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LONDON, U.K. — It’s not easy to hear conversations over the clinking of glasses and raucous banter that fills the hangar-like London venue of the Great British Beer Festival, but this year among the thousands gathered to toast their beloved warm beers, there is talk of heresy.
The Great British Beer Festival is exactly what its name implies. It’s a festival, it’s great, there’s beer — enough of the stuff to soak an entire city — and it’s a proud celebration of brewing traditions that no one else upholds quite like the British.
Except, it seems, the Americans.
For lurking like sediment in an empty barrel is the controversial claim that American craft brewers, in their enthusiastic efforts to recreate the traditional bitters, porters, stouts, milds and golden ales of England, Scotland and Wales, are actually now bettering them.
And British drinkers can’t get enough. Midway through the five-day festival, most of the 80 American draft beers on sale (the largest collection of U.S. beers ever assembled anywhere in the world, the organizers claim), had run out. Bottled beers were selling just as quickly.
“We’ve taken a few £400 [$640] orders, from people filling up suitcases with bottles,” said Ian Garrett who, as a longstanding manager of the festival’s Bieres Sans Frontieres international bar, has been instrumental in introducing U.S. brews to British drinkers.
That’s not to say that British beers weren’t selling equally well. Many of the 500 home-grown beers had also run dry by the third evening. Festival award-winners like Harvest Pale from the Nottingham-based Castle Rock brewery were among the first to go.
Sales of beers from both sides of the Atlantic are welcomed by the Campaign for Real Ales, or CAMRA, the festival organizers, which stages the event as the yearly centerpiece to its long-running battle to preserve artisanal brewing methods under threat from industrial giants.
With more than 60,000 visitors, the event is a runaway success, giving CAMRA a platform to drive home its serious messages about British pub closures and beer taxation, as well as some headline-grabbing pseudo-science about how “switching to beer can help you lose weight.”
This year, to celebrate the ascension of U.S. beers, there’s also a new prize for best American cask ale. The inaugural winner of the Michael Jackson award (named after a British beer aficionado, not you-know-who) is Smuttynose Big A IPA, from Portsmouth, N.H.
Says Garrett, who volunteers to work at the festival but earns his beer money as a civil servant, said Smuttynose boasts the “big flavors,” which are partly behind the popularity of the American brews and, with a 9.7-percent alcohol by volume (ABV), is typically potent.
“The reason people love the American beers is they’ve taken the British brewing traditions and made them their own," Garrett said. "You often hear phrases like ‘pushing the envelope’ and I suppose that’s what they’ve done. They have used more of everything to ramp up the flavor. There’s no subtlety — they go for very big beers.”
On the other side of the bar, there’s agreement among a small crowd of drinkers savoring the last drops of Brooklyn Brewery Blast! — a powerful beverage that, with an ABV of 8.5 percent — at least twice the strength of most British rivals — lives up to its name.
“It certainly does the trick,” said Nick Rooney, a civil servant (there’s a lot of them about) from Cockermouth (a real place) in northwestern England. “It’s strong, but very palatable. I am slightly drunk, but not too drunk to know a very good beer when I taste one.”
Away from the festival, American craft beer recently won approval from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who made a publicized pint swap with President Barack Obama during a recent trip to Washington.
Cameron presented a bottle of Hobgoblin, brewed near his political seat in rural Oxfordshire, in exchange for a Chicago-made Goose Island 312, which the PM said he “enjoyed” so much it made him cheer for England’s soccer arch-rival Germany in the World Cup.
Back behind the festival bar, Garrett’s twinkle-eyed enthusiasm for U.S. beers is, however, lost on some CAMRA members (many whose love of beer is writ large upon their physique), who view the American upstarts with deep suspicion.
“There are some volunteers here who think that the American beers should not be here at all because they say it’s not real beer — and they refuse to taste it because they don’t want to be proved wrong,” Garrett said.
The British brewing industry can, however, probably rest easy for the time being. While U.S. craft ales such as Boston’s Samuel Adams and California’s Sierra Nevada have made headway into the potentially-lucrative U.K. market, the high cost of importing is likely to remain a barrier for most, as are the CAMRA naysayers.
“We can’t really expand the international beer section at the festival any further without treading on a few toes,” Garrett said. “It will remain the British Beer festival, but we just want people to know that American beer is better than Budweiser.”
With that, he proffered a bottle of Smuttynose recovered from a hidden stash behind the bar, a brew he describes as “very balanced and deceptively drinkable,” adding, with a wry smile, “I wouldn’t recommend more than one bottle, mind you.”