Craft beer, as a concept, is nothing new to the UK. For decades pubs have been priding themselves on their selections of “real ales” which typically means ale from small, often local breweries served cellar temperature, hand pulled from a cask. These beers *are* craft beers in the sense that they are not mass produced, they use top quality ingredients, and have limited distribution. This hasn’t just existed for longer than the US craft beer scene has existed, it’s existed for longer than the US itself has existed.
Those pesky Americans, though, always like to do things a little differently. Craft beer in the US is different in three main ways; they prefer keg to cask (though cask is making a bit of a comeback in the states), the beer is chilled and, the most notable one, they don’t mind being experimental with flavours, adding all sorts of things to the brewing process to amplify or transform the flavour of the beer – Chipotle vanilla porter or coconut IPA anyone? Over the last ten or so years UK breweries have started to come around to the fact that this new world style can yield some truly fantastic results and some have even hired new head brewers to completely change their style (see Buxton Brewery). This has lead to US style craft beer making huge progress in the UK and the question has arisen (for me at least): Are UK breweries doing a better job than American ones?
Tough one to answer and I think the best way to put is: Proportionally, yes, the UK is absolutely doing a better job. Clearly the UK can’t even compete with the sheer number of breweries doing this style of beer in the US, or the volume that some of them are producing (see Sierra Nevada) but the proportion of UK breweries doing truly epic US style craft beer (BrewDog, Buxton, The Kernel, Magic Rock etc.) is definitely encouraging.
It’s not all about numbers, though. How does the very best UK craft beer stack up against the very best US stuff? Let’s look at the style that is very much in Vogue at the moment, India Pale Ale or IPA. I’ve not been fortunate enough to try some of the holy grail beers like Pliny the Elder or Heady Topper (if any readers feel like sending me some, I won’t complain) but I’ve definitely tried some that rank up there on the likes of RateBeer and Beer Advocate and I can definitely say that, for me, some of the UK’s competing brews wipe the floor with them. Let’s compare two of the same style; Sierra Nevada Torpedo and Magic Rock Cannonball. Both American style IPAs, both around 7.2% ABV. RateBeer has Torpedo ahead by just 1 point, scoring a 98 compared to Cannonball’s 97. People that know me know that Torpedo is one of my all time favourite beers. It’s big, bold and very bitter, all qualities I love in an IPA. The flavour is syrupy and very piney in character with only some hints of citrus fruits lingering on the palette. Cannonball, however truly lives up to the brewery’s tagline of “Same but Different”, offering a much more citrus-forward hop profile with the pine resin bitterness coming later as a secondary flavour. For me, it’s this emphasis on citrus and fruit flavour that sets UK craft IPAs apart and makes them superior to the US offerings. This is epitomised in The Kernel’s Citra single hop IPA, easily in my top 3 beers of all time. It is massively juicy, fresh and packed full of orange, lemon and grapefruit in both aroma and flavour. I haven’t found a US IPA that matches it to date.
Obviously all that is based on my own personal preference. If you prefer resinous pine bitterness over sharp citrus I’m certainly not going to tell you that you’re wrong. I’d love to know what you think about this. Let me know in the comments.