I got into beer in college, hardly an uncommon experience. Less common was the fact that I didn’t drink American beers, but lots of European beers-beers with more color and flavor. Even more unusual, I had begun making some of the very beer that I was drinking. An English friend had introduced me to the unimaginable idea that one could actually brew their own at home. What could be more satisfying?
At the same time I also traveled to Europe. I wasn’t going to ogle Etruscan ruins or Roman baths or Van Goghs; I was there to taste and explore the brew of my idols. Through England, Scotland, Belgium and Germany I made beer pilgrimages, trying to soak up, almost literally, the best of the best.
A few years later, at my dull but well-paying engineering job, I sat doodling brewing recipes that I couldn’t wait to execute over the blessed weekend. “Imagine doing this for a living”? I mused. Less than a year later, through pure “right place, right time” luck, it happened, I became a (totally inexperienced) professional brewer.
Now what? I was American and clueless, thinking we can’t make good beer. After all, the greatest brewers in the world were European.
Of course, I had noticed a few stateside rays of light; Anchor Brewing, Sierra Nevada, Grants and something called Cold Spring Export. But then there was Young’s, Fullers, Caledonian, Augustiner, Andechs and Hoegaarden. The Europeans were giants; we were pipsqueaks.
I spent much of that first year shaking in my knee-high rubber boots, fearing I might squander the sizable investment in stainless steel and pumps. What if I made bad beer? And even if it was good, how could it approach the quality of the beers the Europeans made? After all, they had been brewing since time immemorial. My American colleagues and I had been doing it for less time than George Bush (the first) was in office.
Over the years I’ve had some cause to feel insecure about my status as an American brewer. A German brewer once said to me mockingly, “You Americans make silly beers” as he took a big swig of his own Helles. A Belgian brewer once taunted me with a stern, “You Americans use much too many hops” followed by “Besides, nobody can brew beer like the Belgians.”
As I gained experience, and more confidence in my palate and brewing, it occurred to me that my fellow American brewers and I were indeed making decent beer. After umpteen brewery tours here and abroad, I began to realize that European brewers put their pants on just like us, one leg at a time.
Maybe it was the cans of Yakima Valley hop extract I saw at several German breweries. Or maybe it was the flies in the mash at an English brewery or the black mold growing perilously close to the rim of an open fermentor at a Czech brewery (the beer was great, by the way). Or perhaps, most unthinkable, tasting one poorly made, over-spiced Belgian ale after another.
Don’t get me wrong. There are tons of great beers in Europe, and they are still masters- but they’re not alone. They have shown us a great deal and there’s plenty more to learn from the classic European approach to brewing: subtlety, austerity and refinement are adjectives that come to mind. (Personally, I could stand to see more of these traits in American craft beer and believe it will come as the industry matures.)
But they were not alone. What American brewers lack in brewing history we made up with unfettered enthusiasm. We have the freedom to take brewing to new heights (some would say “extremes”) without reprisal. Freedom is another word for not having a heavy tradition to shoulder.
And the American “take-no-prisoners” envelope-pushing is beginning to rub off on the stoic European brewers. My meetings with European brewers have seen a change in attitude where “American craft brewer” carries a general sense of respect (or at least cordial curiosity).
Once upon a time we had a revolution, breaking our ties with Europe. Recently, we had a revolution in brewing, breaking away from mass-produced beer. Today there seems to be a minor brewing revolution happening in Europe, inspired by American beer. There are “double” and even “triple” IPAs found in Scandinavia. Some English ales are flaunting Pacific Northwest home character and a few Belgian brewers are flexing their alpha acid bitterness like never before.
American brewers starting to influence the Europeans? Who would have thought that “more” and “bigger” would translate into the Old World? The world of beer comes Full Circle.
American brewers influencing the Europeans? Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Who said bigger can’t be better. Hold onto your Hallertauers-the Yanks have arrived!
Phil Markowski is the award-winning brewmaster at the Southhampton Publick House. In 2003, the Association of Brewers honored him with the Russell Scherer award for Innovation in Craft Brewing. He is the author of Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftmanship in the Belgian Tradition.