ventura entering into, or somewhere in the middle of, a craft-beer renaissance?) to national (what the hell does craft beer even mean anymore?), to international, but the question that continued to rattle around in my increasingly mellow head as we tasted our way through a few pints at 9 a.m. was what to bring along on my trip to England — jolly ol’ land of tea and scones, the Queen, public executions and cask-conditioned ales.
In the end, it was Surf Brewery’s Southswell Double IPA and The Dudes’ Brewing Co.’s Grandma’s Pecan ESB (English-style brown).
Cask-conditioned ales are uniquely English. They aren’t refrigerated and are therefore easy to foul up. A skilled hand at keeping the cask fresh is a must-have behind the bar. The beer is served at cellar temperature, which allows for a better expression on the palate, and works with the low alcohol by volume in most cask ales, ranging generally from 2.5 to 4.5 percent.
A cask conditioned ale is more than likely what you will have at a pub, but it is difficult to maintain while kegs are not, and transportation of beer has become easier and faster. Enter the American craft-beer influence.
No brewery better represents the internationalism of the UK beer scene than Scotland’s BrewDog. Owners James Watt and Martin Dickie have made no apologies for their in-your-face attack on corporate beer or for their push for big flavors and experimentation, traits that have earned them die-hard fans and bitter enemies.
At the BrewDog Bar in Birmingham, Rebecca Birch, certified beer server and part of the management team (who, in full disclosure, is my fianceé), and members of the staff teamed up with brewer Jeff Rosenmeier of Lovibonds, a brewery from Oxfordshire, to celebrate Collab Fest.
Their contribution was the Happy Ending, a wheat beer with lemongrass, ginger, lime leaves and cardamom, very refreshing and very much taking inspiration from abroad, from the minds of Birch and co-workers Rachel Sutherland and Mike Gee.
Chris O'Neal and Mike Gee, manager at the BrewDog Bar in Birmingham,
enjoy one of the many collaboration brews on tap.
BrewDog has led the craft-beer movement — which has produced an explosion of craft breweries in the UK — away from traditional pubs and is practically despised by the likes of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), an organization advocating for the longevity of traditional English brews.
It’s an interesting conundrum that I was happy to throw my two cents at with Southswell and Grandma’s Pecan ESB. But I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty; imagine if the British jumped into the American Civil War. If anything, I was providing ammunition for a foreign takeover.
Back in Camarillo, Taylor and I pondered the similarities between England and Ventura. Ventura County: home only to Ventura’s Anacapa Brewing Company up until Ladyface Alehouse in Agoura arrived, followed by Surf Brewery, Enegren, The Lab and Institution Ale.
And then the big players came. Ninkasi from Oregon, Stone and Saint Archer from San Diego. Like the traditional pubs of the British countryside, Ventura County’s own now have to compete with a marketing budget.
We welcome competition because it breeds choice and, face it, there’s always room for beer. You’ll probably never, however see a Surf Brewery collaboration with a major corporate cask-ale producer in the UK; but you will with Ninkasi, Ballast Point and Stone, which have now, in a way, become complacent with those who feel the corporate fingers stripping away British pubs’ independence.
At The Black Bear, I drank a Shropshire Gold brewed locally by Salopian Brewery, poured in the traditional way with three pulls from the cask, the foamy head spilling over onto the mat. This is tradition fighting for survival. As one method thrives, another fades away, but there will always be places like The Black Bear. You’ll just have to look harder in the future. So it goes.
To listen to an exclusive podcast dedicated to craft beer locally and internationally as discussed by myself and Curtis Taylor, visit www.hopheadsaid.com.