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Hophead: Baffled By British Beer

May a grand Constellation be formed by a union of American virtues. --Revolution-era toast, per Richard J. Hooker's "The American Revolution Seen Through A Wine Glass" (though we like to think that beer mugs were hoisted to these words as well).

Two British ales recently proved to be real head-scratchers for Ye Olde Hophead. That's not to say they weren't enjoyable--quite the contrary on both accounts. But each offered a surprise of some sort.

The first was Samuel Smith's India Ale, from Yorkshire's oldest brewery. Printed on the label of the 18.7-oz bottle is the familiar legend about IPAs' development as an ale heavily hopped to preserve it for shipment to India, a story upon which this installment of Hophead touched.

One might expect an ale with such a hop-centric origin story to back it up with a pretty intense blast of hops. One might be wrong.

The India Ale poured a clear, brassy orange-brown with a creamy tan head that settled pretty quickly to a few big soapy-looking bubbles. Very subtle citrus points were hardly present in the malty nose. More pronounced was a brown-sugar and caramel sweetness. The taste was decidedly malty with the hops providing a bracing bitterness and just the faintest citrus overtone. It was a nice, refreshing beer, but without nearly the wallop of most American pale ales--let alone IPAs.

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The other British beer was simply deceptive in its appearance. From every angle, the beer inside the bottles of Morland's "Old Speckled Hen" (their quote marks, not ours) appeared pinkish, almost precisely the color of white zinfandel. That must've been an optical illusion created by the reddish label. Poured into a glass, it proved to be a not-too-unusual copper-amber color, with a less pronounced and less sticky head than the Samuel Smith India Ale.

As for the taste, it was a well-balanced pale ale with some resinous piney, earthy notes preceding a clean, bitter finish. Overall, it was a satisfying if not earth-shattering brew.

Perhaps an American palate accustomed to more-is-more domestic double IPAs with a hop punch strong enough to TKO Lennox Lewis simply isn't capable of picking up on the subtleties of two ales so British in character. Perhaps American craft brewers have pushed the envelope too far with intense flavors, in much the same way that makers of snack foods have steadily hiked the levels of salt, sugar and spices to such extreme levels that anything less exciting than Flamin' Hot tastes bland.

Or maybe Brits are just wimps. Then again, watching their behavior at football matches, that can't be the case.

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