The New British Indie Scene: Beer to Swear By

British drinkers of my generation grew up knocking back gaseous, industrially produced, primarily foreign lagers. I should know; I was amongst them. God knows why; perhaps because everyone else was doing so? Regardless, it went against my otherwise consistent support for the underdog, the small business, the “indie,” and at some point in the 1990s, as it occurred to me from the distance of my new American home that I’d grown up ignoring the very substance that made British pubs the envy of the beer-drinking world, I decided to make amends by purposefully sipping the local bitters on evenings back in Blighty. Sadly, I almost inevitably found myself in a ridiculed minority of one. My friends simply didn’t want to know from their Fosters and their Holsten. I felt like a saddo. Like some last remnant of the cloth cap brigade.

But I stuck to my guns. Because in the States, meantime, every passing month appeared to herald the opening of a new micro-brewery; every trip to a different part of the country yielded new discoveries, the quality ever improving to the point that our family camping trip to Vermont last year inadvertently doubled up as a Quality Beer Drinker’s Trip to Paradise. Indeed, in a strange flip of conventional corporate fashion, when it comes to beer America business has been emulating the best of British, while Britain – especially with mass-produced American beers Corona and Rolling Rock joining Budweiser as bottled so-called “alternatives” to pints of lager – has been doing the precise opposite.

But perhaps no more. In my last few trips back to the UK, I have observed an emphatic (and emphatically overdue) switch in tastes. From the Nicholson’s chain of quality nation-wide pubs, with their rotating guest ales that have served me well from Beverley to Liverpool Street, on through the local fondness I’ve witnessed for Sussex Brewery Harvey’s Best Bitter in my best friend’s home town of Bexhill, it’s evident that a significant percentage of British beer drinkers are opening up their palates, demanding more of quality that is local, or at least what in America we call micro.

I can’t print this picture often enough. A picture of Harvey’s Best that looks good enough to drink.

The new indie beer scene might be most evident from my visit in March to Common. Located in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, it’s a hipster hang–out that hosts regular fanzine and bring-your-own-records nights, and yet which also stocks a bar top full of cool taps, leaning a little heavily towards Germanic/Belgium fashions perhaps (Franziskaner, Leffe and Hoegaarden), but with Flowers Original and the Westons Stowford Press Cider on permanent pour and a “guest cask ale pump” featuring “various beers sourced from local microbreweries & some from farther flung places, hand picked to suit the setting and season.” It doesn’t sound like rocket science – in fact, it sounds perfectly obvious – and yet just a few years ago, the likes of Common would have been anything but. (Sadly, my only beer was of the ginger variety; I was hard at work on an interview. But even getting a ginger beer at a bar would have proved impossible in the very recent past.)

This open-mindedness in drinking taste was evident everywhere I went in the UK this March. For example, when I stopped in at my friend Chris Coco’s early Sunday evening DJ at the Lock Tavern in Chalk Farm, I was happy to try (and enjoy) Cornish brewery Sharp’s Doom Bar Bitter, while at the same time, Chris and his partner were making the most of their current fave, Scottish brewery Innis & Gunn‘s bottled Oak Aged Beer. Neither brewery was from within 200 miles of our London location, but each of these relative newcomers to Britain’s brew scene has made a sufficient impact in a short time as to find themselves with a ready audience in an increasingly willing Capital.

But hey, this is not just about what London is drinking these days.Visiting Burnley for the first time to see the match against Palace, I was pointed to the relatively young Bridge Bier Huis by the train station, which welcomed home and away football fans alike, all of whom were far too busy sampling from the vast array of local and guest ales to get caught up in any heated exchanges over team colours. It was lunchtime when we got there, and it had not been my intent to drink that early, but how could I be in such a classically northern town as this and possibly resist a taste of Bank Top Brewery’s Flat Cap Ale from neighbouring Bolton? (Described as a “pale bitter” with citrus notes, it comes in at 4% alcohol and delivers everything you’d want from a pre-match pint of the local.) A quick visit to the Bier Huis’ web site reveals that as of March 18 2011, the pub was serving three types of Manchester brewery Hyde’s along with a Moorhouse’s Amber Rambler, and a Wooden Hand Cornish Gribben, whatever that might be, all for the ridiculous non-London prices of £2.40 a pint or less. Only the Broakoak Cider Premium Perry costs more (£2.80), and at 7.5% alcohol, you can understand why. Like many a modern British pub – and the Bier Huis appears to be less than five years old – they also make a great cup of coffee; a strong Americano and I was ready to see Palace keep up their record as worst away team in the Championship.

A small picture of a big pub: the Bier Huis in Burnley as seen from above

Twelve hours after stopping in at the Bier House – now you know why I hadn’t planned to start early! – a friend and I retreated to the Scarisbreak Hotel in the (to us, surprisingly) leafy and affluent seaside town of Southport, after a night at the local Northern Soul club. I’d already noticed when booking it that the hotel had a Real Ale bar alongside its somewhat generic imitation Irish one, and I suppose I should be glad it was still open at 1:30am so I could report back on it. Considering that it’s tucked into a hotel (though it’s open to the public during regular hours), the Barons Bar is impressive indeed, with several rows of guest ales, and its very own session beer, “Flag and Turret.” I tipped my night cap instead towards the Pride of Pendle by the same Moorhouse Brewery that services the Bier House in its Burnley home town. Like the Flat Cap earlier in the day, it was brewed in native Lancashire, full of flavor, easy on the alcohol and long on taste. Again, why did I waste my youth on lager?

South London’s own Sambrook names its excellent Wandle Beer for the river that wends through Wandsworth.

And yet it’s not just the pubs that are serving up quality beers for the football fans. At Selhurst Park in South London for the Palace-Reading game, I was delighted to find a local ale, Wandle, being served – in the Board Room, and straight out of a mini-keg! Better yet, it was also being served all around the ground as part of a rotating menu of real (and primarily local) ales on match days. How has this initiative gone down with the fans, the segment of society most closely associated with the Carlings and Carlsbergs of this world? Put it this way, the club has just announced its inaugural Crystal Palace Beer Festival, to take place at Selhurst Park on Saturday May 14th 2011, from 12pm until 9pm, during which time “a host of quality premium ales from around the country will be available (as well as food and live entertainment), while the FA Cup Final will be shown live at the event.”

The Beer Festival is being sponsored by Battersea-based Sambrook’s, a baby Brewery which stamps it beer mats and taps with the motto “Brewed in the Heart of London.” This may well be a reference to the fact that Sambrook’s showed up on the scene in 2008, shortly after the famous Young’s Brewery from down the road in Wandsworth (itself named for the river Wandle) merged with the Charles Wells Brewery and moved production up to Bedford. Young’s still owns a number of pubs in South London, including Brixton’s Trinity Arms, where I enjoyed Charles Wells’ seasonal cask ale, the Banana Bread Beer, which tastes almost incongruously like its name would suggest. Packing a solid 5+%, it’s the kind of flavored – some would say novelty – beer that’s proving increasingly common in the American marketplace, where fruit flavors and spice infusions are increasingly common amongst the mavericks of the micro-brew scene, where the intent appears to make beer drinking fun every bit as much as to pronounce it a craft.


British beers are suddenly so popular that the National Trust has even got in on the act. Photo from the Beer Justice web site.

Flavoured beers then, might be an American idea slowly being adopted in the UK, but the Pale Ale and, especially, the India Pale Ale, are British institutions rapidly being mastered by the Yanks. That makes it all the more exciting that when I stopped into my friends’ Pub Quiz night at the rather optimistically-named Mansion in my childhood bus-stomping ground of Gypsy Hill  (the pub’s turnaround from the former no-go Paxton Arms itself an important signifier of pub rejuvenation), I was impressed to see a series of National Trust bottled beers in the fridge. Introduced only in the last 15 months, they’re produced by the Westerham Brewery in Kent, and appear fully designed to promote the most empirical of British, as evidenced by the name of the Viceroy India Pale Ale, which uses hops from the Trust’s own Scotney Castle in Kent. Sold in 500ml bottles, and for  a pretty penny too (this is a boutique beer and no mistake), the Viceroy IPA may not have been so spectacular that it put American IPAs back in their place, but it convinced me that this is still a style that the British can do as well as anyone – when they put their minds to it, that is. I’m not as good with beer critiquing as I am with wine, so I will repeat instead what the Beer Justice site said of the Viceroy: “The flavour is big, with a spicy hop bitterness that envelopes the tasty honey and apricot sweetness. The finish is long, dry and bitter to the end. This beer is delicious, the bottle carbonation giving enough tartness to cut through the resinous, peppery hop character… A very distinct and complex beer.”

Is this then the last word in IPAs? Most certainly not, as a trip to Cask in Pimlico made clear. Although, now I think of it, Cask might possibly the last word in craft pubs – unless some other joint plans increasing on the hostelry’s astonishing collection of 500 bottled beers from around the world, a printed beer list heavier than the wine list at Le Cirque, and a range of draft beers from the sublime to the sensational – all available to take home. Cask is what you would call a “destination pub” – a place you go out of your way to visit. I did so on my last night in the UK and will report on it in a separate post. Believe me, the pub merits it.

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