12 February 2014

British History

If you thought that #menswear culture was rarefied and nerdy, spend ten minutes talking to a beer aficionado. As someone who both works in the liquor industry and enjoys a wide variety of interesting beers, I'm practically drowning in it. 

The resurgence of a real beer culture in America has been a great thing to see. I'm just old enough to have started drinking just before it happened, and I can remember when no bar had anything more than Bud, Coors,and maybe Heineken (if you were feeling "fancy") on tap. Given the British roots that still have lingering remnants here in Boston, it's been gratifying to see what is really a return to the variety of well made beers we had before the "macro brewers" edged everyone else out of the market in the 1960s. These days the number of places offering a huge selection of all manner of things is a problem only in that its become difficult to decide what to order.

But as with anything of an artistic nature, with the flood of options came a sea of questionable choices.For a number of years, we saw the IPA craze offer us increasingly bitter, boozy, "hoppy" beers to lust after and brag about. For a time, it seemed like American brewers were locked in a contest to offer beers that were more intensely bitter than the next, pouring a tanks worth of hops into every glass. The result were many beers that were overly high in alcohol, unbalanced, and bitter to the point of being undrinkable, and yet, people were not only drinking them, but waxing poetic at great length about their beauty. It's not unlike the way in which Starbucks has convinced so many people that their coffee is "rich, complex, and flavorful" when in fact its burnt and overcooked, bitter and acidic to the point of being undrinkable. The upside of all this is that IPA exhaustion led me to rediscover the clean and direct perfection of German beer, a tradition grossly ignored in the craft beer resurgence.

However, in Winter I tend to gravitate toward the British tradition in brewing, rich malty beers with low carbonation served not quite cold. Despite the British provenance of IPA as a style, it can be hard to find a proper one. Enter Wigglesworth India Wharf Pale Ale, from Mystic Brewery in Chelsea, Mass. Mystic is an up and coming local brewery known for its Belgian style ales. Wigglesworth is a series of English beers they've rolled out in the last year or so. I can't remember the last time I really enjoyed an IPA, until now. The difference is that Wigglesworth isn't afraid to be subtle. Hoppy only just to the point where one might rightly use the word, it's got a good dose of sweet malt character to balance it's bitter side. I suspect it's more like what IPA tasted like in the nineteenth century than anything else in stores today, outside of Britain itself. Bonus points for naming after India Wharf, a nod to both the city of Boston itself and the British culture that birthed it. Just the thing to wash down a home made shepherds pie on a cold New England night.

If you live in the Boston area, seek it out. If you're visiting, take some home with you. 

p.s. Lots of great new items in the Shop this week.


Bryan said...

Having recently lived in Britian for a little over a year, your comments regarding America before the "real beer" resurgence strikes a chord. Most pubs in the UK will have Miller, Tennent's (lager), and Heineken (if you're feeling fancy). Some will have Newcastle in bottle (almost never on tap outside of Newcastle itself).

The rare exception I found tended to deal in "real ale" (in the British sense) - naturally carbonated, malty, hand pulled beverages. Though lovely every once in a while, I found them too cloying to drink often. The lack of carbonation just made them less refreshing than other styles.

In short, my experience was that the beer scene in the US is much superior to that in the UK. While German pubs and craft breweries exist in Britain, they are largely washed away in a sea of Tesco lager. Until a craft beer resurgence hits, I'll stay stateside.

Philip said...

I must disagree with the gentleman above. "Real Ale" is something all too rare in America, and really does justice to the IPA style better than any other serving method.

Guiseppe, you are absolutely correct that most of the IPAs out there are too heavy on the hops, which is why I finally gave up on the style and moved toward pilsners, porters, stouts, and Belgians

Zach Chillman said...

I'm with you Guiseppe. The American IPA craze has reached a level near nonsensical level. As a home brewer, I have friends who want to learn but want nothing to do with learning about the different styles of beer available to them. They all want to create some sort of hop bomb that is barely drinkable.

For a night where I want to enjoy conversation throughout the night, give me a English Style Bitter. Such a well balanced beer that doesn't destroy your palate.

Regardless, I'm still excited about the evolution of beer culture in our country. It's probably the best place in the world to have a beer.


Unknown said...

Oh - so you are serving Beer in the shop now. Good to know. Hopefully you didn't pick this bottle up in a thrift store?

America is a land of extremes. Mostly everyone I know drinks water (Lite beer) and the aficionados drink IPA so infused with hops it is like a bowl of bad cereal.

My preference is for Real Ale - as the comment above suggested. Hand pulled - and poured by an expert. Not squirted in a glass by a guy wielding the equivalent of a power washer in the bar.

I'll try your suggestion - but I have found the closest thing to a real British beer is an Old Speckled Hen or Boddingtons - IN A CAN with the widget like Guinness.

I'm surprised you didn't have a wardrobe suggestion while drinking it and eating said Shepherd's Pie!

(BTW - it took me 7 tries to prove I am not a Robot when posting this comment. I'm starting to think I AM)

Nick said...

Bryan -- you must have led very sheltered existence here in Britain. Or perhaps I have -- as I've never experienced a "German pub" on these shores.

Having said all of that , I think that for the last 15 years or so, the USA has produced many excellent non-lager beers -- IPA, bitter etc, and your micro-brewery culture has much to be admired. Even those small brands that 'ent big' are good drinks : Sam Adams, Anchor Steam etc.

"Real Ale" can be a bit cloying, or just very strong -- but so many super drinks here in Britain. Even in terms of mass-produced (as apposed to Mass.-produced, geddit) beverages , I think that the British brands still top most of the American big brands - John Smiths, Worthington Smooth, Tetleys, Boddingtons etc etc are all cracking good pints.

Agree with Zach -- widget cans are a real godsend.

But it's not a competition is it.

Mine's a London Pride please mate.

Joel said...

I'm right there with you, G. I live in Oregon, the epicenter of hop and work in the wine & beer department of a local store. The sheer volume of IPAs is overwhelming. Even NW made pale ales bear little resemblance to their British relatives, full of citrusy, piney hops.

Thankfully, I think it's reached its tipping point and the pendulum is swinging the other way. I'm seeing more German and Belgian inspired brews made locally and customers seem to be a bit hop-fatigued.

There's nothing like getting home after a long day, putting on some records and cracking open something malty.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps an examination of the different between IPAs and Pale Ales would be in order.

I'm sure you know the difference but your post does not demonstrate it.

Anonymous said...

Is there a T accessible location you would recommend that stocks Mystic Brewery? My usual place has a few examples, but doesn't seem to have any Wigglesworths.

Tom said...

As someone who works in the beer industry, the abv/IBU arms race and the internet has absolutely turned everyone over the age of 21 that drinks beer on a regular basis into a snob. It has discouraged me from seeking out new beers and often sharing new beers with friends. Everyone is an expert. Except the experts. Hopefully this microbrew bubble pops sooner than later and the actual "good beers" can flourish instead of whatever the flavor of the week is.