My quest for real ale
Joking and patriotism aside, American beer is as boring as New Zealand beer. But then I'm biased. I first learned beer was more than a body-coolant on the canals of England where I spent the summer of '75 on a horse-drawn narrow boat, sampling one real ale after the next in village after unspoiled village. Jim the horse would choose a pint over a loaf of Hovis (whole-wheat bread) any day, and drank inside the bar at Willeymoor Lock (Whitchurch, Shropshire) more than once.
My favorite type of beer is 'real ale', a.k.a. English bitter. It doesn't taste bitter at all but must be drunk 'live' (un pasteurized), with the yeasty fermentation smell intact. This makes mass-production and distribution difficult and explains why "bitter" is virtually unheard of in the US - along with the fact that it's not as fizzy as Coca Cola. You can buy imported bottles or cans of English bitter, but without the live taste.
My second favorite beer is 'India Pale Ale' (IPA) or just 'Pale Ale' - developed in the 19th century for shipment to the English colonies. Extra hops preserved the beer en route and gave it the hempish aroma loved to this day by 'hop-heads'. The hops are sensed by the nose, not the tongue, and missed if the beer is too cold. That's why good beer should be drunk from an open vessel like a glass and only a few degrees below room temperature.
USA brew pub locator
To find a list of brew pubs in your state, go to www.beertravelers.com. Thanks to fellow beer-lover and Mac wizard Rich Apollo for the tip.
Since 1971 CAMRA (CAMpaign for Real Ale) www.camra.org.uk/ has been campaigning for real ale, pubs and drinkers' rights. It was my good fortune to reach England in 1975 when CAMRA's efforts had already brought delicious flavor back to beer in most pubs.
Seek out brew pubs and drink only live beer. How can I describe the difference between bottled beer and fresh, un pasteurized beer? Once you try it, nothing else will do.
If you must buy bottled beer, get the most recently brewed lot you can find, and insist on beer from the cooler. Beer loses its taste quickly if shipped or stored warm.
If you want to taste a good beer, drink it from a glass or mug so the nose can partake of the flavor. It's OK to drink Coors, Miller, Corona, Bud, and Coke from the bottle.
Drink good English-style beers about 5-10 degrees F below room temperature - cool enough to refresh but warm enough to release the aroma. Coors, Miller, Corona, Bud, Coke etc. should be consumed ice cold for the reason already given.
If you want to drink all night, avoid beers with high alcohol content like ESB or barley wine. Milder beers give a pleasant, sustained buzz without the hangover. If the beer's too strong, mix a little water with it - you'll be surprised how the taste survives!
This may sound trite but nothing spoils a good beer quicker than getting arrested, smashing your vehicle or accidentally killing someone. Don't drink and drive.
Once you couldn't buy this fine beer East of the Rockies. Every time I'm in San Fran I make sure to try the fresh stuff. As good as Sierra Nevada, which is a compliment.
Brakspear Best Bitter
If you ever get to England, head straight for the Cotswolds - a bucolic area of thatched cottages and quaint stone villages about 80 miles West of London. Once there go straight to Bourton-on-the-Water and have a drink by the little stream that runs through the main street. Order a Brakspear's Best Bitter. Have another. Watch the sun set. Find a room. Stroll back to the pub for bangers and mash and another Brakspear. Cancel any business or touring plans you had for the following day. Sell your plane ticket. Apply for beerlitical asylum. Buy an exorbitantly expensive house nearby. Settle down in one of the most pleasant areas of Britain. Argh! I can't stand thinking about it!
Brakspear - simply the best beer I've ever tasted. Worth changing your citizenship!
SAD NOTE: Returned to Bourton in 2003 to find Brakspear no longer available! (R.I.P)
HAPPY NOTE: Just informed (December 2009) that it's still in production. Will try it out on my next UK trip. Many thanks to Nigel Holder for the good news. (Not sure if it's still in the Cotswolds but Bourton's worth a visit anyway.)
After 30 years of failed attempts I've finally found decent English-style beer in Canada. Can't understand why all other Canadian beers are so tasteless. If you know one with some flavor let me know, but chances are I've already tried it.
Dragonmead Micro brewery
This place has a FABULOUS selection of real British ales, AND wireless internet. So of course I had to show off by putting them up on my site as I and my friends drank. (Worth a round or two!)
Later in the evening Kim (right) gave us the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable brew tour I've ever had. She's a micro-biology grad and introduced us to things I'd never heard of, like 'big' and 'little' sugars.
(Auckland, New Zealand)
Housed in the old Mt. Eden public library, this excellent brew pub not only makes the best English ales in New Zealand, but also sports a wonderful high-ceilinged colonial ambiance. If it weren't for the shorts and Jandals you'd swear you were in England. Their best brews are Bob Hudson's Bitter, Bellringers Best and Bitter & Twisted.
Island Honker's Ale
The flagship product of the best micro brewery in Chicago. Not as subtle as some, but worth the time it takes to find the brewery. If there's a better English-style brew pub in the Chicago area, let me know.
Samuel Adams Boston Lager
This was the first US beer I found that had a good hop flavor without tasting overcooked. The only variation worth drinking is Boston Lager - really more of a pale ale than a lager. Sam's other styles are OK at best, even the one they label Pale Ale, which is hoppy but tinny.
Like all beer, Sam is best drunk fresh and on-tap, which means close to one of the many breweries that make it. On rare occasions I've mistaken it for live real ale but the impression never lasted past the first sip. Bottled, it frequently tastes burnt, which indicates it doesn't travel well and should NEVER be purchased warm.
Sam is a reliable standby but not The Best Beer in America - although that's one of the cleverest trade marks ever registered.
The Ship Inn is in Milford, New Jersey, about 40 minutes from my house. They make an impeccable variety of English beers, including the ultimate elixir, Best Bitter. If you've graduated from Coors to Pale Ale but never tried true English bitter, be sure to visit the Ship. It's worth a road trip.
I just discovered the Ship recently. Can't believe it's been under my nose all these years. At last I can taste real English ale without a plane ticket.
Nevada Pale Ale
When in the West, drink Sierra first. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is just what it claims to be - a good pale ale. Well-hopped but not too bitter, it never seems to disappoint, except perhaps if it's been shipped warm (East- Coasters beware).