The UK vs the US – the gravity gap

Posted by on Nov 17, 2011 in American Beer, English Beer | 4 Comments

Our good buddies the Aleheads are never shy of an opinion or three, so when the duty rise kicked in at the start of October, I dispatched one of the Queen’s messengers to the colonies to get their reaction. Stateside brews are typically (although not always, of course) stronger and punchier than British beer, and Alehead Barley extorted us Brits to stand firm against the evil Government.* He then flipped the post around, to query just why Americans like nothing more than chugging (smaller) pints of enamel-stripping hop bombs, whilst over here we casually flounce our way through twenty milds of an afternoon.

Barley came up with six main headings – allow me to address them, in the respectful manner that befits the ‘special relationship’ between our countries (or is it ‘very special’ now? I forget which base Dave Cameron has got to with Barack Obama)

1. Differentiation from Big Beer Blasting out the multi-syllable words right from the start, Barley noted Prohibition deleted pretty much every small brewer in America, leaving a wasteland to be filled by macrolager. When the 1980’s brewing revolution arrived, everyone wanted to be different.

I can see this happening, the enthusiastic amateur homebrewers scaling up and letting their fantasies run wild. It would be like giving a Scalextric fan the chance to design a Formula 1 circuit – you’d end up with something that would give Princess Peach (the cheating b*tch) a run for her money. Over in the UK, we remember the 80’s only for Duran Duran videos (or at least I do). British brewing continued unabated, thanks to our own revivalists from the 1970’s.

Pub Drinking vs At-Home Drinking The next hypothesis was that we plummy Brits are constantly down the pub, whereas the Americans tend to favour more home-based drinking. As a result – we go for more, weaker beer, and they favo(u)r fewer, stronger triple dry-hopped Imperial whatnots.

I’ve been to more than a few cosy pubs in the USA – and had many more than a few solitary, slumped-against-the-fridge beers in the UK. We all know Americans live hundreds of miles from anywhere, and only travel over the state line during police chases – so locality must play a huge part. Many US drinkers have little experience with pub-based sessions. From my flat, I can probably pick from forty different pubs if I walk for twenty minutes – again, something Americans have little experience of (walking, I mean).

American Craft Experimentation Barley – in a non-boastful way – boasts that brewers over the pond just love to push the envelope a little more than we do.

Clearly, there are more than a few British brewers who experiment on a regular basis. But over there, the scramble to get noticed amongst all the other young pups on the craft scene (Sam Calagione excepted), inevitably leads to people doing many different things. I know the English have that reputation for being reserved (unlike the rest of the home nations, the reputations of which I won’t go into), but I think that’s kind of true.

One way to illustrate the inherent differences between people (and therefore by weak association; brewers) from the US and UK, is to recant something I saw on the tiny Scottish island of Iona a few years ago. With tourists scurrying everywhere, my Dad – rougeish Liverpudlian that he is – was sitting on a bench (where we often leave him). Another man sat next to him, a similarly aged tourist from the States. How do we know this? Because he was wearing a name badge that said “Dick Todgee, Iowa”. Americans think nothing of sporting name badges in public – because it facilitates interaction. My father, of course, shuns interaction at every opportunity.

Brewery-Owned Pubs Pub ties over here maintain the status quo, whereas over Stateside other than the occasional brewery tap, bars are largely independent and therefore free to sell what they want.

The big pubco’s in the UK do tend to limit choice – to a certain extent, as ‘guest ales’ are often in evidence. However, having said that there are certain parallels in both countries with the large breweries merging – whether it’s Molson and Coors or Bass and Whitbread. Over there – for market share. Here – market share + pub estates. Like a giant board game, over time the number of players decreases…

Historical Trends Finally, Barley fails to heed Basil Fawlty’s advice and mentions the war, quoting this chart from the Pub Curmudgeon showing the O.G. of British beer dropping during both World Wars.

The effects of two devastating conflicts that rocked Europe understandably reached every facet of life. The lack of ingredients, shortages of fuel, manpower, and difficulty of distribution made brewing particularly difficult – as Ron Pattinson expertly covers in his book War!. But everyone knows we Brits are a spunky lot, and Jerry wasn’t going to get in the way of our foamy warm beer for very long (although we did have help, of course).

I think Brother Barley is along the right lines when it comes to some of the differences between our two proud, beer drinking nations. Another main one was first raised by Steve Beer’s I’ve Known Lamond, who pointed out the simple reason we’d all failed to remember – tax. The difference of taxing on strength (as here) versus on overall outpout (as there), gives US brewers fewer reasons to hold back, when it comes to high abv brews.

Anyway, whatever the differences between the two – subtle or not – our great nations share a common bond – beer. As long as there are moustachioed Brits and cigar-chomping Americans, there’ll be a variety of beers out there to take away all of life’s problems…

*Much like Lincoln in his ‘cold dead hands’ speech at Gettysburg. Or something.


  1. Slouch Sixpack
    November 18, 2011

    A couple of notes while we prepare a proper retort:

    1. Had to look up the Scalextric reference, which I found in the Urban Dictionary. How vulgar yet quaint. Don’t you play video games over there?

    2. Your father is from Liverpool but you support Blackburn? Explain.

  2. Richard
    November 20, 2011

    1. Video games in the 80’s, other than Jet Set Willy or text-based rpg’s, couldn’t hold a candle to Scalextric. I spent many a happy afternoon on my knees buffing the track with a 2p coin, to make the cars go faster. The innocence of youth…

    2. It’s a long story involving my brother…

  3. Barley McHops
    December 1, 2011

    Rich, thanks for this thoughtful look at the ABV differences between the US and UK.

    Have you talked to brewers about how taxation affects their willingness to produce high-gravity beers? I agree that the tax rate is probably the primary reason for the “ABV Gap”, but I wonder how drastically it alters the beer landscape over the pond?

    What are some of the highest-gravity brews you can procure in the UK (other than the one-off BrewDog offerings)?

  4. Richard
    December 9, 2011

    The UK has always had plenty of stronger beer available, if you knew where to look – so I’m not claiming the last few years are unique. But there certainly seem to be more big beer available now than there was even five years ago. Certainly, a large part of this is down to BrewDog, but also of course the newer generation of brewers are being influenced more and more by what’s going on over the Atlantic.

    I’ve not spoken directly with any brewer about whether they are willing to push the gravity boat out, irrespective of the tax implication – other than smaller-scale producers who are experimenting as they establish themselves, or are too small to take any undue hits from the treasury. But it would be interesting to find out.

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