25 September 2019
I’m on my way to SEA Brew in Bangkok, and hope to post some reflections on that event in due course. But I’d first like to clear my head of my recent UK/Belgium/Holland beer trip (well, it was officially a family visit and a conference trip, but, you know…).
To be honest, I was not planning to write anything about the trip. I initially felt that the UK/European beer scene was my own scene, and as such that my take on it was inherently less interesting than my views on the nascent Asian brewing scene. But I’ve been prodded and corrected on this by a couple of people. It was actually my first trip back to home territory since I started brewing regularly over here in Asia. So perhaps that gives a twist to my perspective.
Fortunately I took plenty of notes on the 50+ brews I sampled during the trip. Rather than reproduce all that noise here, I’m going to try to summarise a few general reflections and high-points of the experience. These jottings are also filtered somewhat through time - it’s around 6+ weeks since I got back to the place I call home.
Let’s begin, as did my trip, in the UK. I was very keen to drink again the bitters and cask ales which form the backbone of my early beer memories (and, in many ways, the styles I hold in highest regard in my own brewing quest). I wanted to see how my own recent efforts compared with the real thing in its home setting, and gain some pointers and directions for the future.
We arrived in London during an unseasonably hot spell, with temperatures in the mid-high 30s (Celsius, of course). Perfect weather for light bitters, crisp lagers and golden ales fresh from the keg (and almost getting up to protein rest temperatures in the heat of the afternoon sun!). And the city delivered well.
Arriving late at night, I managed a couple of pints in the hotel before bed. The first was a Pale Ale from Camden Town Brewery. The brewery is now owned by AB-InBev, and, as I soon discovered, its beers are very widely available in London and beyond. It’s not where I would have chosen to start - but it was fast approaching midnight and had been a long flight. Still, there was something fitting about the beer - an American-hopped ale but brewed to the British palate, with a delicate hoppiness and a light malt base. Not bad at all.
Out in the heat the next morning, first stop was Borough Market for sundry food supplies (and a clutch of The Kernel Brewery bottles for later) . Of course I had to visit the Market Porter as soon as its doors were open. This pub never disappoints in terms of selection and how well served the ales are. First pour was Southwark Brewing Co’s Belair Park (brewed less than a mile away). And what a great starting point - a fresh golden ale with light, gentle citrusy hopping (that American twist but with British understatement again).
I wanted more. But I moved on to Pheasantry Brewing’s Single Hop El Dorado. Another British/American crossover, this one a slightly fuller and darker pale ale with a solid citrusy back-of-the-throat hoppiness. Final call of the morning was Big Smoke Brew Co’s Solaris Session Pale - a pint of pure magic. According to the verbiage, which I read after the fact, it’s an American Pale with Centennial/Cascade (does it get more classic American craft than this?), but you almost wouldn’t know given its light, intriguingly woody and herbal flavour. The morning session left me in a very happy place, optimistic for the trip. It was an auspicious start, and one that really set the tone.
Later in the day, thanks to a train delay, I managed a few more in The Euston Tap, housed in the station gatehouse. Most notable here was Redemption Brewing](http://www.redemptionbrewing.co.uk/)’s Trinity Session Pale, a medium-bodied golden ale with a surprising creamy head, slight sharpness on the nose and a firm bitterness. Delay resolved, we headed North, to Shropshire.
I’ve ended up itemising most of my first day in the country. To continue in this vain would risk giving the impression that all I did was drink ale. Suffice it then to say that I found many more delights in line with the joys that London brought forth during the following days. It seems that ale in the UK is really in quite a good state. I first got into real ale as a student in London in the early 90s. Trips back in the 2000s left me fairly disheartened, as many of the fine pubs I used to know converted to bars with a few badly served commercial lagers and kegged beers on tap. That trend has definitely reversed. In fact I’d say that the beers now are better and more varied than back in student days. The influence of American brewing is obvious, but in a positive way - absorbed and incorporated into local styles rather than displacing them.
What did I learn, then, for my own brewing? The thing which most impressed in the best ales I had was their lightness of touch. Malt flavours came though, but without being assertively malty; hopping was present, distinctive, often interesting, but rarely forward and overpowering. In short, the UK remains supreme, in my mind, as the home of the session ale, which demands restraint and technical mastery. And that was best exemplified in those delicate, unassuming–but ever-so-quaffable–golden ales which welcomed my back to the homeland. Can I replicate that thousands of miles away - with less fresh ingredients and without going to cask? Probably not - but I can certainly make it my yardstick.
My plane leaves shortly, and this piece already growing longer than I intended. So I’ll leave it here for now. And maybe pick up the Belgian/Dutch leg of this trip in a future post. See you in Bangkok. (And I’ll try to add some images later. Maybe.)