Back in the day, which in this case means when we lived in America in the mid-seventies, beer in North America meant stuff like Budweiser and Coors or, north of the border, Labatt’s. It was refreshing enough, served cold when you were thirsty, but if you closed your eyes while drinking it was fairly difficult to distinguish from sparkling mineral water. If you wanted something stronger or tastier you had to look for “malt liquor”, an ancient English expression kept alive because the law said (to different degrees in various states) that you could not sell something as beer if it contained above a low percentage of alcohol. Also, back in that day, there was a well known quiz question about the country with the most breweries: the answer was Belgium.
All has changed! The answer to the question about breweries is now unequivocally the USA with over five thousand and in a month recently spent in North America it was evident that “craft” beer is a fashionable middle class preoccupation. In some ways it reminded me of the success of the Campaign for Real Ale in the England of the 1970s. North American beer is now enormously more varied than it used to be and usually considerably stronger. Contempt for beer which is weak and fizzy and mass produced is widely expressed. A Canadian fellow drinker remarked to me that he and his friends followed a rule that they would never drink Labatt’s unless there was no alternative and it was free. I don’t know, but I’m prepared to bet, that there are many Americans who say this about Budweiser.
So prima facie, as we ancients say, all is good and improving. But the actual experience of drinking on the North American continent suggests some serious reservations. I can just about forgive the names on the grounds, as Jeeves would say, that you can call a brew any damn thing you like. So a pint of “It puts Cucumber on its Skin” actually exists as do “668 the Neighbor of the Beast” and “The Sun is Closer than the Clouds”. (English beer tends to have names which are equally daft, in the surreal style of rock groups, but they are usually much shorter: in Warwickshire, where I live, two of the best known brews are “Mad Goose” and “UBU”, the latter being textspeak for “You bloody useless . . . “, the nickname of the brewery dog.)
The more serious problem with most of these craft beers is the strength because many of them are 7% alcohol or more. I’m a thirsty chap and three pints of that sort of thing puts you in headache territory; I’m used to English “session” beers which are barely half that strength. And the most serious problem of all is the presence of extrinsic flavours. The new breed of brewers seem intent on creating beer that tastes of things other than beer. I have drunk beer flavoured with apricot, with pumpkin and even with chilly. Out in Colorado there is said to be one that tastes of lemon meringue milkshake. It is sometimes difficult to get hold of beer-flavoured beer.
My initial reaction to looking at the sort of list of beers with which one is presented in a contemporary North American bar is the same sort of excitement that I get when looking at an item that is entirely new to me on a food menu. But then, when the glass is actually raised to the lips, disappointment. No longer is it the disappointment of too little flavour; it is the wrong kind of flavour. My wife is not a beer-drinker, but she likes a glass of wine and she has coined the relevant term: Retsina Syndrome. after the notorious Attican wine which tastes of pine resin as it is intended to do. Mercifully, most wine does not taste of the things it claims to taste of on the bottle. I remember reading the label of a bottle we were drinking on Cottesloe Beach, Western Australia. It said the contents tasted of honey, pine nuts and wild gooseberries, but to our relief it tasted of wine – unlike the flavours claimed by many North American beers which are what they claim to the obfuscation or exclusion of beer flavour.
There is a further problem of terminology. My first beer on the recent visit was an “IPA” (India Pale Ale for those who don’t drink beer). My companion, a Yorkshireman resident in Canada, muttered “Don’t expect it to taste like IPA, ” and it didn’t – I’m not sure what it did taste of. Most of the main terms of English beer can be found on the bar lists of North America including stout, porter and lager, but none of them can be relied on to have the flavour you would expect in England. And there is a notable exception: the standard form of English beer, bitter, is almost entirely absent. Which prompts a question about what it is they don’t like, the word or the flavour. But, having made that remark to my youngest son, resident in cosmopolitan London, he said that most things I would regard as “bitter” avoid that name in London these days, being described by the rather more general term “ale”.