by Paul Deines
I can’t sleep on airplanes. It’s not something I’m capable of. Generally, I'm too busy praying as I hurtle through the air in a huge metal coffin. This can be rough when I travel overnight to Europe. Coming off 22 hours without sleep, I struggle to power through another full day. Only the anticipation of adventure keeps my eyes, though bleary, open, but nothing stirs both my anticipation like a descent into Heathrow.
I've visited England more than any other country outside the US. I studied there in college, and regular sojourns to London opened my eyes to the excitement of a genuine world city. Without that experience, I doubt I would have moved to New York. My wife studied a full year in London. So when we considered where to go on our honeymoon, England was the natural choice. We spent five days in London, then hired a car and drove up through the Cotswolds to Lincolnshire. Then Yorkshire, the Lake District, and back down to East Anglia. Two weeks full of fine dining, historic homes, romantic walks, and, yes, quite a few pubs. An idyllic trip (as honeymoons generally are) calibrated to the historiographic and the pastoral.
Three weeks after we returned home, the British people voted to leave the European Union. It was a seismic act of isolationism, one that plunged the nation into economic and political disarray.
More on that later.
See, I intended this as a review of three beers from young, innovative English craft breweries, but it quickly became apparent that I couldn’t adequately discuss these beers without offering an analysis of the culture they originated from. Of course, prattling on about some country I don’t live in is a dire prospect. So, too, would be theorizing, from an ocean away, about the political ambitions and social resentments that led to Brexit. Neither would be particularly constructive. After all, I write about beer.
But the same nationalist sentiment that drove the Leave campaign also fostered a brewing/drinking culture that has influenced the world. I find, therefore, that I cannot discuss one without broaching the other. So, I’ll begin, as is my wont, in the pub.
The English pub combines bar, restaurant, community center, bed-and-breakfast. Years of acquisition by major brewers have led to a certain level of bland homogeneity, but the pub is an enduring institution. From the perspective of beer distribution, too, it has proliferated the gravity-poured real ale - substantial, tepid and flavorful. This is thanks in large part to the Campaign for Real Ale, or CAMRA, a grassroots organization that, since 1971, has championed unpasteurized, cask-conditioned ale. CAMRA’s stubborn insistence on quality over progress forestalled the move to forced carbonation. It ensured that seemingly anywhere you go, you can still find a staid comforting ale poured from a cask.
In many regards, the craft beer revolution in America is contingent on our rediscovery of English ale. Over the last few decades, American drinkers moved from German and Czech lagers to British styles like the Stout, the Barleywine and the Pale. These recipes have evolved in the US, of course, into something uniquely American, and today young brewers in the UK are crafting beers in response to America.
Our British honeymoon afforded the opportunity to sample some of these new-wave craft beers. English brew – be it pale or dark – conforms to certain characteristics: moderate alcohol, medium light body, herbal hop presence. So, would the American craft influence (inflated ABV, baroque dry hopping, copious adjuncts) undermine these defining attributes? I was pleasantly surprised to find that the adoption of hop-centricity and funky additives served to enhance the ale’s traditional properties.
To wit: we met a college friend and his wife our second day in London. They took us to lunch at a burger-and-craft-brew pub in Lewisham. Amid chips and reminiscing, I first got to try the Kernel’s Table Beer. Located in Southwark, The Kernel Brewery has been brewing flavorful, American-inflected ales since 2012. Loose and experimental, this brewer excels at English brews with inflated malt or hop bills. I had the opportunity to try several of their brews – ranging in hue from pale to stout – but I kept coming back to Table Beer.
To my mind, it’s a near-perfect summer pale, in the vein of Carton’s Boat Beer or Other Half’s Superfun! Such session-y beers pack fruit-loop hoppiness into a light, easy drink. Table Beer is sunset gold, the opacity of frosty glass, and erupting with orange rind and dewy forest scents. The taste is piney and sweet, but not overwhelming. Mutable in the best possible way. I drank this beer on its own, with a bacon cheeseburger and with a meat-pie, and each time it worked. As a point of entry to English craft beer, it is ideal. Flavorful but contained, vibrant but understated, a beer intended to accompany a meal.
A week later, my wife and I took our rental car on a two hour drive from our National Trust rental at Fountains Abbey. In the middle of the Lake District, we visited Hawkshead Brewery. Housed in a spacious glass-front building next to a bike shop, with outdoor seating and a view of cloistering rock peaks, this brewery wouldn’t have been out of place in Denver. We visited on a bank holiday, and the intermittent rain had burned off to heady sunshine, offering a perfect setting for an al fresco pint of Hawkshead’s flagship pale.
Windermere Pale is the icy clear goldenrod you'd expect from a modern pale ale, but its nose is classically earthy. If the bouquet has any contemporary crackle, it’s the lemony pop of the Citra hops that transforms an otherwise standard English hop bill. That lemon complements the biscuit malt and nutmeg bitterness of the Maris Otter. Hawkshead is splitting the difference between pub and craft, and the taste is at once festive and comforting. Windermere Pale is sweet, fruity, bitter, musty (more so from the cask than the bottles I brought home). It’s totally thirst-quenching and filling. This brew definitely draws from the American IPA, but the imprint of old-guard offerings is still discernable.
Such earlier-generation beers are not to be sniffed at, after all. In Ripon, I had the opportunity to drop into the Royal Oak, a lively country pub serving Timothy Taylor ales straight from the cask. Taylor is the Velvet Underground of British brewers: if you tried their beer in the mid-twentieth century, there’s a good shot you started your own brewery.
Timothy Taylor has been producing real ale for over 150 years, yet their most beloved beer, Landlord, has only been around since 1952. Before this trip, I’d only had it once. Even drinking from a bottle in America, I was struck by the brightness and tropical hop character. Pulled from the cask at the Royal Oak, Landlord exploded, sparkling and fragrant. It shook me with its full-bodied assertiveness. This brewer has benefited greatly from CAMRA. Landlord and Boltmaker (a light, vivacious Bitter) have both won the Campaign’s Beer of the Year. Pairing those two with succulent steak and potatoes, I marveled at how such delicately-balanced, mild ales could stand up to a hearty meal. The darker, rich Taylor brew Ram Tam paired nicely with our sticky toffee pudding.
(It’s worth noting that a second article could be written about my wife’s concurrent quest to discover the archetypal English toffee pudding)
In the heart of Yorkshire, enjoying a good meal with my wife in the warm, welcoming confines of this pub, I felt the slightest bit melancholy. It’s a feeling familiar to anyone who has fallen in love with a place. You spend an evening of comfort and good cheer, and you imagine this perfect corner of the world is forever sweet and smiling.
Two weeks after that dinner, I read the news that Jo Cox, Member of Parliament for the Batley and Spen constituency, was murdered in a town not 20 miles from the Timothy Taylor Brewery, by a mentally ill man who claimed he was defending England from immigrants. I remembered the drive back from Ripon after dinner: above a stone wall, in a cow pasture, someone had erected a sizable billboard reading VOTE LEAVE. I remembered another pub in the center of town, where a less ebullient group huddled together muttering over bitters and pasties. Above the bar was a flag of St. George, symbol of English nationalism.
Romanticizing a culture is a dangerous proposition. Timothy Taylor, Landlord, real ale, the country pub – all of these are glorious contributions to the world by a culture that often accomplishes great things. But the culture that produced them also produced the first man to assassinate an MP since the Troubles.
Here is something a bit more forward-looking.
Thirty minutes’ drive from Timothy Taylor is the town of Ilkley. At a great beer store called Fuggle & Golding, I was introduced to the wares of a local craft brewery. Ilkley Brewery began operations in 2009, or rather it restarted a moribund operation that shuttered in 1920. With bottle art reminiscent of a sleeve tattoo and a penchant for eccentric ingredients, this brewer is looking beyond shores of the sepulchered isle. Their spiced stout, The Mayan, is a nod to the Mexican Stout craze in the US. Its thin mouthfeel and lack of sweet-hot balance left me hanging, but it was kookier than anything I’d had on the island to that point.
During an opulent, farm-to-table tasting dinner at the Michelin-rated Black Swan, I was served Ilkley’s white chocolate stout Westwood (named after caucasian hip hop DJ Tim Westwood). It was an inspired pairing with a sour apple lollipop and a honey-and-elderflower parfait. A mélange of ethereal herbs and sumptuous nougat, Westwood looks like Bass but tastes like Victory at Sea. And how great is it that, in lieu of a tokay or madeira, the sommelier recommended a beer pairing for dessert?
Ilkley Brewery represents a globalist view of beer-making. It draws from trends and traditions beyond he sepulchered isle. So, even as the British people were preparing to extricate themselves from Brussels, I was purchasing Ilkley’s Siberia, a Belgian-style farmhouse ale brewed with rhubarb, orange and vanilla.
Siberia pours a perfectly clear amber with a surprisingly ephemeral head. The rhubarb and orange are present in the nose, but only to the extent that, as a saison, it has a natural citrus-and-earth quality. The vanilla is almost imperceptible. It emerges a bit more on the tongue and builds with each sip. Siberia is richer than the tart, tannic farmhouse ales that proliferate in America today. The rhubarb accentuates this ale’s natural mustiness, which is rounded out with tangerine, dandelion and a bit of caramel. Overall, Siberia is markedly fuller and hotter than the average saison, almost reminiscent of a tripel. Overall, Siberia is a playful twist on a Belgian standard, incorporating local adjuncts. England and the continent united in one quixotic ale.
Before we conclude, I’d like to return to a pub, the national institution that encompasses both the gregariousness and the insularity of England. On the third day of our honeymoon, I dragged Nicole to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street. It is probably the oldest pub in Central London, having been built in its current form just after the Great Fire in 1666. Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and G.K. Chesterton drank there. It’s passingly mentioned in A Tale of Two Cities.
I’d be lying if I told you this place wasn’t a tourist trap. Everything about it is meant to highlight its age: the list of regents at its door, the plaques denoting the chosen seats of great writers, the decrepit cage that was home to a storied African grey parrot. The Cheshire Cheese has no natural light. Drinkers and diners descend multiple stairwells, through several subterranean alcoves, the lowest being a former catacomb. It’s a Samuel Smith pub these days. Nicole and I munched on pub food under ancient vaulted ceilings. I sipped a Bitter and thought of how people were drinking in this room a century before the Declaration of Independence was signed. I thought, too, of what this strange and pleasant land meant to me.
I first visited England in 1989, the heyday of Thatcher’s resurgent Britannia. I returned in 2003, just as the US and UK sent troops into Iraq. Tony Blair and George W. Bush were redefining the Special Relationship in a way that did not sit well with many in the conservative Lincolnshire town where I studied. Then, my wife and I visited four years back. The country was wrapping up a successful Summer Olympics, one predicated on a particular vision of the host nation. It was a vision of vibrant utopianism, trumpeted by both the young Prime Minister, David Cameron (whose tenure would end with Brexit), and the Falstaffian Mayor of London, Boris Johnson (who would be Brexit’s most visible champion). To all outward appearances, the rough edges of this nation were sanded down in 2012. No discord, no fear – just a jolly historic isle reasserting itself as a player on the world stage.
The England of 2016 that my wife and I experienced seemed closer to that lowest level of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Still grand and welcoming, but closed off from the light, yearning toward the past.
About the Beers:
LANDLORD (Timothy Taylor & Co.) – Taylor beers are distributed in the US through Shelton Brothers. I purchase Landlord and Boltmaker on the regular at my local Whole Foods. If the ale is reasonably fresh, I encourage you to snatch it up.
TABLE BEER (The Kernel Brewery) – Kernel does not export to the US at this time. Bummer. But if you’re in England anytime soon, check out the brewery website for a listing of establishments serving their beers.
WINDERMERE PALE (Hawkshead Brewery) - Same deal with Hawkshead. Double bummer. But you can always order their beers online, provided you live in the UK.
SIBERIA and WESTWOOD (Ilkley Brewery) – You guessed it. But, hey, while you’re in England for the other two brewers, consult Ilkley Brewery’s beer finder map!
A Note on Lodging in England:
I would be remiss not mentioning the decision my supremely clever wife made in booking lodging through the National Trust. For the cost of a cheap hotel room, you can stay in a historic home on a heritage site. Both of our lodgings were fully fitted with kitchens and various amenities, and we had access to the grounds after hours. Fountains Abbey was especially magical. We took post-dinner strolls through centuries-old ruins and jogged through the water gardens before breakfast. It’s the way to go. Also, join the Royal Oak Foundation, and get discounts at National Trust shops and cafes!