Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Where is the traditional?

I do not claim to be an expert by any stretch of the imagination.  My experience with beer in the UK has been limited to one area, North Yorkshire, and for quite a short amount of time, two weeks, so it is difficult to claim that I have a broad perspective of the state of the beer industry in the UK.  But it is impossible to overlook the fact, that American craft beer has a profound influence on beer in the UK.  I have traveled across an ocean with hopes of being exposed to traditional English ales served properly in a proper setting, however, everywhere I go the “craft” beer being served is one variation after another of an American Pale ale.  It is quite obvious that the “cutting edge” breweries and the craft beer aficionados in the UK have come to reject the traditional flavors and styles that were once prolific in every pub in the country, replacing them with the ubiquitous American hop flavor.  As I pursue my inspiration for trying to bring traditional English ales to Chicago, it is becoming more and more apparent to me that my endeavor may also be helping to preserve an endangered style in its homeland.

Angel Inn in Leeds, a very traditional pub and one of many
Samuel Smith pubs.  Samuel Smith tied houses have changed
very little over time, maintaining low prices, but tending
to have a questionable reputations with many people.  
I was naïve to think that the UK that I had read about in literature, glamorizing the pub culture with hand pumps, casks, and traditional ales, would be left unchanged in the year 2015.  It is so easy to glamorize a place based on movies and books…to think that those stories of fiction or those generalized summaries of history carryon through time unspoiled and are a continuous reality of a place.  As I have endured the ever changing landscape of Chicago, with its fluid trends and fickle consumerism, there was a part of me that thought there existed across the Atlantic this land of tradition, where people valued meaningful things and appreciated good, traditional beer.  However, just like Chicago, people in the UK are ever chasing after the latest and greatest, most often overlooking the traditions that I have come to admire.

The Crane Bar in Galway, Ireland
This realization of my naiveté came to me even before I arrived in the UK.  I left Chicago a few days before I was to start work at the brewery so that I could spend some time in Ireland.   If anyone knows me at all, they know that I love Irish music – yet another dying tradition in this world.  I have sought good Irish music whenever I have the opportunity.  Columbus, OH was a great place for Irish music.  There I discovered one of my favorite bands, the Drowsy Lads.  However, my appreciation for the music always brought to mind this far off place where Irish jigs and reels were played night after night to a raucous crowd of pub dwellers whose glasses never ran dry of Guinness…who reveled in the musicianship and were united by the exuberant energy.  Well, come to find out, after a few days driving around Ireland, seeking the most well-known places for music, these places no longer exists as they once did.  They have been spoiled by tourists, just like me, sucking out every ounce of genuineness that remained of the once prolific Irish folk music pubs.  What remained were places which catered to the foreigner, playing well known tunes to a completely detached crowd.  Sure Irish folk music still exists and occasionally glimpses of genuineness shine through in these settings, but the stories and places that are immortalized in the songs only continue to exist through the songs…these places have changed just like everywhere else.

The Grove Inn in Leeds,  A fine pub with a very
cozy, traditional interior.
So with that experience behind me, I headed to the UK – dreaming of cask ale and lively pubs with
dark aging wood interiors, full of character and soul warming, log burning fireplaces.  And what is all too common in my experience so far…American Pales ales, lots of keg beer, stark white, devoid of character interiors, and far too few fireplaces.  Don’t get me wrong; traditional places still exist, traditional ales still exist…they are just much harder to find.  They are no longer the norm, they are now a novelty, a weekend escape, a reminder of what once was.  The UK, at least North Yorkshire, can no longer be defined by their idyllic portrayal.  What has replaced them is simply a sign of the public’s changing preferences, the society’s acceptance of trend over substance.

With my first two weeks in the UK not quite what I had imagined, I am not disappointed with what I have experienced so far.  I continue to seek out substance and genuineness in the places that I visit.  Moments and places continue to surprise.  Whether it be the dingy pub I walked into that welcomed me in like family or the incredibly well balanced traditional Mild ale that everyone told me not to get, I can see and taste hints of the traditional everywhere.  Instead of trying to conform this new place in which I find myself to fit my expectations, I am, instead, trying to experience everything with an open mind.  I’ll leave it to the movies and history books to paint the pictures of how life once was, and I will take it upon myself to make the most of the present and develop my own understanding of the actual place in which I am blessed to spend the next few months.  Come to think of it, that is quite in line with the meaning of the name of our brewery – Present Tense.

Traditional or not….I still have an unimaginable supply of amazing cask ale all around me…and that makes me very happy!

Real Ale Festival - Weatherspoon, Harrogate

A very well supplied cellar in Newcastle.

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