After a week in London, I’ve found two notable things about beers here. One is good: low-alcohol beers. The other is less good: taste.
First, on taste, I’m disappointed in the beers here. Many years ago, if you wanted good beer you looked for a beer from Germany or England for the finest beers. That was when Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors ruled the beer world in the US. If you wanted a lager, you found a German beer. If you wanted ale, the UK made the best. Not anymore. America’s craft beer industry has done an amazing thing for the reputation of American beer.
Fuller’s, a UK beer, is still my all-around favorite beer in the sense that if I could only have one beer the rest of my life, it’d be a Fuller’s ESB — it’s good all year round, bitter but not too bitter, and very drinkable. And I have enjoyed an ESB in the rare times when I can find it. I’ve even come to like their London Pride which, thankfully, is readily available. I also find it interesting to drink the low-carbonated hand pump cask beers (“real ales” to purists) mostly because those are so rare in the US. I’d prefer ESB to be more carbonated but the freshness is hard to beat. But I haven’t had an English beer that I’d ask for twice since I’ve been here.
One notable exception to this English beer problem is a beer I found in a grocery store: Meantime London Stout. It’s still not as good as the best stouts available in America, but it’s head and shoulders above any other English beer available here, in my experience. Meantime is a brewery I’ve heard good things about while in the US and didn’t realize they were located in England. It makes sense, they’re in Greenwich, as in Greenwich Mean Time. Of course, no pub that I’ve found serves any Meantime beers.
Last night I had a Leffe Blonde, mostly because I’d had all the other beers at the bar. In 2005, I really liked Leffe Dark but not Leffe Blonde. Maybe I’m used to the less flavorful British beers because Leffe Blonde, a blonde ale mind you, which means it’s supposed to be lighter in flavor, was astonishingly flavorful! Leffe is Belgian, not British, though.
The hop levels are also very low, despite most of the beers being called “bitters”. I’d hardly call anything I’ve had here “bitter”. Even their IPAs, which are billed as having a hoppier aroma and bitter taste, are only subtly more hoppier. Frankly, I wouldn’t know an IPA from a bitter here.
I have been very happy to discover that beers here are so low in alcohol. Beers seem to be mostly in the low 4% range of alcohol, which is about where drek like Budweiser is, and many as low as 3.7%. Budweiser is low in alcohol because they dilute their beer with corn and rice rather than 100% malted barley, which provides less sugars for the yeast to ferment into alcohol. Budweiser does it to keep their costs low (corn and rice is cheaper than barley) and to keep flavors to a minimum (corn and rice lack the richer flavor found in barley) because most Americans prefer their beer to taste more like water than beer. In comparison, British beers have much more flavor (and color) but they somehow manage to keep the alcohol low.
The alcohol content is also prominently displayed on the taps. This is why Brits can drink beer at lunch and have several pints after work. London Pride, for example, has 4.1% and ESB has 5.5%. At one pub, a drunk patron started a conversation with Havana and noticed we were drinking the “very strong” ESB. I think this might be why ESB is so hard to find, people don’t want such a strong beer. In comparison, a 7% alcohol beer is what I normally drink, 9% is also common (Old Rasputin) and I start to be careful when I have a 10-13%. 18% beers like 120 Minute IPA that sometimes make me suffer at their bitterness would absolutely devastate a British beer-drinker in terms of both alcohol and hoppiness!
There’s a relatively new official style of beer called “session beers”. This is a beer with less than 5% alcohol and is meant to be a beer that you can have in “drinking sessions”, i.e., lots of beers right after another without getting too drunk. Most British beers classify as session beers!
Aside from English beers, all pubs have a selection of imports. These almost always include Kronenburg, Heineken, Stella Artois and Guinness Stout. Those are three beers I don’t even look at in the US. There’s usually a tap or three of other beers from Europe. These are all on a CO2 which is nice for a change from the less-carbonated cask beers.