The Englishman at the heart of America’s beer revolution
Britain’s “Special Relationship” with the US may exist largely in the minds of our politicians, but in the world of beer it’s as real as taxes. Consider the evidence. They took our classic beer styles – pale ale, porter, stout, India Pale Ale – and sent them back to us, with extra hops added. British brewers, in turn, have taken the beers of the American craft revolution and used them as inspiration to bring new vitality to this country’s more traditional scene. And while cask ale is beginning to take off over there, beer served from kegs in the American style is all the rage for Britain’s more open-minded brewers. It’s a two-way street, a sharing of knowledge that benefits drinkers in both nations.
It should be no surprise, then, to find the Union Flag fluttering outside the Firestone Walker brewery in Paso Robles, California (see image below) – except that this is a brewery with rather more of a link to Britain than a passion for ale. Co-founder David Walker (right) is British, and the brewery itself reflects that: the flagship product, Double Barrel Ale, is a classic English beer brewed with East Kent Golding hops and produced – as are all their beers – with a union brewing method that deliberately apes the traditional Burton Union fermentation system. Firestone Walker, founded in 1996 by Walker and brother-in-law Adam Firestone, even produce a beer called Union Jack. If this isn’t quite a corner of California that is forever England, it’s not too far from it.
That said, not all the local have been that welcoming. “That flag has been chopped down more than a few times,” laughs Walker. “I’m not quite sure by whom, whether it’s by a bunch of guys who’ve had a few beers, who don’t recognise the flag – [but] the connection with Britain is somewhat helpful. You go into any town, any large city in the US and you’ll have a British pub, an Irish pub. There’s a real connection with Britain and Ireland. Those are the places where [many Americans believe] you can get the good beer.”
Britons in the know feel the same way about the USA, and the West Coast in particular. Hops grown in the US’s Pacific Northwest have a powerful citrus kick that is increasingly fashionable, and which have made another of Firestone Walker’s stock beers – Pale 31, named for California, the 31st state to enter the Union – a huge success on America’s West Coast.
“Our brewery is a story of pale ale,” Walker explains. “We started out making a traditional pale ale – Double Barrel (pictured below) – in the style of the great British brewers of 150 years ago. Then we have a California pale ale, which is the style of beer that really started the revolution in this country. It’s made with these potent, floral hops that give it that really punk rock edge when you line it up next to a British pale ale. It’s such a defined flavour – it has become the go-to beer of the new generation here, that style of beer.
“That in turn has morphed into American IPAs, and that’s the third leg of the stool for us: ours is called Union Jack. All three of them are from the same family – they’ve all got the same roots. They’re just very different beers.
“It’s interesting; when we started the brewery, I couldn’t have given away IPAs. Now it is all that people want. We make an imperial IPA called Double Jack: we can’t keep the thing in stock. It’s in huge demand. People over here are clamouring for heavy hopping, with good balance.”
Walker was not always involved in brewing: he was actually lured to California by a job in IT, and a Californian wife. “My wife’s brother was in the family wine business, called Firestone Vineyards,” he says. “We both loved beer, so we said ‘why don’t we try and create a brewery?’ The family wasn’t that interested in getting into the beer business so we created a separate company.”
15 years on, both Firestone Walker and the American craft brewing scene have changed completely. “I’d say it was the most energetic community anywhere now,” says Walker. “It’s a really great place for breweries.” His own brewery has been at the forefront of this change, as demonstrated by the frequency with which they pick up awards (most recently they were named the Great American Beer Festival’s mid-sized brewery of 2011) – not that Walker is getting carried away. “It’s great, but it’s a bit like being tiddlywinks champion,” he says. “Your average consumer doesn’t notice it and the beer has to resonate with the customer’s palate or it won’t sell.”
Walker has also had a chance to have a look at the British scene, with Firestone Walker having recently brewed a beer for JD Wetherspoon’s annual real ale festival at Shepherd Neame in Kent. “I think the beer business in Britain is way behind what it is in America and I think that has nothing to do with the British palate and a lot to do with the way that beer is made, distributed and sold in Britain,” he says. “I think that’s the huge issue.
“The feeling I got from hanging out with the brewers [at Shepherd Neame] and seeing the brewery is that these guys love beer, and there’s so many great breweries in the UK – they’ve got everything that is needed to have just as eclectic and wild and crazy time as the American craft brewers are having. All that needs to happen is a switch needs to be turned. It’s not infrastructure, it’s not people. It’s interesting.”
British drinkers who tasted that Sheps-brewed beer are in for a long wait if they want to try more Firestone Walker products, however. “We want to keep the beer local – it’s not pasteurised,” Walker says. “I want to keep it within a day’s drive of the brewery, which covers about 60m people. It takes me all the way up into the Pacific Northwest, all the way south to the Mexican border and all the way into Nevada and Arizona. That’s a lot of people to sell beer too. Our philosophy is that we’ll take a deeper piece of a smaller pie.
“For us to think about developing markets far and wide is nice – and it makes for a nice trip to New York or London – but really it’s not a great way to develop a brewery. We’re a regional phenomenon, rather than a brewing phenomenon.”
Some beers do make it overseas, says Walker – the Proprietor’s Reserve series of complex, high-strength ales, for example – but those wishing to get the real Firestone Walker experience will have to shell out for a trip to the Golden State. For beer lovers, there’s never been a better time to cross the Atlantic, Walker believes. “These are good times for craft brewers in America,” he says. “I wouldn’t like to be sitting in the boardroom of a multi-national brewery at the moment. Although they’re hugely profitable businesses, I think that craft brewers have taken all the fun out of their lives. It looks a lot more exciting for craft brewers.”
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