When did we get so boring?

Maybe we’ve always been boring. Or stable, reliable, traditional, steadfast, stalwart or any number of euphemisms that describe a people for whom change is frowned upon. Because, as a culture, we like things just the way they are.
Or do we? In the beginning, there was real ale. Then came kegs, lager and smoothflow. Next came Watney’s Red Barrel, CAMRA and micro-breweries. In a mere 20 years between 1960 and 1980, the UK beer scene went from throwing wooden spears to slinging AK-47s. And then it got boring again. Why?
Whilst maintaining our staunch stand as traditionalists, we in the UK also love new things — but only if they don’t ask us to stray too far from our comfort zone. We love fashionable clothes as long as we don’t have to lose weight to wear them. We love ethnic food as long as we can get chips on the side. And we love exploring any new place where there’s a hot shower and the barman can speak English (bad news for Scotland!).
Likewise, we’ve been more than willing to embrace any new fad that the beer world has to offer, that is, as long as none of it tastes too… well… different.
In the past ten years there has been a toe-curling relapse into familiar flavour territory in an industry that elsewhere is expanding quicker than Gordon Ramsay’s ego. While Holland, Belgium, Australia, France, Canada, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway and other countries look at old recipes with new eyes and explore untraditional ingredients and flavour combinations, we’ve had our mid-life crisis and now prefer to return to the comfy chair to live out our lives in familiar surroundings. True, a handful of Scottish brewing companies are trying to push the UK beer envelope – Brew Dog, Innis & Gunn (well, maybe it’s slightly less than a handful) — but they’re finding that feeding adventurous palates abroad is more fulfilling than trying to rouse the natives from their slumber.
I guess hadn’t realised how bad things had gotten until I went back to the States recently.
Students of American brewing know that British ales were the first to catch the attention of seminal microbreweries such as New Albion, Anchor and Grant’s. Top-fermenting and quick to brew, recipes for styles like ESB, Scotch Ale, IPA and Porter were adapted for use with local ingredients. Add a sprinkling of American curiosity for new flavours, and these centuries-old beer styles morphed into something new and wonderful.
Technology-addicted America was happy to adopt pressurised kegs as the standard dispense of draught beer in the 1960s, and real ale survives today only as a curiosity in brewpubs and adventurous specialty beer bars. As a result, America has joined the rest of the planet (except the UK) in packaging its best draught beer in kegs.
We walked into our first of many (and I mean many), randomly-selected bars, this one in Brooklyn, and were greeted by no less than 10 microbrewery beer taps – half of them local, most of them representing beer styles that that are unfamiliar in the UK, all of them ranging from 5% – 10% and not one of them was a nationally-advertised lager. Far from it – at this one bar alone, there was Apricot Beer, Imperial Pilsener, Honey Nut Brown Ale, Black Chocolate Stout and more.
In other words, not boring.
We went on to visit Philadelphia, Chicago and Indianapolis, and were met (particularly in Philadelphia) with more of the same. Miles and miles of taps offering well-brewed, interesting-tasting microbrews whose names contained only the occasional bad pun. Even the most-faceless sports bar offered a variety of draught microbrewed Altbier, Witbier, Weizenbock, Milk Stout or Triple IPA to choose from. And more striking was that restaurants – from the average grimy pizza joint to the sparkling Michelen-starred temple – had bigger beer lists than wine lists!
To put the icing on the cake, we noticed that that some UK breweries save their most-exciting beers for export: we didn’t see a single Behaven Best pump, but had no trouble finding their Scottish Stout (7% ) and Wee Heavy (6.5% ) in bottles. Are we being denied varied beer experiences here by breweries, or has our taste for a narrow range of flavours doomed them to go elsewhere to hawk their specialty beers?
Back in Blighty for our final night, we decided to hop on a train to Brighton as part of our goal of visiting the UK’s top sea-side resorts before we die. (Pathetic, isn’t it?) After a trip to the Pier for a cup of jellied eel and the obligatory gut-wrenching ride on a salt-pitted roller-coaster, we strolled back into town and stepped into a cosy-looking pub for a pint.
Fresh from our two-week orgy of beery delights, I wasn’t particularly tempted by the ranks of insipid real ales competing for the title of Blondest, Blandest and Weakest, nor the vast array of factory-brewed keg lagers distinguished from one another only by their advertising campaigns. Frustrated by the difference in draught options to those in Chicago just 24 hours earlier, I scanned the cooler for something festive. Ah, yes, there we are, tucked in the back corner.
I asked the barman for a couple of bottles of Duvel. Just then, a young couple strode up to the bar beside me. The bloke threw back his head and declared, mightily, “I’m gonna drink as much alcohol tonight as I can hold — lager and lime, please.” I turned to them and smiled weakly, as one does when faced with ambition even loftier than ticking Skegness off the bucket list. Spying my bottles of Duvel, the bloke asked me what they were. “This is a Belgian ale,” said I. “If you want to reach your goal tonight, maybe you want to try this – it’s 8.5%.”
His jaw dropped and his pupils dilated as he began looking at the bottles, then at me, then back at the bottles, like some dumbfounded cartoon character. “Have you ever had it before, mate?” he asked. “I’ve been drinking this stuff for years,” I answered. “It tastes fantastic, but the best thing about this beer is you get to spend less time in the loo and more time at the bar with your girl.”
The barman congratulated me on my choice. The publican unknowingly thanked me for making him twice the profit of the typical lager purchase. And I could have been mistaken, but I’m pretty sure the bloke’s partner shot a wink at the guy who wasn’t ordering a boring beer.
Jim Anderson is co-owner of The Anderson in Fortrose, and had trouble finding good beer in Blackpool, too.

Category: Features
Tags: Beer, Camra, dram, jim anderson