I like to believe that I deal with all the weighty cultural issues in this British expat blog and what could be of more import than the relative merits of British and American beer?
The first thing that I would say is that the almost universally negative image of American beer that exists in Britain (and Europe too for that matter) is certainly too simplistic. (The negative image is summed up by the old Monty Python joke: “American beer is a little like making love in a canoe. It's f**king close to water.”)
The problem for American beer is that the only brands that you tend to see in the UK are the awful ones like Miller Lite and Budweiser (Anheuser-Busch). These really are bland, watery beers. Like in the UK, however, the better American beers tend to come from the smaller, local breweries, rather than the leviathans. (To some extent, the US has similar problems with beer as the UK did in the 60s and 70s with aggressive major breweries [with crap beer] trying to muscle out the smaller and medium-sized breweries [with good beer] with the intention of creating local monopolies.)
Because of the localized nature of brewing and the size of the US, plus my own admittedly limited experience, it would actually be ridiculous for me to even attempt to give a comprehensive major overview, so instead I will just settle for giving my personal experiences of living in north-central Florida.
My favorite (big brewery) US beers that I drink regularly here in North Central Florida:
Shiner – brewed in Austin, Texas is easily my favourite that I've found. It has a strong and distinctive taste. When I used to visit Florida, I couldn’t believe how dirt cheap it was in the store. By the time I’d moved here, however, they’d bumped up the price! They only sell Shiner in certain US states and luckily Florida is one of them - I was disappointed to find that I couldn’t get hold of it up in New York.
Blue Moon – A Belgian-style wheat beer which is very palatable (despite being a Coors product!) Belgian-style wheat beers (think Hoegaarden) seem to be fairly common here nowadays (I believe that US breweries started making witbeers about 10 or 15 years ago), but German-style, tarter wheat beers are generally rarer, it seems.
Sam Adams produce reasonable beer and I enjoy some of their selection packs - some of these beers can be a little gimmicky but it’s fun to try them.
Yuengling is for me just on the right side of the line between the watery American beers and the good ones in my opinion. I will drink it sometimes, however, because it’s often cheaper(!)
Most British/Irish beers are relatively specialist in the US in my (limited) experience. The most commonly available ones in the bars and stores where I am are Newcastle Brown Ale and Harp, which seems a little bizarre to me, as these drinks were common in the UK back in the 70s and 80s but have largely waned in popularity.
The best British beer, the real ales, aren’t really available in draught form, which is a pity, but no surprise. You can get a limited but reasonable range in the bottled section – although the US tends to put everything into small (approx 300ml?) bottles, which still irritates me a little. I still find it strange seeing a US miniature, differently shaped version of the iconic Newcastle Brown Ale bottle and there is something sacrilegious about seeing hefeweissen sold in bottles below 500ml in size (although you can buy the ‘proper’ German 500ml bottles in the specialist stores!) ;-)
European beers are also fairly widely available in the US in my experience and I drink a lot of Becks Dark, Warsteiner, and Heineken here. I have also found a couple of outlets locally that sell my all time favourite (more specialist) European beers, which tend to be from Germany*, Belgium, and Central Europe. German hefeweissen will always be one of my favourite tipples.
Cider isn’t a beer, of course, but it’s drunk in a similar way, so I thought that I would give it a mention. I actually love cider as a refreshing alternative to beer and having cheap, available cider is something that I miss here in the US, especially when you’re on a limited budget (cider is often the cheap drunk’s tipple in the UK!).
From what I gather, cider wasn’t particularly common in the US (compared to the UK) until relatively recently. Now it’s easier to get hold of, but the ciders tend to be the big Irish brands that are advertised to be drunk over ice, such as Magners. American ciders often seem to be sweeter and relatively weak, compared to the stronger and drier British ones, in my experience.
Scrumpy style cider is pretty specialist in the US, although it’s difficult to imagine that it doesn’t exist in a rough form somewhere in the USA?
The good news is that do sell Strongbow on draught in some bars of the bars around here – hurray!
*German bars are quite possibly the best place in the world for drinking draught and bottled beer, in my opinion. Mainly because they are scrupulous when it comes to storing their beers at the correct temperature. This is why Germany is generally known to be the best place for drinking draught Guiness methinks (even better than Ireland, ironically). The sad and slightly strange fact is that in places like the US and Britain, bars will quite often undermine a great beer by storing, or serving it too cold or too warm in my experience.