A beer for every region!
Talk of English devolution got me thinking. At first beer was, unusually nothing to do with any of thoughts, but memories of history lessons about Anglo-Saxon England and the original divisions of England emerged, before those pesky conquering Normans came along with their Dukes and Doomsday Books. I checked a few blogs and websites on devolution and came up with a modern version that might work today, dividing England up into modern day provinces that represented some historical roots but allowed for modern populations etc. etc…..’but what the hell does this tangent have to do with beer?’ I hear those of you still reading ask.
Well, in states and provinces in other countries, there are state flowers, provincial birds and trees, so if England were to divide up into provinces why not have a representative beer style? Ok so there are probably lots of reasons but this is just a bit of fun!
Capital Idea: London.
There are a couple of nominations for the beer choice of the capital, including IPA, as London was where the forerunner to the modern style was initially developed and exported to India. I felt that the home of IPA in its heyday was not in London but further north, and the real beer of London has to be the one that took its name from those that carried the goods around the city in the 18th and 19th centuries. The ticket porters (tickets were the metal badges that they wore as a licence to work) were the lifeblood of the worlds most important trading centre 200 years ago, and the beer that slaked their thirst was named after them. This classic was also known as ‘entire butt’ due to the brewing process used by the breweries that were, in effect, mass-producing this beer for the new industrial working classes in London, but it is better known as Porter. This beer lubricated a city and has become synonymous with it. The new wave of craft breweries in London are embracing the style and it has now been given new life and a prominence it deserves.
Beer of London: Porter
The Mysterious East: East Anglia & Home Counties.
This may be a bit of fusion of two areas but my main thought here is that it contains the two counties most associated with traditional hop growing: Kent and Sussex. The hop is the ingredient that seems to be most revered by modern brewers, and we are now understanding them in the same way sommeliers understand grape varietals, with soil, terroir and climate all adding to their various flavours and aromas. The style that has showcased the English hop so well over the past 250 years has been Bitter and pale ale. Hoppy pale ale emerged with the development of IPA in the 18th century, and was in contrast to the relatively low-hopped ales that were also sold at the time. These hoppy pale ales were colloquially know as ‘bitter’ by those that drank them and the name stuck. Today bitter can be found around the world in its various guises and New World interpretations, but the home of the hop in Britain lies within this region and I think Bitter should be their official beer!
Beer of East Anglia & Home Counties: Bitter
The Borderlands: Mercia
Mercia translates as border country in Anglo-Saxon, and referred to the kingdom that sat uncomfortably for many years next to Wales, until King Offa defined a more permanent boundary with his dyke. Nowadays this area roughly translates as the much more prosaically named ‘Midlands’, but as a history enthusiast, I like Mercia a lot more! This was a tough one to decide as the industrial heartland in the ‘Black Country’ consumed many millions of barrels of Mild over the years, so that was my first candidate.
The second beer on the list is Burton Ale. Burton-upon-Trent was and the major centre of brewing for the British Empire for many years and this eponymous ale was drunk around the world before falling into obscurity. The town lies in the heart of Mercia, and any beer that represents this region must have an association with this old brewing powerhouse. Today its shadow falls upon many a Winter Warmer and Barley Wine, as Burton ale found itself being re-labelled and developed into these more familiar beers. Although Burton brewed and exported this beer, it was a major producer of porter and stout for export too, but the beer that really put it on the map was IPA. At the height of the British expansion into India through the East India Company as well as through Empire, Burton was the largest producer of what went on to be called IPA, running London into second place and Edinburgh third. This style has now captured the imagination of many a craft brewer around the world and been re-invented and interpreted many times over. The famous Burton water and brewing prowess made this style its own.
Beer of Mercia: IPA
The Summerlands: Wessex
Wessex expanded its borders regularly of the second half of the first millennium, but its heart lies where the West Country meets the South. I tried to think what encapsulates this beautiful part of England, and I kept coming back to summer holidays, beaches, sailing, camping, hiking and sunnier weather that the rest of the UK! The only traditional beer I could place here is the now extinct west country white ale. This was an historic English beer made with wheat flour, little or no hops and wild fermentation. Maybe it was a more wheaty lambic, although some recipes include egg whites, so I’m not going to guess what it tasted like! I did think wheat beer, as a descendant of this curiosity, had a shout but really it’s a bit of a stretch.
In the early 1990s Wessex based Hopback brewery brewed a type of pale ale that appealed to a new generation of drinker. It was paler than the bitters and pale ales at the time, had a light , easy drinking body and just enough hops to give it a crisp, refreshing finish. Lifelong lager drinkers were starting to convert and a new style (or sub-style) was born. The Summer ale or Golden ale is now a mainstay of many breweries and usually finds itself as a summer seasonal, although recently it has become a year-round offering due to its popularity. It chimes perfectly with the sunny disposition of this region, and a pint of golden summer ale is never far from a beer lover’s lips when holidaying or living in this provincial paradise.
Beer of Wessex: Golden Ale
The Northern Powerhouse: Northumbria
The North of England is a blend of industrial towns and cities, that helped build a nation, and stunning wild mountains, lakes and hills. It’s as diverse as this country gets, but whether sat in a country pub or Manchester restaurant, the atmosphere of an independent spirit with a warm welcome is never far away. The candidates for this region were easy to assemble. Bitter is a mainstay of many a Yorkshire brewery and I’m sure many dissenting voices would be happy to fight the South East for this one, but I had to make the call and Northumbria came off second. Theakston’s Old Peculiar is a classic North Country beer and this modern-ish version of an Old Ale is a must after a long hike in the hills, accompanying a beefy pie and mash in the pub. I felt that Old Ale is a bit obscure for a flagship brew so the winner had to be Brown Ale. The internationally famous Newcastle Brown Ale is drunk in many parts of the world and spawned many, some far superior, brown ales. One is from the other side of the region and Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale is a delicious version of the amber brown style of beer. Sometimes known as ‘Northern English Brown Ale’ by American pigeon-holing types, it is not to be confused with the sweeter dark brown ale, typified by Mann’s. This northern ale is a thirst-quenching pint that can have a nutty malt flavour, and just a hint of hops for balance only and I feel this is a beer the North can be proud of.
Beer of Northumbria: Brown Ale
I hope you have enjoyed this regional ramble and provincial pontification. Feel free to disagree and stake a claim for an official ale for your area. You never know, we may be going federal in a few years and as beer is the national drink, it can unite us as well divide us, but each Anglo-state may be searching for an identity all of its own, and what better than a local beer to do just that?