Beer Matters

Hop Thoughts from Abroad – part 3

“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy” – Benjamin Franklin.


I must apologise for not having produced a column for a few weeks but I have been doing some research across the Atlantic. There is a common preconception in this country (largely fostered by the ubiquitous Budweiser) of American beer as being cold, gassy and bland. The giants of the US brewing industry (Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Miller) do indeed churn out vast quantities of “fizzy yellow beer” and presumably millions of Homer Simpsons must put it down their necks, but I was easily able to drink there for three weeks without touching the stuff.

Max at the Black Sheep, Philadelphia

The alternative is known as “craft beer” and has what amounts to a cult following in the States. Around the country there are numerous micro-breweries and brewpubs, supported and promoted by regional magazines and websites like It would seem to be a growing but volatile market. The number has undoubtedly increased since my previous visit in 1997, but sadly the Commonwealth Brewery, whose beers I greatly enjoyed then, has recently closed and several others on my shopping list (compiled from the internet shortly before the trip) were no longer in existence but alternatives were readily found.

Being small, the craft breweries, like their counterparts in this country, have the flexibility to produce a wide variety of beer styles, both top and bottom fermented. Typically there are ales, stouts and lagers from the British and European traditions as well as local styles, like amber ale and steam beer, and seasonal brews; at the time of my visit Oktoberfest (dark lager) and pumpkin ale featured prominently. On average, ales are stronger than at home; they don’t go in for 3-4% session beers.

Bluebeery Ale

“Draft” beers are normally dispensed by top pressure although it is not usually so intrusive as to affect the flavour. Temperatures tend to be cold by our standards, albeit better in the brewpubs than in some less enlightened places, but you can always ask for a warm glass. Handpumps are not common but some pubs did offer one or two “cask” beers. Interestingly these were often too warm (i.e. room rather than cellar temperature) and the quality variable (the familiar problems of “end of the barrel” and “insufficient turnover”), although the best beer I tasted was a cask-conditioned bitter (see HopDevil below).

The atmosphere is generally not unlike an English pub. There is a tendency to usher you to a table and thrust menus into your hands – not necessarily what you want immediately after ringing – but the staff will usually humour you if you want to sit at the bar and pay as you go.

Click here for full tasting notes. Here is a selection of the best and/or most interesting:

Beer Works (Brewpubs – Brookline and downtown Boston, MA) Back Bay IPA (6.5%). Seriously hoppy, fruity and full-bodied.   ****

Ditto Bunker Hill Bluebeery Ale (4.0%). Slightly sweetish amber ale with pronounced blueberry flavour. Served with a spoonful of blueberries that rise and fall on bubbles of gas.   ***

Brewer’s Alley (Brewpub - Frederick, MD) IPA (5.4%). Good strong bitter, fresh hoppy nose, well-balanced but slight metallic aftertaste.   ***

A tower of Cambridge Amber

Cambridge Brewery (Brewpub - Cambridge, MA) Cambridge Amber (4.9%). Well-balanced, dark ale, went down very easily.   ***

Ditto Red God (8.0%). Thick and meaty but with a good balancing dose of hops.   ***

Capitol Brewing Company (Brewpub - Washington, DC) Amber Waves. Easy drinking, well-balanced bitter.   ***

Ditto Prohibition Porter (6.0%). Classic porter with typical roast malt and chocolate flavours.   ****

Heartland Brewery (Brewpub - New York, NY) Red Rooster Ale. Malty but not sweet and cloying, fairly bitter finish.   ***

Ditto Smiling Pumpkin Ale. Cloudy, orange colour, spicy aroma, definite pumpkin flavour, cherry and cinnamon notes, marzipan finish.   **

John Harvard Brewhouse (Brewpub - Washington, DC) Cask Pale Ale. Handpumped. Smooth Midlands-style bitter, long hoppy finish.   ***

Magic Hat (South Burlington, VT) Fat Angel (5.2%). Bottled. Hoppy, well-rounded, tasty. A good standby in the hotel bar.      ***

Nodding Head (Brewpub - Philadelphia, PA) BPA. Fresh hoppy nose, fruity flavour, long bitter finish, very “moreish”.   ****

Ditto 60 Shilling. Scottish style ale. A good session beer for non-hopheads.   **

Arrogant Bastard Ale

Rock Bottom (Brewpub - Boston, MA) Improper Hopper. Beautiful hoppy ale. Pity there was only time for one.   ****

Southend Brewery and Smokehouse (Brewpub - Charleston, SC) O’ Ryan’s Stout. Medium bodied, malty, coffee and vanilla flavours, bitter finish.   ***

Stone (San Marcos, CA) Arrogant Bastard (7.2%). “Fizzy yellow beer is for wussies”. Aggressive beer with an interesting nose, very bitter with dandelion and coffee flavours.   **

Victory (Downington, PA) HopDevil (6.7%). Handpumped. Wonderful rich, fruity, very hoppy ale – a cross between ESB and Landlord.   *****

Anyone going to Philadelphia? Please take a bottle of Black Sheep and you will be welcomed with open arms at the pub of that name (17th and Latimer Streets). Their one bottle is jealously guarded but they kindly allowed me to be photographed with it.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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