Thursday, 14 July 2016

Local History

A comment by Gary Gillman on a recent Boak and Bailey post got me thinking:

"[...] another way to distinguish viz America is use English hops – Fuggle, Golding, Target, Challenger, Northdown, in quantities which are historical and helped to make the fame of English brewing what it was."

(There's a lot more to Gary's comment than this, but this is the bit that set me off on this particular train of thought...)

I've got a massive natural suspiciousness towards contrived bids for local distinctiveness. Historically, really interesting local traditions mostly seem to have evolved by brewers building on local experience to satisfy local tastes while dealing with local constraints, not out of someone sitting down and saying "yeah, but how can we make something that's more distinctive to our area?" Better understanding of brewing science and the easy availability of a range of international ingredients have removed a lot of the constraints - a brewer in Norwich can economically mix Belgian yeast with American hops, German malt and Burton water - but local experience and local tastes are still there. This is why California and Vermont are still places of pilgrimage for fans of US IPA despite the worldwide availability of all the ingredients and why, for my money, the hoppy light ale is a more interestingly British contribution to the world of beer than any amount of faffing around with forced rhubarb or foraged herbs is likely to produce. It's also why I've got no problem with British craft brewers - or anyone else - brewing in the "international style" of IPAs and coffee porters, because it seems almost inevitable that local branches of those family trees will also start to evolve.

However, beers brewed to historic recipes fascinate me. I could be convinced that this is just me being inconsistent. But I think I can come up with something in my defense.

A historic recipe isn't interesting because it's local. To some extent it's interesting because it is, in a very small way, an experience of a previous time - a direct connection with history. But as well as being a liquid museum piece, it's also interesting because the beer is probably actually quite good. London Porter and Burton Pale Ale didn't conquer the world by being "quite interesting". They did it by being, to the tastes of the time, "awesome" - like, world-beating, Ratebeer Best type awesome. And something which is awesome in a way that you haven't really experienced before - a way that you might take a while to get tuned into - is something that's really quite exciting to try.

Which is why, possibly modulo getting a better setup for brewing strong, hoppy beers, it won't be long until I have a bash at a historic IPA recipe.

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