Crafting a World Wide Influence

For the past 20 years the craft beer revolution has transformed beer in America and reintroduced Americans to beer styles long forgotten in the post war/post prohibition consolidation of the industry. American brewers who created the craft market—McAuliffe, Maytag, and Grossman— introduced us to flavor-forward beers that set them apart from tasteless mass-produced American lagers. As craft beer grew, the desire for flavor and to set oneself apart from the growing number of craft breweries drove brewers to create a category of "imperial" styles that pushed the alcohol and IBU limits of beer. But that wasn't enough. Others gravitated toward even more extremes, creating barrel-aged, sour and funky beers that while they have their roots in traditional European styles are truly American beers. These “new” flavor profiles have become so popular that the market for American-style beers has expanded beyond our borders, and rather than looking to Europe or comparing our beers to theirs as was once the norm, beers made in the United States are now influencing the craft scene worldwide, changing the palate towards American tastes. But at what cost?  As worldwide taste shift towards bigger, hoppier, funkier, barrel-aged this, or apricot, spiced, pepper that, are we creating a brewing mono-culture while destroying traditional regional differences?  

Throughout the world, beer tastes are changing. In the most recent "European Beer Star Awards," U.S. craft brewers were awarded more than 35 medals, with Firestone Walker taking home the "Consumer's Favourite" award for the second year in a row. The recent purchase of Kansas City's Boulevard Brewing by Duvel is further evidence of these shifting tastes. In an interview about the purchase, Duvel's owners admitted that they bought the company to bring American craft beer to a European market. They said of the purchase,  "...[H]ere in Europe...consumers are getting more and more interested in American craft beers....with this partnership, we will be able to develop the taste for those beers more substantially here [in Europe] and in other countries." (NYTimes)  And according to an IBISWorld financial analysis, craft beer imports are expected to grow 35.2% per year for the next five years. Clearly, U.S. craft tastes are beginning to influence the European markets.

In Germany, long held as the brewing mecca of the world, corporate consolidation and the dominance of traditional brands has led to a stagnation in creativity and an overall drop in beer drinking. Stepping in to quench German thirsts for creativity and new flavor profiles are several retail outlets that opened this year, whose sole business is the importation of American craft beer (Washington Post), and business is booming. Add to the burgeoning retail market the growing numbers of German craft brewers who are eschewing traditional styles in favor of IPA, DIPA, Black IPA, Imperial Stouts and other American styles.

Hoping to capitalize on these changing tastes San Diego's Stone Brewing has recently expanded its reach into the German markets. Stone Brewing is in the process of building a brewery in Germany, where they will make their flagship hop-forward beers for the European marketplace. A posting on their blog about the project said this, "[W]e will continue making Stone-style Stone beers. As in, we will certainly make new beers, but they will always keep with our approach to brewing. We will look for inventive ways to incorporate local ingredients, riff on regional styles, and generally exercise our creativity in the brewing process, but our beer will still be recognizably Stone." (Stone Blog) In other words, they plan on making American-style beers, traditions be damned.

In France, like Germany, retail shops are springing up throughout the country, and their proprietors are scrambling to find American beers to sate the growing thirst of European consumers. In the "Audacity of Hops," author Tom Acitelli writes of a Parisian shop desperate for American beers, "[H]e [the owner] knew plenty about American craft beer, including the popular styles and the brewers themselves, but couldn’t readily get them in France.” After showing Acitelli the meager American beer section, the owner went on and explained, “There was a, demand for so many many more" (The Audacity of Hops, xiv). I experienced much the same thing in two shops in the small French village of Chambéry, where my traveling companion and I were looking for locally crafted beer and hoping to find traditional farmhouse ales and Bière de Garde, but instead found locally produced pale ales, IPAs, DIPAs and stouts and shop owners who were willing to trade their local beers for American ones. Paris is also experiencing its own beer revolution. Bottle shops and beer bars, like La Fine Mousse (11th arrondissement), which offers 20 beers on tap and 155 bottled beers, many of them hop-forward American-style beers brewed in France as well as from American brewers like Port, Rouge, Flying Dog, are popping up all over the city, and they are popular with both locals and tourists looking for a break from French wines.

The same thing is happening in Italy, England, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Denmark, and Norway. In fact, there are few countries in Europe not experiencing the emergence of U.S.-styled craft beer.

Even countries not particularly known as brewing countries are seeing a beer revival, and the styles they're producing are distinctly and purposefully American. In Japan, where Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory dominate the market, craft brewers like Nagano's Yo-Ho Brewing Co. are starting to get a foothold. Founded in 1997, Yo-Ho has become one of Japan’s most successful craft brewer. The owners fully acknowledge the influence of the American craft scene and flavor profiles, from their focus on ales and use of American yeast strands to the American beer styles they're producing—their head brewer even apprenticed and then brewed for Stone—they are creating what they call craft beer, not Japanese beer. And they're right, for the past few years their beers have been exported to the west coast of the U.S. Their porter is one of my favorite beers, absolutely delicious and perfectly at home in an American pub.

In Mexico, where lager is king and Grupo Modelo and Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma hold a veritable monopoly on beer and brewing, a quiet craft beer movement is beginning to emerge, as reported by Beer Paper L.A. These adventurous brewers are bringing to market some pretty fantastic beers. For example, Ensenada Brewing has embraced local ingredients producing a unique horchata porter, a smoked pilonocillo porter, and a red agave IPA.  But, despite using local ingredients and being hecho in Mexico, as a rep from Cucapá brewing told me at a recent tasting event, they "aren't making Mexican beer they're making craft beer," and this means beers in an American style. Cucapá brews a pretty decent blonde, pale ale, and IPA, and there's not a single lager in their portfolio.

So what? What's the problem with these countries shifting tastes? Doesn't it affirm the inventiveness, quality and flavor profiles American craft brewers are creating? Yes, but if the wine industry is any indicator this might be a dangerous trend.

For the past 30 years of so, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and his 100-point scoring system have ruled wine criticism and has had a detrimental impact on the wine industry where, this one critic's opinion shaped the way wine makers made their wines. Parker's tastes, like that of many American wine drinkers, tends toward big, fruit-forward wines prevalent in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys in California. As a result of his influence and the consolidation and growing corporatization of the wine industry, European winemakers shifted their production and vineyards to better suit Parker's and thus American's palate. To compete in this market, small producers began plowing under-aged old vineyards and replanting grapes to fit these new bolder flavor profiles. Thousand of heirloom old-vine grapes were destroyed, and in the process Italian and French wines became largely nondescript, losing the aspects that had made them regionally unique. And I’m afraid this same fate might befall the world beer industry, where traditional European beers will be lost to a growing love of American styles.

Thankfully Parker's influence has waned and small producers are fighting back returning to old variety grapes, reviving heirloom vineyards and celebrating the artisanal and local markets rather than engaging with global tastes. In essence, they've created a craft viniculture that is fighting back against homogeneous wine industry brought on by global wine criticism. And that's where the silver lining in craft beer’s influence may be. That is, not only have American craft brewers influenced world tastes (the bad?), but also their ideals: small, independent, creative businesses run by people who are unafraid to innovate or to explore traditions forgotten because of corporatization or consolidation are influencing a new generation of craft brewers throughout the world.

All of the countries mentioned above, including Belgium, are witnessing a renaissance of micro/nano brewing culture. One of my favorite examples of this craft rebellion is the Brewery Cantillon in Brussels, who make some of the best spontaneously fermented Labics in Belgium or Berlin’s tiny nano brewery Bogk-Bier Privatbrauerei. And while they may make an IPA or imperial-what-not to please the evolving tastes in the market, they are also experimenting with traditional styles, reviving long-forgotten recipes or inventing new flavors based on local ingredients.

To me it is the experimentation, creativity, and ties to the local community, neighborhood or culture that make craft beer exciting, interesting and ultimately local. While the influence of the American tastes can be seen as deleterious, this new breed of craft brewer is adopting them to their community and making them their own. Ultimately craft beer engenders regional and local diversity and for that it should be celebrated.