Hops and Glory

Barack Obama is no great Anglophile, so they say, but actions sometimes speak louder than words. The American president’s decision to brew beer in the White House using English ingredients, such as hops from Kent, suggests his distaste for Britain may have been overstated. No president who chooses to make porter (the classic inky-black beer of London) for himself can entirely dislike the British, after all.

But Obama is far from the only American who enjoys a glass of porter (nor is he the first president: George Washington drank gallons of the stuff). The president’s love for beer merely reflects his nation’s growing appreciation for the drink, and particularly for British styles like stout and India pale ale. The US is now home to the world’s most dynamic brewing scene (there are 2,000 American breweries and counting) but it wouldn’t have happened without British inspiration.

That much is clear with a single sip of Sierra Nevada pale ale, perhaps the most influential American craft beer of recent times. First brewed in 1980, it is a classic of its type: citrus-bitter due to the Pacific north-west hops used, it nonetheless doffs its cap to its British forebears. It is recognisably a pale ale in the tradition of generously-hopped classics like the now much diminished Bass.

Many of America’s best brewers, such as Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver and Doug Odell of the Odell Brewery in Colorado, have a similar attachment to Britain. “I definitely feel that the UK is a second home for me for beer — if not the first one,” Oliver, whose life changed after a sip of cask ale in a London pub in 1983, told me. 

Americans liking cask ale? That’s not as far-fetched as it may sound. This staple of British pub culture, once a source of amusement for Americans raised on ice-cold, flavour-light beer, is starting to catch on across the Atlantic. Bars that offer cask ale (and they are still reasonably few and far between) routinely sell out in a few hours. 

Cask ale aside, though, in recent years the flow of ideas has been reversed. The best new British brewers (such as Derbyshire’s Thornbridge, London’s Kernel and Sussex’s Dark Star) have been inspired by the open-minded, anything-goes approach that characterises American craft brewing and many of the most interesting British beers are now made with US hops.

American brewers have also helped to reintroduce Britain to some of its traditional beer styles like India pale ale and, yes, porter. The special relationship may be a figment of British politicians’ fevered imaginations (whatever Obama might choose to brew in the White House kitchens) but it certainly exists in the world of beer.

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