The UK likes to view itself as different. For most of its recent history, it considered itself part of and not part of Europe simultaneously. The British fought wars with other European powers while they colonized nations afar, spreading both their language and their love of beer to the four corners of the globe. Due to the British, India contains the oldest brewery in Asia. Australians have been drinking beer ever since the British arrived there; Australia’s country’s oldest brewery, Cascade, is almost two hundred years old.
Historians think there was brewing going on in the UK before the Romans got there in 54 BC. If they’re wrong, brewing was definitely happening under Roman rule. There is archaeological evidence to support Roman soldiers drinking Celtic Ale about 2,000 years ago. By the Middle Ages, beer was a common drink. All classes savored it, particularly in northern Europe where grape cultivation wasn’t possible to produce wines. Drinking beer was more common than water. Unboiled water at that time was unsanitary. There was a Brewers Guild in London as early as 1342. The average Englishman drank about eight-tenths of a liter of beer every day.
Although today we think of ale as a type of beer, the fifteenth century English considered ale and beer to be two separate drinks. Ale was malt and water. If hops or any other herb were added, it was beer. Gradually, hops became more acceptable in all types of beers as England began to export their brews abroad to the British resident in all the colonies. The hops acted as a natural preservative.
The UK was already brewing “wild” styles like IPA’s, pale ales, stouts, and porters by the eighteenth century, styles that have only gotten a wider worldwide mention after American craft brewers started redefining them in the 1980’s. Porter revolutionized the way beer was sipped. Prior to porters, beers were sent out to dealers or pub houses unaged. The aging was done at the hands of the retailers. Porters were aged instead at the brewery and became the first type of beer to be brewed on a very large scale. Many of the present day brewing contraptions modern brewers take for granted, like storage vats, thermometers, hydrometers, and attemperators became commonplace as porter breweries took brewing to a new level.
Passage of the Brewing Act in 1830 made it easy for anyone to brew and sell beer, whether from a home or from a pub. Just eight years after the act was initiated, there were 49,200 breweries in the UK. Like other countries, consolidation began to reduce the amount. By 1900, there were just 6,447 – still a large number for a country the UK’s size — which dwindled further to around 1,200 by 1940.
Despite this steady reduction in breweries, the UK didn’t follow the same route as most other nations, where a few behemoths dominated the scene and ousted all other beer types for generic watery lagers. Breweries like Shepherd Neame (founded 1698), Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery (1758), Bass (1777), Fuller’s (1845) are ancient, and though some, like Bass, are now part of multinational corporations, the UK was never without a wealth of beer types and brewers to make them.
As a result, the UK never really had two or three breweries that monopolized the entire nation’s beer trade. It is difficult to think of a Budweiser, Corona, or Singha beer equivalent for the UK. The closest one can come up with is Carling, the UK’s bestselling lager since the early 1980’s. Carling is not even from an indigenous brewery. Carling was first brewed in Canada, and Carling lager wasn’t sold in the UK until 1952. While Carling may be big in the UK, few people outside the UK have heard of it, know it as a British frontrunner, or are aware that multinational Miller Coors bought it out in 2005.
The fact the UK brewing scene had never been completely homogenized left it ripe and ready for microbreweries. Although the USA is credited with sparking the microbrewing trend, it is actually the UK which initiated the movement in the 1970’s. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was formed in 1971 and has been encouraging the brewing of unadulterated alcohols, including ciders, ever since. Litchborough Brewery was manufacturing microbrews in Northampton back in 1974. Truth be told, the Americans were there first once Fritz Maytag took over San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company in 1965, but microbrewing didn’t become the serious industry it now is in the USA until after the American beer market was de-regulated in 1979. The 1980’s American microbreweries were more liberal with old style British recipes and styles, and it was this “permission” to break prior rules that inspired a new wave of British brewers to bring an American-style microbrewery ‘revolution’ to the UK.
As of 2015, the UK had 1,285 breweries, one for every 50,000 people in the country, making the country the world’s highest ranked in terms of breweries per capita. There are over 60,000 pubs. To augment the embrace of craft style beers, many of these, like the Four Candles in Broadstairs and the Stoke Canon Inn in Devon, have evolved into micropubs, either serving only locally made beers and ciders or brewing their own.
Demand for British beer is strong worldwide. This goes well beyond the mainstays like Bass, Fuller’s, and Newcastle. Brewdog from Scotland only opened in 2007 but is now Scotland’s largest independent brewery, exporting to 50 countries with exports accounting for 60% of sales. Thornbridge Brewery from Derby is a few years older than BrewDog, and its exports account for 30-35% of turnover.
At their 2011 wedding reception, Prince William and Kate Middleton banned guests from drinking beer. Beer was not deemed appropriate to be served in the Queen’s presence. Her drink of choice is a French aperitif called Dubonnet with a shot of gin. The Queen may be one of the few to delight in an ancient out-of-fashion fortified wine. The rest of the British public seem quite content curling up to a pint of whatever is in on draught.