Along with the less prominent but perhaps equally innovative Picobrouwerij Alvinne, Struise has become famous among American beer fanatics for unusual brews that fuse Belgian conventions with influences from abroad. “We stick to tradition, but we give a crazy twist to it,” Grootaert, 46, told me. As Alvinne’s Glenn Castelein, 38, put it, “We could do just regular beers and try to sell it in the neighborhood, but that’s kind of dull. So we thought, ‘Okay, let’s take a risk.’”The article presents a snapshot of a new kind of brewery, one Fromson notes is pan-European: companies helmed by young people who make extreme beers whose sales depend on American beer geeks, the internet, and more than a little self-promotion. (He mentions BrewDog and Mikkeller, though Struise is the article's poster brewery--and one that doesn't come off looking too great.)
I've noticed the trend, too. The internet has been a huge boon to tiny breweries who can now reach out to drinkers a continent away for almost no cost. Exotica, strength, and hops are their calling card, and as Fromson notes, sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer generate massive excitement (blogs and Twitter help, too). Call me a stodgy old man, but there's something unsettling about this trend.
For one, the beers these breweries produce are fairly similar and are inspired by the gigantism that we see in the US. Hop bombs, huge stouts, and strong ales are central. A related trend, in which American have been an accelerant, are wild ales, especially strong ones. (You can't say Americans started the trend; yet there is something American in the ways wild yeasts and bacteria have been bent to the service of extreme beers.) If you glance at the beer lists of several of these breweries--take BrewDog, Struise, Mikkeller, Nøgne Ø --you see a predominance of these styles. They are, not coincidentally, exactly the styles that score the highest on beer ratings sites.
What we're seeing is the emergence of an international style of brewing abetted by instant communications and relatively cheap exports. These breweries aren't of a place, they're of every place. Brewers can learn instantly whether a style, ingredient, or technique is popular and instantly replicate it. All of this is fine in one way, but it is a very different model from the slow, evolutionary model of style development that has resulted in offbeat curiosities like saison or mild ale or Bavarian weizens. Those styles evolved because of local conditions and circumstances, almost because they didn't have the information of other places or the resources to replicate beer styles from them.
We're quite a long way away from a world in which every brewery only makes hop bombs, imperial stouts, and barrel-aged imperial Flemish reds, but the direction alarms me. I wonder if there will be an emergent trend that will counter the internationalization of big, extreme beers.
Update: I see Stan has a post on this, too.