All About Beer Magazine - Volume 27, Issue 4
September 1, 2006 By

Jean Van Roy couldn’t have anticipated the answer he would get when he asked American brewers who had brought him distinctly American hops how much he should add to his boiling kettle.

The first portion of Amarillo hops he dropped in was already more than he’d usually use. He looked at perhaps 10-fold more in the remaining bags. Then he looked at the Americans. “How much?” he asked.

They didn’t hesitate, replying in unison: “All of it.”

If Roy didn’t already understand that these five American brewers who visited Belgium in March were different, he must have at that moment.

Brewers of New American Beers have been heading to the east side of the Atlantic for more than two decades to taste traditionally brewed beers and learn how they are made. Call it the inspired visiting the inspiration. Seldom, however, do they arrive with a large supply of their own beer and hand out samples to both brewers and consumers. Seldom do they end up with their photos accompanying stories on the front page of local newspapers, nor do they attract television crews who want to do interviews.

Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione came up with the idea for the trip as part of “research” for his next book, Extreme Brewing (due from Rockport Publishers in the fall). It wasn’t hard to talk Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing, Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing, Adam Avery of Avery Brewing and Rob Todd of Allagash Brewing into joining him on the trip.

“We look forward to sharing our beers with them,” Calagione said before going. “We’re not saying our stuff is better than yours or anything like that. We want to recognize they are the Mecca.”

Delivering the keynote speech at the Craft Brewers Conference in Seattle several weeks after returning, Calagione made another point, “We knew we weren’t just representing the five breweries present but everyone in this room as we turned more and more people on to the amazing beers being made all across this country.”

Earlier in the same speech, Calagione drew an analogy between the revolution in American beer than began in earnest in the 1980s and changes in music—taking his electric guitar and electric backing band onto a folk stage—that Bob Dylan sparked in the 1960s.

Calagione didn’t reach back just a few more years in Dylan’s history, but he could have. When Dylan was growing up in Minnesota in the late 1950s, he was totally obsessed with Woody Guthrie, copying and mimicking Guthrie in every way he could. He joined other aspiring folksingers in New York City in the 1960s, where a rite of passage was sitting at Guthrie’s feet—by then Guthrie was badly debilitated by Huntington’s disease—on a Sunday afternoon and playing him his own songs. (Guthrie always insisted on hearing his own, rather than theirs.)

These five brewers took plenty of notes about what goes on in traditional Belgian brewers, “studied” scores of traditional beers and even (shhhhh!) brought back some untamed yeast strains.

But when they took their seats at the masters’ tables, they served their own beers.

Life As Art

A few hours after Calagione delivered his keynote in Seattle, the five sat down at a round table for two hours. The conversation raced clockwise, counter-clockwise or back and forth. The brewers completed sentences for each other or asked the follow-up questions.

Certainly the fact they recently spent a week in close quarters made a difference, but it felt like you could have put different craft brewers in some of the seats and the conversation would have been as enthusiastic. PBS or The Food Network should turn this into a regular production. It certainly would be more thought provoking than the “Man Laws” commercials airing in support of Miller Lite.

Just for fun, here are program descriptions for a pilot and two more shows, with sound bites taken from conversations at the round table, those that followed in the days after and some e-mail exchanges. (Statements do not necessarily appear here in the order in which they were made.)

THE PILOT: Who are these co-called members of a new generation of brewers?

Brewers at Anchor and Sierra Nevada were the first generation to make New American Beers. Where are we now?

Adam Avery, 40, founded Avery Brewing in Boulder, CO, in 1993. The brewery produced 7,500 barrels in 2005, an increase of 17%. Dollar sales were up 30% and through the first half of 2006 were tracking at a 50% growth rate. (“I’ve spent as much on equipment in the last five months as I did in the first 13 years combined,” he said.)

Adam: “I’d say I was second generation when I started out. Hog Heaven [barley wine first brewed in 1997] really put us on the map, but our sales were still declining between 1998 and 2000. Then we made The Reverend for the first time, we started doing the series of threes [all extreme beers] and now we’ve got 19 beers we’re brewing at least once a year, third generation stuff.”

Tomme Arthur, 32, began brewing at Pizza Port in Solana Beach, CA, in 1996, where capacity limited him to 900 barrels per year. Earlier this year, Port Brewing acquired the former Stone Brewing system, which will allow Arthur to brew in 30-barrel batches and grow beyond microbrewery size. The brewery will produce both the Port beers and a new Lost Abbey brand, and has already acquired nearly 100 (both bourbon and wine) barrels that will be used to age and refine a wide range of beers. The first two Lost Abbey beers—Avant Garde and Lost & Found Abbey Ale—are already on the market.

Tomme: “I’ve been at this for 10 years now and I have always considered myself to be one of the first third generation guys. I say this because I am very comfortable in my surroundings; I know a ton of the second-generation guys very well (Dick Cantwell, Fal Allen, Phil Markowski, Garrett Oliver, el al.). I believe…they would all view me as a younger version of them. So, third generation it is.”

Sam Calagione, 37, brewed on a one-barrel system in 1995 when he and his wife, Mariah, opened Dogfish Head Brewery & Eats in Reheboth Beach, DE. After producing 29,400 barrels in 2005, Dogfish will brew 40,000 this year and be able to make much more in 2007. (“We’re brewing 24/7 right now,” Calagione said, anticipating the installation of new equipment in September). The average beer going out the door is 9% alcohol by volume.

Sam: “I think the second generation—Deschutes, New Belgium, Harpoon, Shipyard—did a great job of regionalizing. Our third generation has been real good at specializing.”

Vinnie Cilruzo, 36, began brewing at Blind Pig Brewing in Southern California in 1993. Today he sells everything he can make (about 3,000 barrels) at Russian River Brewing in Northern California, and he and his wife, Natalie, are planning a separate production facility.

Vinnie: “I think there is a generation between us and the first. I’m just going to point to Anderson Valley as an example. They took at style like ESB [Extra Special Bitter in England] and made it into an American beer with Belk’s [now known as Boont ESB]. I also think they were the first to use the 22-ounce bottle.”

Rob Tod, 38, began selling Allagash White on July 1, 1995. Despite adding equipment earlier this year, the brewery can’t keep up with demand, and will open a new brewery on an adjoining property in 2007. Allagash grew 17% in 2005 to 4,750 barrels and will sell 6,000 this year.

Rob: “You could call us another generation, but you could also say we’re all part of the same generation with one wave after another. When they first started, we already had an American-style pilsner, so they thought why try to duplicate that? Then another group figured ‘Why make an American Pale Ale your signature like Sierra Nevada?’ That kind of takes the fun out of it.”

WEEK 2: Is small beautiful? Is bigger better?

Like some Belgian breweries, American brewers who produce extreme beers often have reputations that far outstrip their size.

Tomme: “The notoriety of the extreme beers obviously gets us attention. The really striking one has been Avery. They weren’t really on the radar for a long time.”

Adam: “I knew the (Belgian] breweries were small, but I didn’t know they were that small (Cantillon brews less than 1,000 barrels per year]. You walk in and see how tiny they are and realize the global aspect of their business. You realize, why can’t we sell beer in Europe? Why can’t we sell beer in Japan? There are only a few palates that are going to like our beers.”

Sam: “While they have that international appreciation, they’re not letting that affect their growth. I think it was Kris [Herteleer at De Dolle—about 800 barrels] who said, ‘We don’t let them tell us how much to brew.’”

Adam: “They say no more than they say yes.”

Sam: “Every single brewery at this table is sacrificing volume to make the beer you want to make. You have to ask yourself if you are going to let the economies drive the decision or the beer.”

Adam: “People ask me, ‘If you could be 100,000 or 200,000 barrels would you do it?’ Then they say ‘You don’t want to get big.’ No, I want to grow. As you get bigger you get better, you get better equipment. I’m still going to make the beers I want to make and I’m going to find the markets for them.”

Rob: “We are definitely not volume-driven; we’re innovation-drive and quality-driven. But there’s nothing inherently bad about volume. For instance, we can afford better lab equipment.”

Vinnie: “There’s a fine line between wanting to live the [brewers’] lifestyle and running a business. We’re at a point we have to grow, but I don’t want to be a giant brewery.”

Sam: “Your brewers will make fun of you [when they hear that].”

Can you still say the beers, the recipes, are your own as you become a larger brewing company?

Tomme: “It’s still all me, especially with the new brewery coming on. Things that have been hitting in my head for many years….what they should look like, taste like and how to get there. That’s my terroir; it is my signature.”

Adam: “I’d say I was the most anal owner until 2000, and as soon as I gave that up, that was the beginning of our upward swing.”

Sam: “I’ve always done the conceptual part…but if we’ve got three samples of ginger to choose from I leave that to [the lead brewers]. I got no one else to blame. The soul is mine, the personality is mine.”

Vinnie: [When the production brewery opens the brewer in charge will] “understand the beers are defined and have our signature. They must be bone dry—that can’t change. The new brewer suggests adding crystal [to round the flavor] — ‘You’re fired!’”

Rob: “As your business grows, you have to have more good people making decisions. The problem with the big breweries is they may have great brewers, but their company culture is to dumb down everything they do [to reach a broader audience].”

WEEK 3 (with special guest Vert Van Ecke of St. Bernardus): Are Belgian-inspired beers the “third wave” or should American beer drinkers expect something different?

Point: “Belgian-style ales are hot,” Ray Daniels, Brewers Association Director of Craft Beer Marketing, said a while back. “I’ve begun to refer to them as the Third Wave.” He explained German and British styles were the first two waves.

Counterpoint: Peter Bouckaert, born and trained in Belgium and now in charge of brewing at New Belgium Brewing, puts forth the challenge: “Maybe the craftbrewers were (once) looking to the Old World, Germany, Great Britain, then Belgium. Is it really about the Old World? Let’s create something, let’s have fun.”

Tomme: “For a while there, people were trying to replicate the world styles, but I don’t know that I ever set out to copy another beer.”

Sam: “That’s not really what we are about. Our beers are an informed version of their beers—but not meant to be imitative.”

Tomme: “We are making a major commitment to barrel-aging and to have six beers available in from wood after about 18 months of being up and running. Two [beers] will be strictly from bourbon barrels, one will be a blend [Cuvee] and three will be from the [bug-laden] French Oak.”

Vinnie: “When we get the barrel program in place, I’d like to be able to sell Temptation [a blond ale aged in Chardonnay barrels] year-round, plus have four seasonals. We’re still experimenting two to four barrels [that once fermented wines made with a variety of different grapes] at a time. If Temptation isn’t exactly the same very year, that’s OK—I’d like it to be within 80-90%.”

Adam: “I knew I liked gueuze but I didn’t realize I liked it that much. Now I really want to make it and I know that it’s do-able, but exactly how are we? It’s the perfect example of doing it first just for myself.”

Rob: “These beers really seem like an art that takes years to master, and we have enough on our plate as it is. So we’re going to play around, but we’re going to do our own thing. We’ve found we have our own [strain of] Brett growing in out barrels. It’s clean, fruity, very dry.”

We think of innovation as part of Belgium’s tradition, but can tradition also inhibit revolution?

Tomme: “A new beer to them is a variation on the old beer. I think they are bound a lot by tradition. They are not a country that is driven so much by the need to innovation because they have such great beers.”

Rob: “We’re constantly looking for ways to innovate. We’re changing things every three months. One of the most important parts of our business is embracing change.”

Vinnie: “We could be the ones who are setting what is tradition, who knows?”

Sam: “In 100 years, are people going to complain we are the ones not doing anything innovative any more?”

Tomme: “I would have to honestly say that we have a whole world of innovation ahead of us.”

Vinnie: “I didn’t get much reaction from Damnation [from Belgians], but I got comment after comment that Supplication was different than anything they’d seen in Belgium before. ‘You are really are creating a new style.’”

Vinnie: “That’s where there’s a new generation of brewers we might end up helping. Talking to Bernard [LeBoucq, brewer at St. Pieters], my feeling is there is a hunger there to do new things, and it seems like the old school brewers aren’t sharing information with him.”

At 27, Bert Van Ecke of St. Bernadus is younger than many third generation American brewers, but he heads operations at a brewery that for 46 years (1946-1992) produced beer under contract for the Trappist monastery St. Sixtus (Westvleteren). While judging for the World Beer Cup in Seattle, he met many American-brewed beer styles, such as hoppy barley wines, he’d never experienced before.

Speaking as a member of a panel of Belgian brewers that attracted hundreds of American brewer,s he wasn’t shy about noting that many Americans do not place the same premium on balance and “digestibility” as Europeans. That led him to many more face-to-face discussions with American brewers in the next 36 hours.

Bert: “One thing is sure, the Belgian taste is not the American taste. If what they call Belgian style they call an American style, then the discussion I started about balance would be avoided.

“America is already further in beer than Belgium is today, if not in balancing” (He stops to smile.) “It is about a different taste, but the power and the enthusiasm of the American beer world is incredible.

“Seattle was one of the best experiences I ever had about beer, beautiful discussions, and I believe there are still great opportunities for Belgian beer, if we want to change and think about our future.”

Hundreds, make that thousands, of American brewers like the look of that future.