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Beer Geography Part 1 - British Isles & Ireland
Oakes Weekly - April 8, 2004
Craft Beer Introduction
April 7, 2004
Written by Oakes
A word of warning: this week’s Oakes Weekly will probably be best read not only with a beer but with an atlas as well (I’ve included a rough map for those lacking in altasian bounty). It’s also a bit of a primer for those who don’t really have a good sense of where all that great European beer comes from, so if you’re already geographically inclined, I suppose I won’t be breaking new ground.
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Everybody knows that beer’s traditional homeland, at least with regard to the forms of beer that we recognize as being beer today, is Europe, specifically the northern parts thereof. However, experienced beer lovers often speak not just in terms of countries, but in terms of regions.
Starting in the far west, Ireland is bounded on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the east is separated from the island of Great Britain by the Irish Sea. Despite the prevalence of Irish influence on North American culture, the island is actually quite sparsely populated. The best known product of the island is stout, and Guinness is considered by many to be synonymous with that style. Guinness hails from Dublin, capital of the Republic of Ireland, located on the east coast, halfway down the island. The other internationally famous Irish stouts are Beamish and Murphy’s. These both hail from the “second city”, Cork, which is located on the southern end of the island. The former was the Protestant brewery and the latter the Catholic one. This divide between Christian sects has resulted in the partition of the northeastern section of the island, which is part of the United Kingdom. As the UK goes, Northern Ireland is bereft of beer tradition, as is the Isle of Man (not part of the UK) that lies to the east of it, in the Irish Sea. Both these areas owe everything in their beerology to the English influence.
The island of Great Britain is solely within the greater domain of the United Kingdom, a nation which includes the aforementioned Northern Ireland, and of the islands adjacent to Great Britain, though notably not including the Isle of Man nor the Channel Islands. These, confusingly, are under the jurisdiction of the British crown, but are not part of the UK. This is fair enough, for while these places share the English influence in matters of beer, they have no local traditions of their own.
Even though the entirety of Great Britain is considered part of one country on the world stage, for beer (and football and rugby) purposes, it is made up of three countries – Scotland, England and Wales. Do not confuse “Great Britain” with “England”, especially when you are actually standing in Scotland or Wales.
Scotland occupies the northern third of Great Britain, and for beer purposes is considered one “region”. For whisky purposes, the mountainous northern region is the Highlands, the desolate island to the west are the Islands (Islay is at the southwestern end of these islands), and the Lowland region is in the south, closer to England. Speyside is a part of the Highlands along the river Spey – more a marketing invention than a historical region. In beer terms, Edinburgh on the east coast is the traditional brewing centre, but these days micros dot the land, from Traquair House in the far south to Valhalla on the Shetlands (an archipelago so far to the north that it is not even on my map). Many of the far-flung western islands now boast microbreweries as well, including Skye, Arran and Lewis.
But as we’re talking about beer, let’s move on. The long peninsula that makes up the southwestern portion of the island is made up of regions relatively irrelevant to the beer lover Devon and Cornwall. To the north of these, across the Bristol Channel, is Wales, occupying the centre south western of Great Britain. Like Scotland, it is basically one region and also like Scotland, known mostly for sweet interpretations of English styles. The brewing tradition is concentrated in South Wales, an industrialised area where miners and steel-workers needed a steady flow of beer to slake their thirst. In North Wales the beer mainly comes from Manchester and the Midlands.
Many people are unfamiliar with English geography. We’ll start in London, which sits in the southeastern part of the island. This is home to Michael Jackson and is a mandatory stop for every foreign visitor. Thus, the world knows of their local breweries, Fuller’s and Young’s. South from London you’ll find famous breweries such as Harvey’s and Dark Star. Further southeast, towards the English Channel you’ll find the prime hop growing area of Kent, famous for Goldings.
Travelling north from Kent, sticking to the east coast, you’ll pass through Essex and on into Suffolk. This is home to the famous breweries of Adnams, Greene King, Nethergate, St. Peter’s and Old Chimneys.
Moving inland, to the west, we come to the Midlands. This area is actually comprised of several counties. This is one of the great brewing regions, and part of the traditional homeland of mild. On the map it is highlighted by cities such as Birmingham, Coventry and Leicester. In beer terms, Burton on Trent is the most talked about town. The “Black Country” alluded to in the descriptor “Black Country Mild” is centred around Birmingham, which itself is known more for being the home of Black Sabbath than for its beer. To the southwest of Birmingham you’ll find Herefordshire, known for Fuggles (and the Hereford Hop cheese that is made with them). This is adjacent to Wales.
South of Herefordshire, the area around Bristol is made up of a few counties, including Gloucestershire and Somerset. Particularly the latter is known for its farmhouse cheeses and artisanal ciders.
To the north of Birmingham, maybe 25 or 30 miles, is the famous Burton on Trent. This town gained fame for brands such as Bass and Marston’s, and the Burton Union system you may have read about. The system is almost obsolete now, but in its time brought great fame to what is otherwise not a very significant town. It was the water here that made the beer so good. Breweries outside of Burton who wanted to make a pale and thirst-quenching beer first needed to “Burtonize” their water - a practise that still continues to this day.
To the northeast of the Midlands you’ll find Manchester and Merseyside (the latter home to Liverpool). This is a great brewing area, dotted with many wonderful regional and micro breweries – Cain’s, Holt’s, Hyde’s, Robinson’s and Lees to name a few. Head north from here and you’ll find yourself in what is known as the Lake District (mainly in Lancashire). Coniston probably the most internationally known brewery in the Lake District.
West from Manchester will bring you into sprawling Yorkshire. This is another famous beer region, not due in the least to the fact that the world’s greatest beer writer grew up here and developed a certain fondness for the local brews. The region is famous for Yorkshire Squares, another fermentation system that, like its southern counterpart Burton Unions, is today only used by one or two breweries. To get the full Yorkshire Square effect of complex yeastiness, the appropriately-titled Yorkshire Square Ale from Black Sheep wonderfully displays the Yorkshire is famous internationally for Sam Smith’s, John Smith’s, Theakston, Tetley’s, Tim Taylor, Roosters, Black Sheep and others.
The Northeastern part of England is known mainly for one beer – Newcastle Brown Ale.
This beer spawned many imitators in the region, but like all English styles, it has crossed over into other regions outside of its heartland, a phenomenon which makes it all the more difficult for outsiders to grasp the history and uniqueness of each of England’s regions. Another brewery of note in the Northeast is Mordue, makers of the wonderful Workie Ticket.
Next week – Western Europe.
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