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magic rock brewing
Credit: © Magic Rock Brewing Co.

One irony of the American craft beer explosion is its tendency to lean heavily on traditional British beer styles. The India Pale Ale – craft beer’s most prolifically produced style – even earned its name for being shipped from the UK to its eponymous far-off member of the Commonwealth. But in an even bigger twist, American brewers have embraced, enhanced and popularized these styles so much, that many British breweries are now making American-style versions of these traditional British beers – particularly American-style Pale Ales and IPAs.

Stuart Ross, head brewer at Magic Rock Brewing in Huddersfield, England, is an early adopter when it comes to producing American-style beers in the UK. Opened in 2011, Magic Rock focuses mainly on carbonated draft beer as opposed to cask beer or real ale — the type of beer that earned Brits the reputation of drinking so-called “warm, flat beer” — and has a number of American-style ales in its core lineup. Magic Rock also regularly collaborates with American brewers, allowing the brewery to keep up with what’s happening on both sides of the pond firsthand.

To understand what a British brewer thinks of America’s take on British styles, as well as how its influenced the way Brits make their own styles, we sat down with Ross to discuss brewing between the Brits and the Yanks…

You’ve been involved in a lot of collaboration with American breweries. Can you run through them quickly?

Probably easiest to start more recently and go backwards: We’ve done Cigar City [from Florida], Ska Brewing [from Colorado], Other Half [from New York], Against the Grain [from Kentucky] and Arizona Wilderness [from Arizona]. We did a beer in the Rainbow Project [a UK-based international collaboration beer project] with Evil Twin [a New York-based gypsy brewer]. We have some coming next year, as well. Some different ones. We’re doing something with J Wakefield [from Florida]. We’re actually doing a thing with a cidery/meadery. We’re going to do more with Against the Grain and Arizona Wilderness – definitely with the Arizona Wilderness guys. They’re a lot of fun. Also, Richard [Burhouse, Magic Rock owner] did a joint collaboration with BrewDog [from Scotland] and Stone [from California].

Obviously, that covers a lot of different breweries around the United States. How do you get involved with such a diverse group of US breweries as a relatively small brewer in the UK?

We met them at various events — beer festivals or those kinds of events. We met the Ska guys originally through sharing an importer in Sweden. We bought their depalletizer for our canning line, and then did a brew with them. I’m sure we met the Cigar City guys at a beer festival somewhere. You make quite a lot of contacts that way. And then Evil Twin and Arizona Wilderness were both involved in the original Rainbow Project so that was where they came into it.

Can you explain the Rainbow Project quickly for those who aren’t familiar?

The Rainbow Project was started by Siren Brewery’s head brewer at the time, Ryan Witter-Merithew…. inspired by the seven colors of the rainbow. [The first year] he got together seven UK brewers, did a random draw, and we all got assigned a color and we had to make a beer inspired by the color.... The whole thing was a success so we decided to expand it into a collaboration idea. So we worked with European brewers the second year…. Third year was US breweries…. The following year was New Zealand breweries; that was this year. For next year and the year after that, we’ve already drawn out the breweries and colors. And the whole project, we’ve kind of decided to wrap it up, finish it. So next year we’re going to do US breweries. Then for the final year, 2018, it’ll be the same breweries but with a different color. And we’re going to organize a massive beer festival/party for it with a beer from every brewer that’s ever been involved in the project as well.

What about working with a brewery like Other Half? It’s an acclaimed brewery but pretty small, especially as far as where its beers are available. How did you meet up with those guys?

[Acclaimed Roman beer bar] Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa had their 15th anniversary on a cruise boat between Rome and Barcelona this year, so I met Sam [Richardson, brewer at Other Half] on there. We did some tastings together and talks together. And had a lot of beers. We got on very well and enjoyed each other’s beers. And when Rich and I were planning a trip to Boston, we started in Philadelphia, and we were going to avoid New York, but I said why don’t we stop in and see Other Half.

What have you learned by visiting American brewers and vice versa?

We’re constantly learning from each other. We learned so much visiting California in the early days of Magic Rock, which is five years ago now. Seeing the processes, seeing how the other breweries are run, and tasting the beers fresh. Because we were drinking American IPAs and Pale Ales that had been shipped across over a month or two month period, which would then sit in a warehouse, and then they’re at the bar, and they’ve lost their fresh hoppy character. They turned into these kind of sweet, gloopy, kind of honey beers. At the time, I think UK drinkers thought that’s what American IPAs tasted like, and they don’t if you drink them at the breweries or within a certain radius of where they’re made. They’re really fresh. Those beers aren’t what they are when they’re over here. We wanted to make these Pale Ales that were bright and fresh and fruity and dry and really just totally different things than what the UK market was used to.

Do you sometimes feel like you’ve betrayed the British tradition by focusing on these American takes on the styles? Do you ever think about revisiting these styles’ British roots?

Yeah, definitely. We’ve made a couple of different porters. Granted, one of them has coffee in it and one of them has a load of chilies in it. But if you took those components out of those beers, you’d find a relatively traditional British porter underneath it all. And certainly the same with our stout. Our stout’s English hops. Our Imperial Stout’s the same; it’s pretty much just a bigger version of it. The malt recipe from our Imperial Stout has been taken from some old recipes that have been publicized in some historical brewing books recently. We took some inspiration from a book by Martyn Cornell called Amber, Gold & Black. It’s a great book about some historical English beer styles – everything from IPAs to Bitter and Porters and Stouts.

What are some of the differences you’ve noticed between British breweries and American breweries?

Obviously, the American brewing styles tend to lean very heavily towards kegs, cans, bottles, so carbonated beer – definitely not a real ale side …. And then I think some of the processing we’ve seen in a lot of breweries was a little bit more advanced: the equipment, the time and care taken towards that kind of beer. You can make cask beer a lot more easily than you can consistently make packed beers in sealed containers whether it be a can or a keg or a bottle. It requires a little bit more equipment, a little bit more thought, maybe a little bit more knowledge, as well.

What’s inspired you about the way Americans do traditional British styles?

We were initially inspired more by what we call a “San Diego-style” Pale Ale or IPA. Our original IPAs and Pale Ales are very pale. And our original IPAs were quite dry, relatively low bittering but high dry-hopping to showcase the hops predominately and we found that we preferred that over the sweeter and maltier IPAs in the UK at the time. And particularly the serving style with the carbonation, we felt that helps makes the beer more drinkable. One of our philosophies has always been to make the beers drinkable. I’d be unhappy if we ever made a beer that you’d drink and not want to have another, no matter what style of beer it is, no matter what ABV it may be.

What do you think American brewers could stand to learn from brewers in the country that developed these styles to begin with?

One of the things I’ve always noticed is the way that cask beer is handled in the States. Americans seem to see it as a very, very special way of doing things, and actually I think it isn’t. I know some brewers I’ve talked to have been almost a little bit scarred of doing it because they think it’s difficult, and it really isn’t. We’ve had a lot of brewers visit, and we tell them how we do the cask beer and they’re amazed at how simple it actually is to do. That is how we were five, six years ago, setting up the brewery, and we were going to some keg beer, and there were only a handful of brewers doing kegged beer in the UK before we opened. It was BrewDog, Thronbridge and a couple of really small Bavarian-style-inspired lager brewers doing kegged beer, and the only other brewers doing keg beer were the big UK breweries.

Having spent so much time with US brewers, where do you see British/American craft beer relations headed?

A lot more collaborations. There are more British breweries who are inspired by American styles starting up. We’re all meeting a lot more at beer festivals, and we’re all getting to know each other and we’re all doing a lot more collaborations.

Needless to say, more beers to drink sounds good to me.