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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

International Extreme: Supplanting Local Styles?

I'd like to direct your attention to an interesting article in the Washington Post. Daniel Fromson writes about the newest crop of Belgian breweries--which have garnered raves from the US:
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.


  1. They're in a region where there are TONS of brewers making all of the "traditional" local styles, so what's the problem with them deciding to go their own direction? I thought that's what craft beer was all about?

    There will be brewers making classic styles as long as there are drinkers drinking them, but there's no need for tomorrow's new brewery to add in the 10,000th traditional Trippel into the Belgian market, especially since they're at a disadvantage in both experience with the style and market acceptance.

    Turn this around...."Are American craft brewers supplanting the light lagers that are traditionally brewed in the USA?"

    One might argue they are, but why is that a bad thing? Why is breaking up stagnation good here, but bad in Belgium?

  2. Jeff - I posted this on Google+

    Some interesting responses so far.

  3. By taking these comments to Google+ (of which I am a user) aren't we in fact supplanting local comments?


    "What we're seeing is the emergence of an international style of brewing abetted by instant communications and relatively cheap exports."

  4. Jeepman, probably so, but I don't really know what I'm doing on Google+, so I regard it as mostly fictional. You know, like everything I don't understand.

  5. Er, Belgium isn't suffering from stagnation, Jason, thanks.

  6. It’s not that surprising. When I was in the wine business in the late 80's - mid 90's you saw similar trends. Influential press/critics, like the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker drove sales of certain types of wine: big, overly extracted, 100% new oak, etc. Wineries started to change their wine making to please critics because it meant high scores and allowed them to charge big dollars. I know of one California vintner who started making wines in that style, sold them out every year for astronomical prices, and then bought a totally different style of wine for drinking at home (one that was more elegant and refined and actually went with food). It does injure the idea of regionalism but I understand the argument that it leads to “innovation” (that phrase that every beer geek seems to demand now).

    But the problem is that all of this “innovation” leads to an awful lot of “sameness.” And if Jason argues that “no need for tomorrow's new brewery to add in the 10,000th traditional Trippel into the Belgian market” I’d add that there’s also little reason for them to add in yet another barrel aged imperial stout, or DIPA, or imperializing the style of the month (does anyone really need imperial wit beer?). The end result of brewing to please Beer Advocate is the same as brewing to please Robert Parker: beverages that are meant for tasting by critics and not for drinking by people. I’ll echo Ron Pattinson: I don’t want innovative beers, I want beers that taste good. I also agree with Brewer’s Union Local 180. That pint of bitter is sounding pretty good right now (or maybe a pint of Mild).