Devotees of West Coast microbrews may be some of the last to embrace stodgy British beer. Brews from California and the Northwest are often loaded with bitter and aromatic hops, infused with all manner of fruit flavorings, or made to sip with a slice of lemon in the sun; spend enough time around them and anything else can seem ... well, uncivilized. But Great Britain has a little secret. A visit to Oakland's Commonwealth Cafe and Pub (2882 Telegraph Ave.), not far from Uptown establishments pouring the likes of Lagunitas IPA and Pyramid Haywire Hefeweizen, may just shake that Californiaphile foundation to the core.
Sure, Commonwealth has locals on the draught menu — Firestone Walker, Drake's, Marin Brew Co. — but the more noteworthy bottle list features fourteen beers from Scotland and nineteen from England, plus a pair from maligned Australia and New Zealand. None of these countries are known for quality beer stateside, especially to the West Coast microbrew snob, but as we learned on a recent visit, dismissing them is a big mistake. In fact, despite the generally smoother, subtler flavors; more conventional brewing methods; and oft-absurd names (to wit: Old Engine Oil, Banana Bread, Santa's Swally) that initially inspired trepidation, lesser-known brews of the British Isles earned a place in our refreshment repertoire. Bravo, as they say.
We started with Morland Brewery's Old Speckled Hen (440 mL, $4, 5.2 percent), an English beer whose style was not indicated on the menu. Instead of asking, we just ordered. Turns out it's a "fine ale" with a rich amber color. The label boasts — quite quaintly, we thought — that it pairs perfectly with "Sunday roasts, cured meats, and cheese." Much as in Boddington's and Guinness, the tall can comes equipped with a nitrogen ball to achieve a smooth, airy, draught-like mouthfeel; sipping the frothy head was a bit like consuming a cloud. Its taste recalled Boddington's, but spicier. Whip out the meats and cheese, or drink alone.
Despite its humdrum name, we couldn't resist sampling a bottle of Meantime Brewery's London Porter (330 mL, $6, 6.5 percent). And we got just what we wanted: a porter completely unlike those we're accustomed to. Instead of being blander than its American counterparts, this one's decidedly richer: a deep black brew with a strong coffee nose. Its flavor has a hint of Newcastle Brown Ale, also out of England, but goes leaps and bounds beyond. The sweet, heavy beer imparted flavors of caramel, candy, and more coffee over a traditional bitter porter base.
For the sake of novelty, we tried to avoid the ubiquitous India Pale Ale. But sure enough, Belhaven Brewery of Scotland's Twisted Thistle (500mL, $6, 6.1 percent) came bottled as an IPA. Fortunately, it bears little to no resemblance to an American IPA; its orange, almost effervescent color speaks more of an amber, while the taste could pass for a flavorful pale. In other words, it's an IPA with none of the bite and none of the bitterness — suitable for American consumers not too high on hops. We found it refreshing, drinkable, and well-balanced: another winner.
For dessert, there's the chocolate stout float: a bottle of bitter, dark-chocolate-flavored Young's Double Chocolate Stout of England poured over creamy vanilla ice cream ($7). Like everything else we tried, it was delicious — and not only because it was different.