RICHARD EHRLICH'S beverage REPORT

HEY! AMERICAN BEERS WITH TASTE
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The Independent Culture
As a transplanted American, I flush with shame when I see someone drinking a can of Budweiser. Since time immemorial, Americans coming to the UK have taken their first sip of cask-conditioned brew and said, eyes opening wide, "Hey! This beer has taste!" The experience comes as a revelation because most American beers taste like nothing at all. It is to real beer what a Big Mac is to a hamburger. Yet McBeer seems to be taking Britain by storm. Not just Budweiser but Rolling Rock, Coors, Miller, Michelob. Michelob is different from the others, I'll admit, because it comes in a funny bottle. This has enabled its makers to sell it as a premium beer in the US, and now the ruse is working here.

The reasons for this appealing trend lie in the clever marketing, and in the peculiar British fascination with all things American. We drink Coors for the same reasons we wear Levi's jeans, the difference being that Levi's are a good product.

Happily, there's a lot more to American beer than ice-cold bubbles in a 5 per cent solution of alcohol. We live in the age of the micro-brewery, small-scale operations making beers for aficionados. Some operate from "brew-pubs", brewing just enough to supply the bar on the premises; others sell more widely. They experiment energetically, making not just lager, but ales, stout, and porter. While they account at present for around two per cent of the $50 billion American beer market, their share is growing.

And some of their products are doing rather well here, though they're not necessarily easy to find. Specialist suppliers such as Leicester's Bottle Store (0116 285 6505) may be your best bet. The Bottle Store currently stocks around 15 high-quality American brews, and has a mail-order service.

Nationwide, a good place to buy is Oddbins. They have a rotating stock of "guest" beers which often includes American imports. A recent oddity that I enjoyed greatly was Blue Hen "Black & Tan" - a beautifully tawny combination of lager and porter brewed in Pennsylvania (pounds 1.59 for 330ml). Its guest beers are purchased in small lots, so the "Black & Tan" may be gone by now, but pop in regularly for new arrivals.

On a regular basis, Oddbins also stocks the beers from Pete's Brewing Company, founded in 1987. Pete's is already a tremendous success both commercially and critically - so successful, in fact, that it is now a "specialty" brewer rather than a micro. Sales volumes here are trebling every year, and the beers are sold at Majestic, Waitrose, Tesco and Morrisons as well as Oddbins and specialists.

The basic Pete's formulation is Wicked Ale, a brown ale with a fine balance of sweetness and bitterness. It also makes seasonal brews (Winter Brew is now in the shops) and a delicious Bohemian Pilsner which would make a perfect companion for chilli. All sell for around pounds 1.19 for 330ml.

Incidentally, the view of beer as the only drink for chilli is misguided. In a 1990 tasting at the home of California wine mogul Robert Mondavi, a delicate 14-year-old Chardonnay won top marks. So did the sparkling wine. But this applies only for proper chilli, not the mouth-scorching muck served up by "themed" American restaurants.

British brew-hounds may see an irony in buying American when these islands make some of the best beer in the world. But America's been brewing the stuff since colonial times, and a long tradition of expertise formerly submerged by the mass-produced national brands is flourishing with a vengeance. The products are worth seeking out. And you don't have to wear your Levi's while you drink them.

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