Simple food, this: a thick, juicy pork chop and a pint of real bitter, served up at a London "gastropub" in January. It was about the best pork chop I'd ever tasted, and the first one from a menu that mentioned the breed of pig—Gloucester Old Spot. Imagine going into your local bar and finding buffalo wings made only from Jersey Giant chickens. Many among the English, and among us, have become mighty particular about their food, and in the U.K. this extends to the revival of heritage swine breeds.
Of course, English beer revivalism has been underway longer than the good-food movement, probably because the English prefer liquids to solids. In fact, in a recent online poll, the Brits voted the widget (the small ball of nitrogen that gives beer from a can a taplike head of foam) the greatest invention of the past forty years (the Internet was a distant second). The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was launched in 1973, a revolt against the megabreweries that were squeezing regional beer makers out of business while gobbling up pubs to assure distribution. Thirty-one years later, the fight continues. The megabreweries dominate still, but pubs that claim to pump real ale are now legion, and CAMRA has pulled stunts such as parading a tarted-up lass dressed as a 4,000-year-old Sumerian goddess of beer in order to get more British women to drink real cask ale! Good luck with that, gents.
The English real-ale movement gave succor to the founders of scores of U.S. microbreweries. American beer improved. But lost in the sauce is the fact that a modest range of fine English bottled beer—from real-ale breweries, some of them tiny, some new—can be found in American specialty stores. They are distinctive, delicious and rather delicate beers, not often successfully imitated by micobreweries in the states. Drinking an English bottled pint is a painless way to show some support for traditional brewing in the old country, to champion "provincialism," as Brooklyn beer expert Richard Scholz calls it. "Beer is very provincial in England," he says. "Sure, England's a bit bigger than New Jersey, but thirty miles down the road the beer is different."
Fine, but is it sensible to drink a bottle of English ale in the hot months?Isn't an icy golden pilsner the right choice, or a German wheat beer, or a Bud?English beer has a reputation of being heavy and flat. But that assessment fails to do the full range of ales justice.
A "session beer" (i.e., one meant for drinking casually, in quantity) such as Coniston's Bluebird Bitter has only 4.2 percent alcohol. Some bitter is brewed well below 4 percent. By comparison, your basic Miller is 5 percent, and Miller Lite 4.5. In other words, a more tasty bitter can be lighter, alcohol-wise, than a light American beer. What we have here, folks, is "tastes great, less filling" in action. "Classic English ales," says Scholz, "are great beers to drink in warm weather." Added benefit: Bottled versions of English pub ales tend to be a bit more fizzy than when on tap and, therefore, to my taste, are a bit more refreshing.
Sorting through the range of English beers by label is tricky—you'll encounter a thicket of terms: ales, pale ales, India pale ales, nut brown ales, bitters, special bitters, and on and on. They're virtually all ales, meaning that they're brewed with yeasts that like a warm bath, rather than the cooler-headed yeasts used in the lagers of Germany or the U.S. They tend to be darker than the golden beers and tend to emphasize the burnt-sugar tastes of toasted, malted barley. As the beers get darker, the malt prevails until you begin to taste an earthy astringency familiar to anyone who drinks Guinness: You're in porter and stout territory now. As alcohol, flavor and body increase, an ale is more likely to be called a "special ale," or a "strong ale," or an "extra special." Some brewers will make three versions of the same beer—ordinary, special and extra special.
The amazing thing to me is the aforementioned refreshing quality at the lighter end. Coniston's Bluebird Bitter, which won CAMRA's grand prize for best ale in England in the late '90s, is, as Scholz says, "almost watery." It seems to bless you with its ale-ness and then vanish like a midsummer-night's dream. Black Sheep Ale, from a brewery founded in North Yorkshire in the early '90s, is fruitier with more body and more bitterness and a bigger head, but it's by no means heavy. Adnams Suffolk Special Bitter, a recent favorite of mine, shares this same refreshing quality and has a bracing fizz. St. Peter's English Ale, a little more hoppy-bitter, a little more yeasty, falls into this ideal territory as well; the label's best bitter has only 3.7 percent alcohol.
Surprisingly good light English beer is possible—though I won't say the same for English food. That Gloucester Old Spot pork chop was as thick as two thumbs and came with a half-moon of creamy white fat. My favorite tidbit from London's wonderful Borough food market near Waterloo Bridge was a crumbly crusted Melton Mowbray pork pie larded with Stilton. You need a lighter pint with that kind of food. Not that anyone sensible in England stops at just one pint, mind you.
Tasting Notes: Ten Fine English Ales
To illustrate the breadth of English brewing, Richard Scholz, who owns a fanatically well-stocked Brooklyn beer store called Bierkraft (718-230-7600), took me through a tasting of favorites. These ranged up the alcohol and flavor scales from several in the Bluebird zone to some heftier strong ales, a porter and a syrupy barley wine best drunk by a coal fire in the dead of winter with snooker finals on the telly. But the ones on the lighter end are perfect for drinking right now. From light to heavy:
1. Coniston Brewing Co. Bluebird Bitter. Beautiful example of a flavorful but thirst-quenching English bitter (4.2 percent alcohol).
2. Black Sheep Ale. Darker than the Bluebird, fruitier on the nose, more body, more bitter hops, a fine fizz (4.4 percent alcohol).
3. St. Peter's English Ale. Perfumed, hoppy nose; a little yeasty; not as fruity as the Black Sheep. Overall, a nicely balanced beer (4.5 percent alcohol).
4. Swale Brewery Indian Summer Pale Ale. A lighter version of the classic hopsloaded bitter IPA. Superfine bubbles, fine head, hoppy but light (5 percent alcohol).
5. Old Speckled Hen. This bottle was a bit old, revealed in a cardboardy, slightly skunky smell. That quality didn't persist in the mouth, though; this is a middleweight, caramel-malty brew (5.2 percent alcohol).
6. Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale. Slightly chocolate nose; a bit smoky; hops are downplayed; medium caramel-malt flavors (5 percent alcohol).
7. Fuller's ESB (Extra Special Bitter). "The flagship standard in ESBs," according to Scholz. Strong, malty and floral but beautifully balanced. Packs a punch with 5.9 percent alcohol.
8. Original Flag Porter. The classic dark beer of early-nineteenth-century Londoners. Smells like chocolate and nuts; tastes of burnt sugar; smoky; a bit tart; all from the dark-roasted malt. Heavy in flavor, though only 5 percent alcohol.
9. J.W. Lees Moonraker Ale. A bit sweet, lots of hops, lots of fruitiness, lots of intensity: This is a fully loaded beer. It could stand up to a cigar (7.5 percent alcohol).
10. Young's Old Nick Barley Wine Style Ale. A "high gravity" ale; sweet, bitter, fruity and astringent (7.2 percent alcohol).