I have to confess that I am not a beer lover — I prefer a glass of wine with dinner, the occasional cocktail or pink champagne. However, with the approach of the Savannah Craft Brew Fest, which drew more than 4,000 attendees last year and takes place during the Labor Day weekend, I am reminded of the differences between traditional English beer and this patriotic American tipple.
Beer-like beverages were brewed by ancient civilizations, and it is thought that the process had originally been discovered by accident. That’s because almost any grain containing certain types of sugar can undergo spontaneous fermentation due to wild yeasts in the air. There is evidence of ancient Egyptians brewing beer, and we know the ancient Greeks enthusiastically embraced the tradition as the philosopher Plato said it was “a wise man who invented beer.”
The Romans acquired their knowledge of brewing from the ancient Greeks, but over time this civilization grew to prefer wine and considered beer as a beverage fit only for barbarians (primarily in Germanic regions). We must remember that throughout a great deal of history, and sadly still in some parts of the world today, safe drinking water was not always easily available, so brewed or distilled liquids were often a safe substitute.
In medieval Europe, most households brewed their own ale. But with the addition of hops the beverage began to be called beer. By the 15th century, beer making was moving from being a family-orientated activity to an artisan one with pubs and monasteries brewing their own for mass consumption.
Lager beer was discovered by accident in the 16th century after beer was stored in cool caverns for long periods. With the invention of the steam engine in 1765, the industrialization and mass production of beer became a reality, and the discovery of yeast’s role in fermentation in 1857 by Louis Pasteur gave brewers a method to prevent the souring of beer by undesirable micro-organisms.
Early European emigrants to the U.S., especially from Germany, brought their brewing skills to the New World, and before Prohibition there were literally thousands of breweries in America, most of which were brewing heavier European-style beers. Beginning in 1920, bootlegged beer was often watered down to increase profits, which began the trend of Americans preferring lighter beers
When I was a child in the England of the 1970s and 1980s, British TV shows and commercials demonstrated that if you wanted an American-style beer, you ordered a lager, and it probably came from Denmark, Germany or Ireland. A popular British soap opera was set around a traditional smoky pub where regulars always chose “bitter” or “mild” beer — which was always warm, cloudy looking and served in pint glasses or jugs.
The debate in the U.K. around what constituted real beer became more intense as newspapers dedicated columns and advertisements to anxious bearded men always shown wearing old sweaters (known as jumpers or pullovers in the land of my birth) debating the demise of “real” ale (which boasted esoteric names like London Pride or Old Peculiar or Bishop’s Thumb) at the hands of American imports.
This led to the setting up of an organization called the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). As late as 1992 the British Prime Minister John Major made a speech about England being a country of “long shadows on cricket grounds and warm beer,” as opposed to the sunny baseball fields and ice cold beer of the U.S., I assume.
As with many aspects of life in today’s globalized world, the spread of all things American and clever advertising by the big-name brands have significantly impacted the U.K. and certainly younger people tend to prefer an ice cold, lighter beer than the heavy, warm brew chosen by previous generations. Perhaps the fact that we now have good central heating in the U.K. makes these cold drinks more attractive in the cool, damp climate of my home country?
However, in the U.S. the gap is also widening the other way as the market for heavier craft beer is increasing dramatically compared to the rest of the alcoholic beverages market. Our very own Coastal Empire Beer, one of Savannah’s three craft breweries, is leading the way as its Savannah Brown Ale recently won a silver medal at the 2012 United States Open Beer Championship.
Whatever your preferred beverage (alcoholic or not), I know that with the Labor Day holiday approaching as we plan for our family barbecue and I head to the grocery store, my all-American husband will remind me of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote that “beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
God bless America!
Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009.