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?
The American “take-no-prisoners” envelope-pushing is beginning to rub off on the stoic European brewers.
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.