Comparing Britain and the US

A couple of days ago, judges at the Great British Beer Festival unanimously called Castle Rock's Harvest Ale Britain's best. The beer is a 3.8% blonde ale (or, variously, a pale or bitter) of apparently balanced hopping (read: modest). Last year, the GBBF designated a 4.4% mild its champion beer. In 2008, it went to a 3.8% beer, in '07 to a mild, in '06 and '05 to the same 4% pale, and so on.

The United States has no equivalen. At the Great American Beer Festival, beers are awarded by category only; there's no grand champion. Still, it is extremely difficult to imagine a scenario in which a beer of less than 4% would ever receive such a laurel in the US. (There were only 17 entrants in the mild ale category last year, one of the least competitive in the GABF.) Americans do not prize small beers. Were the GABF to designate a champeen (and they should), it would almost certainly go to a robust, probably barrel-aged beer. That's how we roll.

Obviously, part of this is structural. CAMRA conducts the GBBF and consequently hosts the judging, and CAMRA is keenly interested in the promotion of small, cask-friendly beers. We have nothing like that in the US. But it's not all structural. Castle Rock's Harvest Pale isn't the art-house pick of snooty critics--it's also a wildly successful beer:
In the last 18 months Castle Rock has been brewing at capacity due to the popularity of Harvest Pale, he added, and a new brewhouse will open in two weeks time, which will treble capacity.
Now, imagine the release of a modestly-hopped 3.8% blonde ale in the United States. See sixers of it sitting there, gathering dust, on grocery shelves? Look, there's your hand reaching for beer. It pauses briefly at the golden, but--impossible, you can't do it. May be a great beer, but you palm the relatively burly Mirror Pond instead. A 3.8% beer? No one would buy it.

Some folks lament the direction of American brewing toward the ever stronger, more intense beers. Hell, there were twice as many imperial red ales entered at last year's GABF than milds. American brewers make these beers because they sell. I don't lament it at all. It is, by very slow accretion, the emergence of our national character. It's very cool that Britain produces and consumes lots of lovingly-crafted wee ales. It's so British. But it's also cool that the Americans, brash, lacking subtlety, the volume perpetually at 11, love their crazy hop bombs. It's who we are.

Vive la différence.