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Friday, May 02, 2014

The Specter of Stateless Beer

In the past few months, I've missed the opportunity to comment on a few interesting developments.  Perhaps the most interesting is the newly-founded Global Association of Craft Beer Brewers.  As the name implies, it's an international collection of breweries lashed together in a spirit of collaboration.  It appears to differ from the Brewers Association in the sense that it is a way for breweries to pool their collective resources and knowledge to their mutual benefit; it's not a trade organization designed to give the member breweries greater exposure and political heft.  (Which makes sense: it's hard to accomplish those goals when you have a diffuse, international membership.)

So you get sunshiny but vague organizing principles like (emphasis theirs):
The GACBB stands on this spirit of collaboration and exchange. We believe that not only does this new generation of brewers share our attitude and our passion for brewing, but they share an interest in working together instead of always in competition. We invite independent craft brewers from across the globe to join us in empowering independent craft brewers around the globe.
and
We want to help independent brewers come together and learn from each other. We've set up a few projects which we think will be helpful to our members, and are pulling together information to keep our community better informed. Various events and publications will keep members informed and give them the opportunity to exchange with each other. Databases of scientific articles, international cicerones and experts, international media outlets, and interested distributors (micropubs/bars in other countries) will be available to registered members and we will also distribute a newsletter and a yearbook of our members' best brews.
The criteria for inclusion is similar to (and slightly more straightforward than) the Brewers Association's.  Seventy percent of your beer must be sold "in and around your brewery's community"; the founders must own 51% of the brewery; and it must be "creative."  One might reasonably ask how big a "brewery's community" is and who gets to arbitrate questions of "creativity," but you see where they're headed. All well and good.  It makes sense that small breweries would see other small breweries as kindred spirits and find greater prospects for collaboration than, say, national breweries from their home countries. 

What is unnerving to me, though, is how American craft brewing has become a kind of national tradition all to itself.  I first started noticing this trend a few years back, and at the time called in "international extreme."
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)... 

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.
The GACBB has a list of 19 regional board member breweries from around the world.  I started clicking though to their company websites to see what kind of beer they were making.  Their board members are located in Nairobi, UK, US, Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, Lima (Peru), Cape Town, Žatec (Czech), Beijing, Copenhagen, Holsbeke (Belgium), Ensenada (Mexico), Valencia, Ribeirão Preto (Brazil), Berlin, Seoul, and Port Stephens (Australia). 

Some of these breweries are in places with no extant beer culture, so seeing IPAs, pilsners, and porters made sense.  But those were the same kind of beers I found at the Czech and German breweries, too.  (The English and Belgian breweries--Stringers and De Vlier--are brewing local styles.)  The styles of beers, the names and branding--everything looks perfectly American.  These craft breweries might be from Capetown or Valencia, California. 

It sort of makes sense that Americans would guilelessly put a pilsner, dubbel, cask bitter, IPA, and Baltic porter on their menu.  We have Germans and Belgians and English immigrants and we happily regard the world as our cultural buffet.  In the process of appropriation, we tend to mangle things so that they become something American.  That's our culture. 

The problem here is not that breweries from Tel Aviv to Lima make a lineup that could be from any American brewpub, it's that the more an more these breweries share and collaborate, the more those styles become a fixed set of international styles, stateless, floating loosely above a country's culture and history.  Breweries become like airports.  It doesn't matter if you are in Tokyo or France--they all have the same faceless look and feel. 

Do we want a world where the beer in Žatec (birthplace of the hop that made pilsner famous) and the beer in Berlin are just like the ones we drink here in Portland?*

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*No.  The answer is no.


12 comments:

Stan Hieronymus said...

I probably pretty much agree with you, but how do we account for a brewer from Cape Town who visits the United States and is taken with LaCumbre Elevation IPA? Thus inspired he goes home and brews a similar beer, using new hop varieties bred at SAB Hop Farms, like Southern Passion, that have the same sort of bold flavors as some from the Northwest or from New Zealand. How does that fit in?

Ed said...

Calling mild an offbeat curiosity sounds a bit odd. There's not much of it around nowadays but within living memory it was the most popular mainstream beer style in Britain.

On a personal level I like the sound of stateless beer, but not if it means everything tastes of grapefruit! Drinking is becoming ever more globalised (the trend in beer and wine consumption seems to be towards levelling out internationally) but a bit of local authenticity definitely adds to the flavour.

Christopher Barnes said...

I hate the concept of "Globalized Beer." It's the same problem wine is undergoing in which everything everywhere is being made to taste like the crap Robert Parker will rate highly. I like being able to drink beers that taste of the region they're from, that's the great part of globalization. But one bland universal IPA with no sense of place sounds horrific.

pjamesryan said...

I always question consolidation of any type. This seems like a development that is beneficial in terms of pooled knowledge, but also dangerous in the creation of universal standards.

I'm hoping that brewers take these categories, such as IPAs, and slightly modify them for their local markets. I also envision brewers bucking the globalization trend and sticking with creating their favorite beers for regional markets. "Drink Local."

Christopher Grzan said...

"It's the same problem wine is undergoing in which everything everywhere is being made to taste like the crap Robert Parker will rate highly."

Indeed. One of my favorite aspects of beer criticism is that no one voice stands out as significantly more important than another. I thought this would prevent a Robert Parker-like situation from emerging. But it appears Beeradvocate and Ratebeer are on their way to a similar level of influence.

Pivní Filosof said...

I'm all for competitors working together to address common issues and share knowledge and experience (something that even the big brewers do to some extent), but the press releases of these people are quite painful to read, and then you get that "creative" thing and you realise how full of crap these people are. It makes it look like "creativity" is something that brewers should seek after more than skills, expertise and professionalism.

Anyway, and speaking as a consumer, until membership conditions for organisations of this sort include concrete QA and QC standards, like those I proposed last year, initiatives like this will be of little relevance - I don't care about "craft", it's good beer what I want to drink.

Jeff Alworth said...

Stan,

It would be nice if we could begin to see a boomerang effect, but here's what I worry about. In the US, we use two-row pale, layer on some specialty malts, ladles in tons of hops, especially near the end of the boil and in the conditioning tank, and ferment clean with almost neutral ale yeasts in cylindroconical fermenters. I won't go into the way national traditions dictate different methods in England, Belgium, Germany, and the Czech Republic (you know them better than I do), but they all brew not just with different ingredients, but different methods.

So if your Cape Town producer has replicated the American 15-barrel brewery, uses two-row and specialty malts, lots of hops, neutral ale yeasts, etc, but subs in one local hop? Well, that's not a giant deviation. It would be like the American brewer who uses floor-malted Moravian malt, triple decocts a light lager, and then first-wort hops with Sterling instead of Saaz. It's not really an American beer, is it?

Jeff Alworth said...

Ed, that would take a lot of unpacking. But in terms of world styles, milds and saisons are definitely nichey. (I don't know why I threw weizen in there.) I think you acknowledge the point when you mention it's rarely made anymore--and if memory serves, it quit being the most popular style in the mid-60s. That's living memory if you're an old fart, but it even predates me, and I'm a pretty old fart myself. But these are small quibbles.

Christopher B, I almost used wine as an example--but I'm so ignorant of it I figured I'd embarrass myself. Glad you mentioned it.

Max, you make an interesting point on quality. I think I may be in a strange situation here in Portland. We have a few breweries famous for making technically flawed or infected beer, but of the 150+ around the state, the actual number is probably less than ten. The difference--and Stan mentioned it in a post a week ago, which is another of the topics I want to get to--is that there are a lot of breweries making meh beer. Of the 150, I'd say 50 make really fine beer, another 30-50 make reasonable beer, and the remaining 40-60 make beer I don't like enough to drink. (These are wild-guess figures.)

Quality has so many meanings.

Pivní Filosof said...

I'm speaking about "objective" quality. Brewers who know what they're doing, how and why they do it. People with professional experience in the trade, who can have a very good idea of what a beer will taste like already when they are putting together a recipe. People who would never dream of pulling the sort of bullshit The Bruery has pulled recently. People with pride in what they do. Some of those beers may not be to my taste, but that doesn't mean they aren't well made. So far, I have not seen any definition (or conditions for membership in a private club like this) that covers that.

But then again, as I've put in my FB, I've run out of fucks to give about things like this. After all, I'm not a craft beer drinker, I'm a good beer drinker.

Stan Hieronymus said...

Jeff - I'm inclined to call the beer you describe an American beer, and not just to be contrary. Or maybe a beer from an American brewery, because I think we'd talk about it within the context of what else they brew, and how else they brew it.

I don't know how brewers in South Africa are brewing IPAs, but I know that those in Argentina are lobbying the BJCP, and I think perhaps the Brewers Association, to get "IPA Argenta" recognized as a style unto itself. I can email you the guidelines if you want - a little long for a comment. The key components are wheat (about 15%) and Argentine hops.

Jeff Alworth said...

I would LOVE those guidelines, Stan.

J said...

Looking at this purely as a drinker, I would argue there is a place in the market for stateless beer that is of quality as well as beer that is "local" - of place with regards to process and ingredients. I think the problem comes in when someone decrees it has to be one or the other. I have no problem if a brewery in South Africa replicates something in Portland, but in my mind for them to truly be successful creatively they would also need to create something of their own place, be it with process or ingredients, or a combination. I expect the same thing of my local breweries. Sometimes I just want a quality and sometimes I want something new and creative. I can appreciate breweries that do one or the other very well, but I truly value the ones that can excel at both.

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