This is an epic pioneering tale of brave new frontiers versus folk settled in their ways. Of an award-winning beer named after a 2,000 mile trek in search of a new life… or its champion’s own 200 mile switch from Crouch End to Levenshulme and a kind of ale apotheosis.
The day I met beer writer and South Manc ‘incomer’ Matthew Curtis to discuss his new book, Modern British Beer (note the absence of the word Craft), Elusive Brewing’s Oregon Trail West Coast IPA had just been judged country winner in its category at the World Beer Awards and would represent the UK in the world finals. Cue much whooping it up in wild Wokingham, where this modest but progressive brewery is based.
Oregon Trail West Coast IPA uses Chinook, Simcoe and Columbus hops for “a resinous profile with a citrus undertone, the bitterness helping to balance the light caramel flavours of the malts,” according to Elusive.
Curtis in his book is more hopstruck, and rightly so. “For me this style (West Coast) is all about using malted barley to construct a pillar of caramel sweetness, which is then adorned from plinth to pedestal with the most bitter, resinous and aromatic hops you can find.”
All at a quite reasonable 5.8% ABV, compared with the Elevator IPA at 6.5 I encountered at the Oregon City Brewery once upon a day. I still can’t work out why I was visiting the trailhead of the original 2,000 mile Oregon Trail that brought the settlers’ wagons west from Missouri. Yet the beers I tasted there, far from the hip urban centres, were a further confirmation that the land of Bud and Miller Lite offered a remarkable alternative – one that would be cloned elsewhere.
The Elevator washed down a helping of Reuben dogs that could easily be on the menu at many of our own brew taps. Let’s call it all the transatlantic symbiosis of hopheads. In Washington State’s Yakima Valley I visited both a hop farm that supplies our own BlackDog and the rather fusty American Hop Museum (exhibit next to Oregon Trail can, above).
New wave UK beer writers such as Mark Dredge have codified the global beer styles that have been clarified/reinvented across America and then taken up over here. Matthew Curtis goes a step further and charts the creative melting pot of our own mash tuns and barrel ageing projects. Modern British Beer proves we are not just brewing lackeys; our own cask ale traditions remain the envy of the world, our own innovations the equal of anywhere.
The seeds of his own own beer writing career were actually sown in the States, in 2010. “My Dad had just emigrated to Fort Collins in Colorado, which is home to an incredible bunch of breweries”, he recalls. “The Odell Brewing Co IPA just blew me away, after which I became obsessed with researching beer.” A blog followed in 2012 and he went full-time freelance in 2016.
Sign of changing times, Modern British Beer is published by CAMRA Books (£15.99pb). This new open door policy may rankle with the diehard stalwarts for whom cask beer is the only choice on the bar, but the brews they are ‘a changin’. The sheer quality of a new generation’s beers, cask, keykeg or keg, cannot be ignored.
So Curtis, region by region, picks an exemplary beer from brewers he deems ‘modern’ according to a manifesto in the front of the book. Some 90 breweries in all feature. Omitted are influential traditionalists such as Harveys and Timothy Taylor, only because they are not ‘modern’. In his opening chapter Curtis dubs the whole contemporary beer scene ‘The Broad Spectrum of Joy’, incidentally the name of his celebratory beer collab with Sussex’s Burning Sky, another brewery fave we share.
We met at Manchester’s own Small Chalet of Joy, Sadler’s Cat, formerly artisan-crafted The Pilcrow, perfect excuse for missing trains from nearby Victoria Station. Now under the aegis of Cloudwater Brewery, it is serving as a guest Track Sonoma on handpull, the stuff of long lockdown dreams. I can’t resist just the three as I quiz Curtis specifically on what makes the Manchester beer scene so enticing he had to relocate last November.
Cloudwater’s Double Hopfenweisse, for a start. How could you not live in a city, which can yoke a German wheat beer style with a modern double IPA? Groundbreaking in different way is Cloudwater providing a platform for black and LGBTQ+ owned beer brands such as Eko Brewing, Rock Leopard and Queer Brewing via collab IPAs getting a national profile on the shelves of Tesco. Woke, of course, but the beer scene has moved on, hence the need for MBB as well as The Good Beer Guide.
Curtis has been living up here for the past 10 months. “It was a fresh start in a new city, Levenshulme felt like Stoke Newington 10 years ago and the beer scene was a huge draw.” It wasn’t the best time to relocate, he admits, but he has no regrets. His partner Dianne had been the driving force and he eventually acquiesced. As a freelance (check out the online magazine he co-edits, Pellicle) he could work from anywhere – and when they arrived she found a job, appropriately enough, as Cloudwater’s Unit 9 tap room manager.
Manchester wasn’t new territory for Curtis. IndieManBeerCon, Friends & Family & Beer, CAMRA’s Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, Marble, Manchester Beer Week, had all been ‘magnets for Matt’.
“Every week in Manchester is Beer Week,” he told me. “IndyMan was the blueprint for all modern beer festivals and I’m fascinated by Beer Nouveau recreating old beer styles. The city has a bit of everything, too. Classic old family breweries such as Lees, Hydes and Holts; incredible traditional pubs such as the Peveril of The Peak, City Arms and the Marble Arch.”
His own local in Levenshulme is Station Hop, one of the bevy of craft beer bars that have sprung up in the past decade. Witness their shortlist dominance in the pub/beer bar category of this year’s Manchester Food and Drink Awards – the likes of Heaton Hops, Beatnikz Republic NQ bar, Reasons to Be Cheerful and Nordie (another Levy watering hole for Curtis).
If it had re-opened earlier, Sadler’s Cat would surely have been a candidate. The refurb has been a real refresher. It gets its name from the cat that accompanied pioneering 19th century balloonist James on his ascent and is curled away in Sadler’s Yard, off Corporation Street.
Of course, a major beneficiary of lockdown home drinking has been canning. Home delivery has allowed beer geeks licence (sic) to explore febrile, far-flung corners of the beer scene. With a huge turnover of one-off brews or seasonal specials it is exhausting, thirsty work. In my quest to locate specific beers spotlighted in Modern British Beer I checked out Curators of Craft, which mails out British and Belgian beer nationwide from its Calder Valley base. My order, as a local, came via electric bike.
Graeme Brown set up the business in November 2019 and has stock from over 60 breweries, including stellar names recommended in the the Curtis book. But of the individual examples representing each brewery only one could I find. Yes, you guessed it, Oregon Trail didn’t prove elusive. And it’s a beer I’d settle for any day.