I want to talk about English beer culture. But to do so, I need to discuss patriotism. Something I hate doing because it is such a divisive subject. Sadly, it is unavoidable!
One of the most baffling things about England is the discussion that surrounds patriotism. This has never been an issue for any of the other countries that make up the United Kingdom. Actually NI has probably the most insane relationship with patriotism but I’m not touching that with a bargepole! Welsh people have a fierce pride in their homeland, Scotland is literally run by Scottish nationalists, and Irelands patriotism is so strong that it has spread to every corner of the globe.
But English patriotism? It’s a fucking tightrope walk. On the one hand you have the type of patriotism that is barely disguised xenophobia. Tommy Robinson, Football Lads Alliance, BNP, you get the idea. On the other extreme you have the Guardian columnists who spend every column inch talking about everything wrong with English patriotism.
Then you’ve got English sports fans, which tend to be in their own little world. Don’t get me wrong. I am well aware of the ties between right wing politics and football hooliganism that was evident throughout the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. But having been to several England football games at Wembley (both in the old stadium and the new) I can say that the culture has shifted massively. The 2018 World Cup was a great example of how football and English patriotism had a better relationship than ever.
English cricket fans are the best in the world, literally no arguments there. Turning up in numbers to Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, West Indies, India, and well not so much Dubai. Watching England collapse from 121-0 to 180-all out. And singing throughout is as great a sign of Englishness as you can ask for.
But English patriotism should not be linked with the far-right, the far-right has just hijacked patriotism to serve their own ends. English patriotism is mostly just pride in our unique culture. Where else would people chase a large wheel of cheese down a hill every year? Where else would a town play a version of football where you beat the shite out of people every Shrove Tuesday for almost 400 years? Or carry a barrel that has been set on fire on your back while running across a village in Dorset?
Yes, I can’t ignore the fact that the Spanish are almost as insane as the English! Also, Scotland and Wales have their own insane traditions. But my point is that England has so many things to be low-key patriotic about. The beer culture is one of them.
I’m not sure why but English beer got a reputation in America for being terrible, and that reputation stuck. They complained that our beer was warm and flat and that this made it bad. Australians also piled in with this.
Fucking Americans and Australians had the nerve to criticise our beer!
A lot of our beer is served at room temperature, and a lot of our beer isn’t carbonated. You know why? Because a lot of our beer existed before Australia did! Cask ale is an incredible substance that we are so lucky to have. Getting shit from countries whose biggest contributions to beer are Budweiser and Fosters is a hard pill to swallow.
Germany and Belgium rightly get a lot of credit for their strict purity laws and age-old traditions. But English beer has a similar history. England has one of the highest brewery-to-person ratios in the world (only beaten by New Zealand), and we are one of the largest beer-drinkers too. But even if our beer was terrible (and didn’t continually win awards for its high quality) we’d still have one of the best beer cultures in the world. Why? Because we have the best pubs in the world.
Irish pubs are fantastic, Scottish pubs are great, Welsh pubs too, but for me, English pubs are the best in the UK and Ireland. Once you’ve beaten Celtic pubs you automatically get to win best drinking establishments in the World, because no country even comes close.
Except for beer halls in Munich! But outside Munich, you’re stuck with regular bars. Same with Belgium, love their beer but it is served in Bars and Cafés. A bar is nowhere near as good as a pub. I’ve been to bars in France, Belgium, Amsterdam, Germany, Greece, Cyprus, Portugal, Spain, New Zealand, and none of them have been as good as an English Country Pub.
There is a pub near me in Nottingham called “Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem” which has been a pub since 1189. It is over 830 years old! It is built into the rock upon which Nottingham Castle stands. Just down the road are two other pubs (Ye Olde Salutation Inn and The Bell Inn) that were opened in 1240 and 1437 respectively.
I’ve been to a pub in Dorset called The Smith’s Arms, which claimed to be the smallest pub in the world. It claimed to have been a Smith’s forge in the 17th century, and legend has it that King Charles II of England rode past and asked the Smith for a beer. Upon being told that the forge could not serve beer the King licenced it on the spot, and the pub stayed open until just a few years ago.
These types of pubs are rare across the globe, you rarely find that type of historical building still being used in the manner that it has been for centuries. You certainly don’t find them in such numbers! But even if all of our historic pubs had been bulldozed in the 90s to make way for affordable housing …
The hardwood floors, oak tables, good food, local beers, and local people all contribute to a unique atmosphere that is almost impossible to recreate. Sure, there are probably thousands of excellent bars in America. But a bar and a pub are two very different creatures. Same thing with German Beer Halls and pubs.
One of the greatest experiences of my life was going to Oktoberfest, but it’s a very different atmosphere. The idea is to sing, dance, and drink as a collective. The mood is festive, and if you want a seat you need to book it in advance. I love the way that German culture encourages strangers to sit together on long tables. But again, this is incomparable to a country pub.
If you are looking for somewhere to sit down, read a book, eat good food, and have a quality local beer. Then an English pub is unparalleled. If you want a good sing-along then I would imagine that an Irish pub is unparalleled. One of the most surreal experiences of my life was walking into an Irish pub in Holloway Road. Where the entire pub was singing “The Fields of Athenry”. But if you want to get absolutely smashed and dance on tables then a German Beer Hall is for you.
Each pub matches the culture that inhabits it, and each should be celebrated for that. But still, I have more to share, because English beer culture has one more ace up its sleeve …
I’m not going to stand here and say that English beer festivals are the best in the world, because standing is a young man’s game. Instead, I’ll sit here in my chair and say it. English beer festivals are the best in the world. German beer festivals are also amazing, I bet many American beer festivals are decent too, their craft beer scene is insane right now. But everyone needs to go to at least one English beer festival in their life.
The English beer festival can range from a tiny pub in a village getting a few extra casks in, to the Great British Beer Festival. Where 900 different beers are sold (450 of which are British). In terms of size and history, Oktoberfest wipes the floor with the GBBF. But having been there I can testify that the beer selection is lager or wheat beer or go home!
Oktoberfest is a celebration of the Bavarian culture, where the majority of the 6.6 million visitors are Bavarian themselves. The GBBF is a celebration of getting pissed in a way that only British and Irish people know how. At a rate of one pint every 20 minutes (including queueing for more).
What you need to know is that there are two Michael Jacksons, the first is the undisputed king of pop while the latter is the undisputed king of beer. Michael Jackson (Beer Expert) was born in Yorkshire in 1942. He sadly passed away in 2007 at the age of 65. Jackson is credited with the introduction of brewing culture in America (basically if you’re an American drinking a craft beer right now you can thank Michael).
Jackson is also credited with re-introducing Belgian beers to the Belgians! He was so beloved in Belgium that in 1997 he was awarded the title of Honorary Officer of the Ridderschap van de Roerstok (something that only brewers had received beforehand).
I own one of his books and even though it is decades old, it is filled with useful information about the history of some of the best beers ever made. Jackson was also one of the greatest Whisky writers in history and is perhaps just as famous (if not more) for that.
Walk into any Wetherspoons and you’ll find beers from Belgium, Germany, Australia, Ireland, India, Holland, Spain, Portugal, America, alongside English, Scottish, and Welsh beers. All at a reasonable price, and increasingly, served in the correct glass.
Do you understand just how rare that is? Can you imagine walking into a Dutch bar and seeing four types of English beer? No. Or walking into a French bar and finding a huge range of American craft beers? Sure, there will be the occasional bar that does this, but they are rare. In the UK it is rare to find a pub that doesn’t embrace the beers of other countries.
There was a time where European lagers were in danger of replacing English beer entirely, but that has since been reversed. Now English beers are holding their own, and the competition between different beers has made a huge difference to English beer culture. For a beer nerd like myself, I feel so damn lucky.
I am clearly biased in my love for English beer culture. I mean for fuck’s sake I tried to compare English Beer festivals to Oktoberfest! But I love the beer culture we have in this country. I am so glad that we managed to avoid the commercialisation of pubs that threatened to destroy British beer in the 70s and 80s (thanks to CAMRA).
England is a great country. With historic pubs, insane beer-fuelled traditions, and a really good appreciation for Belgian, German, and American beers. The fact that you’ll find Belgian beer in most pubs in England but no English beers in a Belgian bar is not a sign of inferiority. It is a sign that we’re doing things right. With Brexit and all that came with it, English patriotism became a divisive subject. But when it comes to beer it’s okay to be as patriotic as you want.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.