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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

On America's Influence

It is always controversial to identify the United States as a source of influence or inspiration for brewers in other countries--even when it seems so manifestly obvious.  I was surprised, however, to see that this influence extended even to Germany and some of the most traditional precincts of the brewing world.  It's not that every brewery in the country is racing to embrace double IPAs, but it's also not the case that brewers exist in a black box.  Take for example this story from Hans-Peter Drexler, the master brewer at Schneider and Sohn.  He describes what happened when he took a trip to the US fourteen years ago.
“I saw all these American beers and it was a new beer world for me. When I started in the brewing [industry], people used to say, ‘Oh, the Americans are just like chemists and pharmacists. There are only a few breweries; it’s terrible beer.’ But I remember I was very impressed with the beers of Sierra Nevada. Very, very nice beers. That’s when I found Cascade hops, and I thought it should be easy to match the American citrusy Cascade hops with Bavarian-style weissbier. So we started to brew Edel-Weisse with them.” 
A little later he added:
“Five years ago when we started this transatlantic project [Hopfen-Weisse, with Brooklyn Brewing] I would say nobody was very interested in different beer styles, in American beer and Belgian beer. But now, more and more people talk about beer, they like to taste different beer styles, and they’re really interested in beers. For us, it’s a very interesting new movement.” 
And then a little later, this, which was kind of shocking:
"Some American versions of classic beer styles are more interesting than the European originals.  Marzen?  I found exciting American marzens that are more interesting than European originals.  Every two years I go to the US for judging in the World Beer Cup.  Mostly I had the Bavarian dunkles and marzen and German-style lager.  And then, when I see the results, I am wondering because the winners are American breweries."

He looked slightly exasperated after he said this, and I said, "but you were the judge!" and he laughed.  It prompted him to tell the story of an occasion when he got in a discussion at the judging table with some American judges about what the qualities of a Bavarian dunkles should be.  "And the winner of the discussion was me.  And the result, the gold and silver medals went to American breweries."
Obviously, influences ricochet around the planet and it's hard to ignore the fact that Americans are basically brewing European beer styles.  Americans constantly tap the riches of foreign countries to enrich our own culture--and food and beverage have always been ground zero for reappropriation.  (In the case of the dunkles Hans-Peter judged, you could say we were just trying to out-Bavaria the Bavarians.)  But it's also not true to say that all the influence is going only one direction, anymore. Even when we're talking about Germany.


  1. The influence needn't be in terms of flavour/aroma/ingredients, so much as a reminder that towards blandness and monopoly is not the only direction in which to be travelling.

  2. In addition to the point Bailey makes, here in Amsterdam, my local includes one beer from Schneider (on tap). With the exception of a Cantillion, it is the most expensive beer on tap (€5).

    European brewers have indeed learned that if they appeal to beer geeks or people who want something "unconventional", they can get away with charging a lot more for their beer. Here de Molen does that and in Belgium, Alvinne and de Struise do it.

    For most of them, it just seems to make good business sense.

  3. America has indeed changed the beer scenery in Belgium over the last few years.
    Some new ‘un-Belgian’ beer styles are popping up now, like IPA. And some breweries that are unknown to most Belgians, like Cantillon, 3 Fonteinen, Struise Brouwers, … are booming like never before thanks to their export to the US.
    Personally I applaud it, because it also widens the view of Belgian people on our own beer. New beers are appearing and some old ‘forgotten’ beers are re-surfacing. So more beers for us to choose from :-)