A green and pleasant land

By Peter Bailey.

“Mooshiepeash” said the grimy old workman to me in a northern England pub in 1986. After a pint of bitter, I understood him: he was suggesting the local delicacy of black sausage and mushy peas.

I was in England on a post-university European tour. I was on a quest for good beer. I didn’t know much about British beer but, by God, I was eager to learn. The little I did know was thanks to Patrick Devaney and his English pubs in Edmonton.

In 1978, the Rose & Crown Pub opened downtown in the Four Seasons Hotel (now Sutton Place). A recent Irish émigré, Devaney was appointed manager. Later he created the Sherlock Holmes pubs, Devaney’s Irish Pub and Moriarty’s Wine Bar. In 2004, he came full circle, buying the Rose & Crown and restoring it to its former glory. In March 2013, Devaney sold all his pubs after almost 40 years of serving pints.

The Rose & Crown was the first place in Edmonton to have a stand-up bar and one of the few places to try an English beer like Double Diamond pale ale. In the early 80s, bored with beer barns like the Strathcona, my pals and I would head there for something different. We were the youngest people there, so sometimes a friendly oldster would buy a round for the college kids.

When I went to Europe in 1986, I understood from my Rose & Crown education that Great Britain was one of the world’s great beer nations, the home of ales — pale ale, bitter, porter and stout. But I had much to learn when I stumbled off the train and into an Earls Court pub one afternoon. Decades later, I can remember the sun glancing through the smoky haze as I took a sip of my first pint of real English bitter.

A life-changing moment.

As I travelled north from London, I learned how traditional English ale had been losing the war against modernity. Cask-conditioned ale is fragile and requires care in shipping, storage and serving. In the 1950s and 60s, the UK beer industry consolidated into just a few major brewers and they looked for efficiencies. They substituted filtered, carbonated and pasteurized keg beer, like Double Diamond, for traditional cask ale. As well, while older Brits held on to their beloved bitter, believing British Is Best, the post-war generation turned increasingly to continental European lagers.

Indeed, in Preston, Lancashire, a cousin my age was amused by my love of English bitter, calling it “old man beer.” He and his friends drank lager.

British cask ale lovers fought back, forming CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale in 1971. CAMRA sparked a revival of independent breweries, pubs and cask ale. By the time I visited in 1986, I did, indeed, find cask ale around the UK. However, CAMRA stalwarts mainly looked backwards, valuing tradition over innovation at all times and British beer stagnated as the North American craft beer revolution erupted overseas. Eventually even the old sod changes — it just takes longer.

In 2002, the UK tax on beer was restructured to encourage small breweries, with dramatic results. Today, there are almost 900 British breweries, many combining a respect for tradition with an enthusiasm for new ideas.

I wonder what my late great-uncle would think of the changes to British beer. He was in his late 70s when I told him I was travelling to Scotland the next day. “Scotland?” he replied wistfully, “I’ve always wanted to travel there.” Scotland is less than a two hour drive from Preston. My great uncle was thinking local and living slow years before it was cool.

Recently we have seen more English beer making the trek across the Atlantic to Alberta shelves, including unique beer from independent English craft brewers. Many of these beers are bottle-conditioned, as with cask ale, meaning after bottling they retain a little yeast which continues to develop or ‘condition’ the beer.

AdmiralSt. Austell Admiral’s Ale, Cornwall, England

St. Austell Brewery was founded in 1851 but really turned a corner in 1999 with the arrival of Roger Ryman as head brewer. Ryman is a master at melding tradition with innovation. Here Cornish barley is blended with European and American hops for a unique take on English pale ale. 2010 CAMRA Best Bottle-Conditioned Beer.

bettySkinner’s Betty Stogs Bitter, Cornwall, England

Founded in 1997, Skinner’s is an independent, family-owned brewery just down the road from St. Austell Brewery. Betty Stogs bitter, the Queen of Cornish Ale, is a great traditional English bitter with a malty nose and a touch of New World citrus tart. 2008 CAMRA Best Bitter.

moorMoor Merlin’s Magic, Somerset, England

Moor Beer began life in 1996 on a dairy farm near Glastonbury. It was purchased in 2007 by a Californian, Justin Hawke, who marries traditional English ales with a touch of the robust flavour of California craft beer. This bottle-conditioned best bitter is smooth with a touch of biscuit and hoppy spice.

MeantimeMeantime London Porter, London, England

Founded in Greenwich in 1999, Meantime is helping to re-establish London as a great brewing city. Brewer Alastair Hook is revered for his dedication to researching and recreating beers from the past, like this fabulous rendition of a classic London porter from a 1750s recipe. Rich, dark, complex and delicious.

kiplingThornbridge Kipling South Pacific Ale, Bakewell, England

The philosophy of ‘never ordinary’ has helped Thornbridge rocket to success from its founding in 2005. Owner Jim Harrison hired an Italian head brewer and an international team with diverse brewing backgrounds. Innovation is shown with their use of the fruity Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand, giving this English pale ale an exotic citrus twist.

durhamDurham St. Cuthbert Special India Pale Ale, Durham, England

A home-brewing hobby became an occupation in 1994 when husband and wife teachers Christine and Steve Gibbs were laid off. Assured on the label that this beer is “suitable for vegans,” this bottle-conditioned IPA is thoroughly English but with a modern touch from American and Czech hops.

Peter Bailey learned all the words to The Black Velvet Band at the Rose & Crown and will sing them for the price of a pint of pale ale. He tweets as @Libarbarian.