The Craft Invasion: Something New is Brewing in the UK
I love traveling to where the world’s great beers are - the traditional and classic styles of Germany, the new and innovative craft beers of the US, and the weird and spontaneous beers of Belgium. After many years of traveling to England, I would have happily included it along with Germany in the old/traditional category – and indeed, there is nothing quite like having a pint of bitter and a portion of chips in a proper English pub. But after my last visit to England, it is clear that there is much more brewing there these days than the traditional ales of yesteryear: the craft beer revolution is now in full swing in Britannia, and it is now possibly the best place in the world to visit for those who want to experience the old, the new, and the weird all in one beer paradise!
There are now over 2,000 breweries in the UK - that’s nearly double the breweries per capita in the US! What’s more, the growth is accelerating (with over 500 breweries opened in the past year alone), and an increasing number of breweries – both old and new – are offering a range of beers that includes traditional “real ales” as well as new, innovative craft brews. Here is a “sampler flight” of what you will find upon visiting the British beer scene today.
We begin our tour in the historic county of Yorkshire – so historic, in fact, that it predates England itself. The city of York was founded by the Romans in 71 AD, and remnants of this era can still be found in its ancient architecture, archaeological exhibits, and lore of the ghosts of Roman soldiers who still patrol the streets every night. Perhaps more important to the beer lovers among us, it holds the distinction of having more pubs than any town its size in England – and possibly the world – boasting over 365 within its ancient walls.
So it is not surprising that you will find classic English real ales in abundance here, from breweries like York Brewery who produce – among others – Yorkshire Terrier (a traditional best bitter) and Centurions Ghost (a dark ruby ale bittered with traditional English hops like Fuggle, Challenger, and Bramling Cross). Nor is it a shock to see beautiful and classic old pubs like the Ye Olde Starr Inn (founded in 1644) and The White Swan (dating back to 1703), which burst with the old world charm of a traditional English pub and serve some very fine ales on their hand pumps.
But right down the road in Brew York Brewery and Tap Room, the vibe and the beers turn decidedly 21st century. Founded by home brewing buddies Lee Grabham and Wayne Smith in 2016, this modern craft brewery turns out a wide variety of beers, ranging from their original Viking DNA Smoked Porter to their Jarsa Session Ale (an IPA dry hopped with US Cascade and Mt. Hood hops) to my personal favorite, Imperial Tonkoko Stout (which combines Tonka Beans, Coconut, Vanilla, Cacao, and Lactose to produce a beer unlike anything I have ever tasted). With live music and food trucks featured there on a regular basis, this is about as far from a traditional English pub as you can get (though pretty close to my version of heaven!).
Drive 25 miles down the A64 and you will find Leeds, a Victorian-era industrial city that is now enjoying a rebirth as a center of art, culture, and – you guessed it – craft beer. With about two dozen craft breweries to choose from, you could stay here for an entire week and not be at a loss for new brews to try.
One of my favorite spots is Northern Monk Brewery – originally founded in 2013, and more recently opening their “Refectory” tap room in a historic 3-story brick mill building, this husband and wife founded brewery is turning out a breathtaking array of truly amazing beers. One example is their Double Dry Hopped Double Mango Lassi IPA – a brew that starts with huge juicy aroma bursting with passion fruit and citrusy hop notes, builds to a juicy mango crescendo in the middle, and then finishes dry, leaving a slight spicy burn reminiscent of freshly grated ginger on the palate. Perhaps you are in the mood for something dark and roasty? Then you’ll definitely want to settle in for a glass of their Strannik Russian Imperial Stout, a 9% ABV masterpiece chock full of espresso and chocolate character, and complemented by a rounded bitterness and floral, spicy notes from British hops. Indian Witbier, Pear Farmhouse Ale, Barrel Reserve Old Ale, Milk Stout, and – of course – multiple IPAs, the range of delicious and creative brews is dizzying (even before you take your first sip).
Had you chosen to drive 20 miles north of York instead, you would have stumbled upon Malton – a much smaller town than Leeds, but one that punches way above its weight in terms of craft beer. Bad Seed Brewing was formed in 2013 by two homebrewing mates named Chris and James. After just two years, they had tripled their capacity from a 4BBL brewhouse to 12BBLs, and they continue to grow in leaps and bounds, producing a ridiculous variety of beers out of their small warehouse in North Yorkshire. Dry Hopped Winter Saison, Bavarian Hefeweizen, Citra Pale Ale, Oatmeal Stout, Coffee and Almond Porter, American Brown Ale - the list goes on and on. And more importantly, the beers are spot on.
After visiting Bad Seed, Chris sent us across town to visit another brewery that he loves called Brass Castle, despite the fact that they managed to snatch up a key property for their brewery that Chris had also had is eye on (yes, that culture of craft brewers supporting craft brewers is thriving in the UK just as it has in the US). From its humble beginnings in a garage in 2011, they have grown into a proper microbrewery, now producing 200 casks per week. As we experienced with their other Yorkshire brethren, the variety and quality of beers they are making is just astonishing. Fancy a pitch perfect Munich Helles followed by a pint of Black Forrest Cake Porter that you won’t want to put down? Look no further. These guys are awesome.
It occurs to me that we are still in Yorkshire, and there is a lot of England left to see. No time for Ilkley Brewing (an astoundingly good brewer nestled amongst the northern moors, founded in 1873 and producing mouthwatering traditional beers alongside whacky creative new gems); No time for Theakstons (of Old Peculier fame); No time for Timothy Taylor (traditional brewery of arguably the best bitter out there). No… we must go or we will never get to the rest of the country. But first, maybe just one more stop…
Huddersfield is a city in the southern portion of Yorkshire that, all by itself, boasts nearly 20 breweries. There are many worthy of a visit, but perhaps my favorite one is Magic Rock. Inspired by the US craft brewing revolution, brothers Richard and Jonny Burhouse conspired with their friend and brewer Stuart Ross to start their own brewery. What happened? Well, within 6 months of their first batch, Rate Beer named them “Second Best Brewery In The World – 2012,” and they were off to the races. It still puzzles me how it was that I – a self proclaimed Beer Geek – had never heard of this magical place until my most recent visit to England in the autumn of 2017. If English craft brewing is the best kept secret (at least to us Americans), then Magic Rock is its cornerstone. Better craft beer you will not find anywhere in the world, my friends. Their numerous IPAs are each uniquely amazing: from the super juicy Inhaler, to the “West Coast” High Wire, to the tropical yet bitter Cannonball, to their gluten free Fantasma – these blokes know their hops! But they do so much more. From their Salty Kiss Gooseberry Gose, to their Common Grounds Triple Coffee Porter to their Engine Engine No. 9 (a cherry cola Berliner weisse – I kid you not), this brewery blew my mind.
Continuing southwest, we finally leave Yorkshire, the sadness of which is only overcome by happening upon another beer mecca: Manchester. There are now over 75 breweries in the greater Manchester area, more than half of which have opened in the past 5 years!
One of the best known – because, like Magic Rock before them, they also recieved #2 ranking on the “Best Brewery in the World” list by RateBeer (this time in 2018) – is Cloudwater. Focusing on “seasonal brewing,” they eschew the typical brewery practice of having a “core line” of beers, and instead, launch a new slate of beers every three months or so. While this does complicate things a bit, it enables them make the most of seasonal ingredients while letting their creativity run wild. As a result, you can visit them over and over and never have the same beer twice! For those who love experimentation, and fresh innovative beers (Bourbon Barrel Christmas Cake Stout, DIPA Eukanot Mosaic, Helles Mandarina, and Spirit Animal Elderflower), then this place is a must.
West Midlands and The Cotswolds
Continuing south, we next make our way into the West Midlands. Home to one of the most historic brewing regions – Burton Upon Trent, whose famous water gave birth to Bass Ale – and appropriately, Britain’s National Brewery Centre, it is not surprising to find classic old breweries like Hook Norton nearby. Founded in 1849, this traditional Victorian “tower brewery” uses the power of gravity to aid the brewing process, with water and malt hoisted to the top floor from whence it gradually works its way down from floor to floor as the brewing process unfolds, ultimately ending up in barrels in the cellar, which are then delivered to local pubs in horse-drawn carts. It doesn’t get more traditional than this, folks, and it is worth visiting this part of the country for Hooky alone.
But wait, there’s more… Just a stone’s throw away, nestled in the farmland beyond Shakespeare’s home of Stratford-on-Avon, there sits a brewery called Purity. Founded in 2005, they have produced outstanding cask ales that perfectly blend the old world with the new. Pure Gold is one great example: made with traditional English malts (Marris Otter) and hops (Goldings), and then served on a handpump from a cask in the traditional way (with a sparkler, of course – this isn’t London after all!), you would think this is just another fine pint of bitter. But wait, what’s that? Citrus aromas? Must be those American Citra hops they snuck in. Cheeky – and delicious! Their UBU Amber Ale is another example – all English, until they throw in those American Cascade hops. A great combo. Recently, they have started to branch out into kegged beers as well, like their Longhorn IPA. As I sipped it, the bartender told me it was their “West Coast” IPA. “West coast of the US or the UK?” I asked. “Well,” he smiled, “think of this as an English interpretation of an American interpretation of a classic old English style of beer.” Right he was: the American Chinook, Galaxy and Simcoe hops were unmistakable, but so was the fruity English Ale yeast. Another great combination of the old world and the new, all in one glass of beer!
Heading south towards London now, we pulled into West Berkshire Brewery. Opened over 20 years ago, they built a strong reputation as a brewer of traditional English Ales. Their Good Old Boy Best Bitter is one such staple: fruity, malty, buttery, and crisp, this is everything I dream of when I long for a pint of bitter. And its 19 awards would seem to indicate I am not alone in my admiration of it. They still make a great range of traditional ales, but recently they jumped in with both feet to start making innovative craft brews as well. Rather than blend the old with the new, as Purity have done, they chose to create a separate line called Renegade. From their West Coast Pale Lager to their Nouvelle Saison spiced with fresh ginger, lemon peel, and locally sourced honey, they are creating some amazing new flavors in the tanks right next to the beautiful bitters and stouts of yesteryear.
OK, London is a big place. I am not even going to attempt to cover the craft brewing scene there in a couple of paragraphs – just Google Bermondsey Beer Mile, and you will begin to get the idea. Having said that, I do find it interesting that as the craft beer revolution has swept across Great Britain in the past few years, even some of their most traditional breweries have started to fly their freaky craft flag.
Fullers, home of my beloved London Pride, is a good example. Founded in 1816, they are as old school as it gets. And in my book, they still do bitters better than anyone. But recently they have gotten into the craft beer craze through collaborations with myriad breweries on both sides of the Atlantic. The cringe-worthy name “Fullers & Friends” aside, they really have been producing some edgy stuff with this new project: New England IPA, Smoked Porter, Saison with New Zealand hops, Blackberry Gose. These are not your father’s beers. And it’s cool.
The final note I’ll make before leaving London is this: they really are doing a ton of wonderfully weird stuff there. The Brits can be a bit straight laced, but once they decide to let loose – well, let’s just remember who brought us Monty Python. The best example of this I found was at Beavertown Brewery – possibly the best known craft brewer in England at the moment. Their standard range of beers is already amazing and innovative and delicious – from their Smog Rocket Smoked Porter (9 malts!) to their Black Betty IPA (German black malt and Pacific West Coast US hops) to their 8-Ball Rye IPA (Southern Hemisphere hops with spicy rye malt). But walk next door into their new barrel room, and things really get crazy. As I gazed over the rows and rows of oak vessels, slowly adding their character to the beer, I came across one so odd I had to ask the brewer. “What is this ‘Jing A Lambic’?” I inquired. “Oh, that’s a collab we are doing with a Chinese brewery.” That’s right, a Belgian lambic being brewed with a Chinese brewery in the heart of London. I will definitely need to go back over to taste that one when it is ready!
We have all heard of the glorious hop fields of south eastern England. East Kent Goldings have always been one of my favorite classic hops, and the beers produced by Shepherd Neame – Britain’s oldest brewery – showcase these hops like no one else can. It is a great brewery that dominates the small town of Faversham in Kent. This was clear when we parked our car on the street and opened the door to be greeted with the sweet smell of wort boiling from several blocks away!
But Kent – the home of traditional English brewing – is also participating in the craft brewing revolution that is sweeping the country. And they are doing so while still staying true to their roots. Westerham Brewery is a prime example of this trend. Founded in 2004, the brewery set out to replicate many of the beloved old beers previously made by the Black Eagle Brewery that had closed in 1965. They recultured the yeast from Black Eagle, sourced the same water, and painstakingly recreated the recipes and process to bring back the beers that had been loved and lost decades before. They built a highly successful brewery based on these beers, and their Bulldog Bitter is among the best in the country in my opinion.
This was the Westerham that I visited and loved four years ago. So much so, that when I returned late last year, I sought them out again. What I found amazed me. Not only were they still producing the same “Classic Range” of bitters and stouts that I had fallen in love with before, but they had now expanded into a larger brewery and were producing a new “Craft Range” of beers as well. The latter included a really nice “American IPA” as well as two flawless continental lagers: a Bohemian Pils and a Munich Helles. As any homebrewer or professional brewer will tell you, it is not an easy thing to craft a perfect lager in a traditional ale brewery. But they have done it – twice.
So there you have it. England: the old, the new, and the weird all in one glorious, evolving beer culture! Yorkshire… what a county for beer. And how many Americans have ever heard of it? Other than in connection with a Terrier and a Pudding, probably not many. The Cotswolds, London and Kent are perhaps a bit better known to us Yanks, but not for the craft beer that they have begun producing in such wonderful abundance and quality.
You can’t get these beers here, so you must go there. We were so excited by this new craft beer revolution that we formed the British American Beer Company to help introduce the world to the great beers of England and New England. Whether you choose to join us on a tour or just strike out on your own, you owe it to your inner beer geek to make a pilgrimage to this glorious beervana. Taste the revolution!