Putting Britain in a Box

A week or so ago I tweeted a request for pub recommendations in Bristol.  Actually, I asked which pubs were "cool" and got a lesson in transcontinental slang use.  Rephrasing, I asked for recommendations on the "best" Bristol pub.  The two-headed Cornish blogger (and book-writer!) Boak and/or Bailey suggested the Grain Barge--the place I will go for my birthday repast and pint.

A cool London pub, but by whose definition?
The whole exchange reminded me that whether we're calling it cool or best, the way Americans and Britons think about British beer is decidedly different.  Americans, when we think of England, imagine a scene somewhere between Dickens and Orwell: dark, wood-paneled pubs with a fire crackling in one corner and four old guys sitting at the bar in tweed driving caps nursing dimpled mugs of garnet mild.  Our minds conjure cask beer engines and low-alcohol bitters when we think of British beer, and the picture is frozen there.  The joke that British ale is warm and flat is, to the fan of these nostalgic evocations,is  actually a promise.  We can get damn near any kind of beer in the world in America--but good cask ale, served in 300-year-old buildings, is not among the general offerings.  For many of us (guilty!), the nostalgia is Britain.

People who actually live in England don't pine for our sentimental scenes.  In 2011, the only time I've ever visited the country, Fuller's John Keeling told me that ale then accounted for just 11% of all beer sales.  You go into an average pub, and you'll find lots of draft "extra-cold" lagers, and maybe two or three handles of cask (usually one vacant from disinterest).  You may actually see an old guy at the bar in a driving cap, but he'll probably be drinking a lager.  When I struck up conversations with these guys, they were always mystified that I liked cask ale.

British beer geeks have always had cask ale at hand, in a range that would look scandalously small to Americans.  For decades they saw the cold lagers and the same two or three types of cask ale.  So it's of course no surprise that they are delighted to find robust IPAs, saisons, and stouts starting to fill up specialty pubs.  To them a "good" pub is a place that attends to the beer and offers a decent selection of styles.  Cask ale is fine, but (regular, American-style) keg beer is, too--and it may dispense a lathery hop bomb of 6.5%.  Ask for a recommendation of a good pub from a British beer geek, and that wistful midcentury image in your head will not spring immediately into hers. 

The Grain Barge, for example, is a pub located on a boat in Bristol's harbor.  It is operated by the Bristol Beer Factory, a brewery that makes traditional cask ale but also hefeweizen, Belgian strong, stout, and American-style IPA.  If you spend much time reading the British blogs (as I do), you see a lot more interest devoted to beer from places like Bristol Beer Factor, The Kernel, Thornbridge, and so on than you do to the old CAMRA-extolled cask ales that come out of Victorian tower breweries.

The point--which probably could have been made Tweet-short--is this: Americans have a far greater interest in keeping Britain in its old cask ale box than Britain does.  Things are changing, and we Americans need to update our expectations and definitions.  "Good" doesn't necessarily mean what we think it does. 

Post Script: For those living outside the Western US who are not 35-55 years of age "cool" just means "good."  It may have once evoked Vince Guaraldi, but them days is long past.