It is a myth, but it’s one that’s quite easy to see the origins of.
British Beer is NOT warm, neither is it flat. However, many people from the US and Canada believe this to be the case. So where does the myth come from?
Mass-produced Keg Beer vs Cask Conditioned British Beer – (The traditional differences)
The main reason North Americans think British beer is warm, flat (or both) is down to a fundamental difference in beer culture.
The majority of America’s beer is mass produced, light lager; brewed with cheap adjuncts, not matured properly, and then served freezing cold to mask poor quality. Clever marketing is then applied to convince consumers that beer must be as cold as possible. (Think Coors and their “When the mountains turns blue” gimmick).
These mass produced beers are generally sterile filtered and pasteurised as part of the brewing process. This kills the yeast, preventing any further conditioning. The beer is then racked into sealed, gas-pressurised containers, known as ‘kegs’.
Once they reach the pub, the beers are usually kept very cold, which combined with excessive carbonation – helps to disguise any poor quality or lack of flavour. If this is your beer of choice, then yes, British beer could be perceived as warm and flat – by comparison.
Meanwhile, in Britain, beer is traditionally served as a cask conditioned ale – often referred to as “Real Ale”. Cask beers are unfiltered, unpasteurised, and still contain live yeast. This traditional style undertakes a secondary fermentation in the cask, which creates a gentle, natural CO2 carbonation and allows flavours to carry on maturing. The beer is stored at cellar temperature (usually between 10 – 14 degrees), which could be perceived as warm/room temp, but I suppose that depends on how warm you like your house.
Subtle, gentle carbonation & chilled temperature
All joking aside, if you’ve been used to mass-produced American lagers, you might perceive British beer to be warm or flat. But in reality, any beer made with high quality ingredients should be drinkable at any temperature.
How subtle you like your carbonation – or the temperature you prefer – is a matter of taste, and this will vary from brewer-to-brewer or even pub-to-pub. All the same, I can safely conclude – British beer is not warm and flat.
Moreover, if you are unlucky enough to come across a flat or warm pint – you should not hesitate to return it. Cask beer is a natural, living product, and requires a highly skilled, trained cellar person to maintain the highest of quality.
And that’s that from a traditional and high level perspective. It’s a matter of perspective.
But before we wrap up, there is more to American beer than mass-produced light lager, and cask does not automatically mean high quality – after all, it’s just a dispensing method. Brewing technology is changing, and there is more to keg than bland lager.
Here are a variables to consider….
Craft Keg revolution – (Taking keg beers into the 21st century)
Despite what I’ve written above, not all keg beers are made equal. Knowledgeable, highly respected craft brewers such as Brew Dog, Thornbridge, and Meantime all use keg technology with fantastic results. Keg technology has moved on dramatically since the dark days of the 60’s & 70’s. It is in-fact despite what traditionalists will tell you possible to produce high quality keg beers.
Here’s how Brew Dog describe the keg process on their blog: “Our beers are fermented under pressure so the CO2 in the final beer occurs naturally from the initial fermentation. The beer is then filtered very lightly (to around 6 Microns which leaves yeast in the beer) and we then package (without any pasteurisation) before shipping.”
“Does this make it real ale? Probably, but who really knows anymore. And who actually cares? The fact is that beer no longer must be either bottle/cask conditioned or filtered & pasteurized. A new way has emerged with the craft brewing wave that transcends these out-dated conventions.”
Certainly doesn’t sound dull, lifeless, or mass produced does it?
Craft Beer revolution on both sides of the Atlantic
As the above paragraph highlights, although keg vs cask and regional tastes – often driven by marketing – are at the root of why American’s perceive British beer is flat, the truth is technology has moved on. There are an increasing number of breweries focusing on what’s inside the vessel, not the vessel itself, and this can only be a good thing.
Keg beers are common place in the US craft beer scene, and there’s certainly nothing bland about many of those…
It’s a classic case of the new world vs the old world, with the old world being more bogged down with tradition and the new world being more free to experiment and push boundaries – think Californian vs French wine, for example. French wine is fantastic, but California is increasingly turning heads – thanks to a more free culture of innovation.
America is leading a global beer revolution, and companies like Brewdog are helping to drive the UK side of this. Brewdog and their contemporaries brew higher strength, more intense beers, which in their opinion lend themselves to higher carbonation beers and cooler temperatures. They’re served in modern keg vessels, and they taste great. Saying this, London was once the brewing capital of the world, and keg craft beers are likely more exportable, which could help put us back on the map.
Don’t get me wrong, I love cask beer, and I sometimes find high carbonation challenging and distracting. But I do think Brew Dog have a point when it comes to focusing on great beer, not the dispense method. We’re lucky to have cask beers in such abundance in the UK, but I can’t help but feel that if we weren’t so bogged down with tradition, we might be able to enjoy the best of both worlds. If it’s no longer the case that all “real” beer is cask, then surely we can learn to enjoy both? Perhaps then we could make real progression in shifting beer’s old fashioned flat-cap image, make beer more exportable, and ultimately – help shake the ridiculous myth of warm, flat British beer!