It’s in the Numbers
Tierney-Jones took a good look at those numbers as he and a corps of writers chose the beers for a book, 1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die, he is editing for publication next March. “You could argue that they demonstrate the growing Americanization of beer culture in certain places in the world,” he said. “There are IPAs and imperial stouts from Italy, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, Canada and even the Czech Republic; Australian beers that open their arms to Brett; British beers….”
Evan Rail, a native Californian now living in Prague who wrote the Good Beer Guide: Prague & the Czech Republic, sees the American effect from both sides. “One is that what people call ‘Eurobeers’—the bland, mass-produced pale lagers—seem to be getting even more bland,” he said. “It’s not just the Americans anymore: a lot of the big European beers are really like having sex in a canoe.” On the flip side, he added, more European brewers are going in the opposite direction, pushing for more flavor.
In countries where the indigenous beer culture had mostly been swept away—Denmark is a good example—American-style brewing has made big inroads,” said Ron Pattinson, who writes one of the Internet’s best-read beer blogs—Shut Up About Barclay Perkins—from his home in Amsterdam. “But, I would expect beers there to gradually move away from American beers in style and establish their own identity.”
In Italy, Birra del Borgo founder Leonardo Di Vincenzo brews beers with ingredients such as spelt, which is unique to the region east of Rome where he lives, gentian root and tobacco, but also ones bittered with American hops. He exports several of these beers to the United States, but he does not brew them with that in mind. “I took the American market as an example to follow but I also am confronted with Italian one that is totally different,” he said.
Like any good Roman, he retains a personal appreciation of the classics. “Drinkers are asking for that [bold beers] a lot, but I’m sure that after this trend passes the classical will be more appreciated by beer lovers and drinkers,” he said. “I do worry that the classical are underrated in this moment and that’s a pity.”
Di Vincenzo, 33, looks like you expect an Italian brewer to, charismatic and swarthy, with a constant seven-o’clock shadow. He would be an instant star at an American beer festival. He’s been to Delaware to brew a collaboration beer with Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and to Brussels to make one at Cantillon. Such partnerships create cross cultural exchanges between brewers that seldom existed a few years ago.
I’ve always been passionate about learning how other brewers are doing things,” said Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing Co., a frequent collaborator. Not long ago Stone brewed a black pilsner called Juxtaposition with BrewDog and Cambridge Brewing Co. in Massachusetts. “For all at BrewDog, having Greg [Koch], Steve [Wagner] and Mitch over to brew with is pretty much like a crazy music fan being able to go on stage and rock out with their favorite band,” Watt, 27, said.
Bill Covaleski, co-founder of Victory Brewing Co. in Pennsylvania, took part in one of the first. In 2002 he brewed a version of Victory’s HopDevil Ale as a collaboration at the Viennese brewpub “1516” (the name refers to Germany’s brew purity law, the Reinheitsgebot), and it’s been on tap almost constantly since. Victory began exporting beer to England, Ireland and Denmark in 2009. “We’re serious about Europe,” he said. Overall, American craft brewery exports grew 25 percent in 2008, with shipments up 16 percent to Europe and more than 50 percent to Asia.
Taste the Difference
Even when locals aren’t drinking these new-fangled American ales, those beers make their presence felt. Covaleski studied at brewing school in Bavaria and knows the European beer culture well. He appreciates what could be lost, but also what could be gained. He’s a fan of traditional (he’d suggest a capital “T”) low alcohol cask-conditioned British ales, but is not at all bothered to taste modern versions containing American hops. “It’s a good trend. It allows them additional freedom,” he said. “Otherwise it’s like asking a kid to draw a picture with eight crayons instead of the whole box.”
Pattinson pulls no punches when he tastes American hops he doesn’t like, such as citrusy Northwest varieties in imperial stouts. He easily recognizes an Americanized beer. “Most definitely yes. Basically taking a style, substituting American hops, doubling the hopping rate, upping the alcohol by 50 percent. Is it good or bad? Depends on your point of view,” he said. “Personally, I find many American beers dull precisely because of the way the style has been Americanized. The move towards basically just two types of beer: pale, strong and hoppy; dark, strong and hoppy.”
Shelton shares similar concerns. “At some point you have to decide what beer has to be. You need a coherent philosophy,” he said. “Beer should be something you can drink a lot of.” He points to lower-alcohol English ales as just one of many examples of beer that could be bulldozed. “It is getting harder and harder to find the great stuff,” he said.
BrewDog makes aggressive beers and Watt isn’t shy about criticizing the “stuffy U.K. scene,” but he disagrees with Shelton. “I think there is a place for all type of beers. The craft beer category is vibrant and growing but it would be wrong to assume that all drinkers joining the revolution are going to find their preference in the more extreme beers,” he said. “Some will naturally prefer the more balanced styles. Classics are classic for a reason, they have withstood the tests of time and will continue to do so.”