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Monday, November 18, 2013

Imports Again: Why You Should Drink 'Em

After my post last week about the delights of beer from foreign lands, I hafety considered a follow-up to explain why imports are worthwhile.  Alan has forced my hand:
So, unlike Jeff, I do not counsel you to get your daily serving of beer classics like the bran that's more and more in my diet.
First off, lets just dispense with the "classics" debate.  That word didn't appear in my post nor did the exhortation to drink beers because they had some status.  No, the point was to drink foreign beer because they taste good and more than that, because they're different from American beers.  This is a fact that escapes some Americans.  We brew all the world's beer styles here, but Americans brew in their own way.  We don't have to, but mostly we do. 

Source: Roger Protz
Take Westmalle, the example I was using earlier.  The monks make it exclusively with pilsner malt but also more than 15% sugar in the wort.  This is a pretty typical Belgian approach--simple malt bills that start with pilsner malt and usually include sugar.  Americans may use pilsner malt, but a lot will start with American two-row.  Many will layer in various specialty malts for color and subtle flavor (this is also typical).  Most will use nowhere near the amount of sugar Belgians do, if they use it at all.  Westmalle ferments cool for a Trappist monastery, but some monks let their temps get well into the 70s and Westvleteren lets it rise to the mid-80s (they use the Westmalle yeast, interestingly).  I have almost never encountered an American brewer who is comfortable letting fermentation go past the low 70s--it just goes against their grain.  Finally, Belgians almost always do a secondary fermentation in the bottle, the single most distinguishing feature of Belgian brewing.  Some Americans bottle-condition, but it's rare. 

Westmalle is a really basic beer.  Pilsner malt, sugar, uncomplicated hopping.  Yet you will find precious few Americans who make it the same way.  If what you've been drinking is stuff from the US called "tripel," it's a different beast than what the Belgians make.

We could go down the line.  Americans don't use Bohemian floor malts, very few use first-wort hopping, and almost none use decoction--three habits that are ubiquitous in the Czech Republic.  Americans don't use sugar when they're making English styles, and almost none of them risk commercial doom by brewing them at English strengths.  (I nod now toward Oakridge with respect.)  And on and on.

The fact that Americans don't make much of an effort to make perfect reproductions of foreign styles is a testament to the steady development of an American tradition.  We brew the way we brew.  When an American whips up an "English bitter," she actually makes an American-English bitter.  It probably has an English yeast strain and maybe one or two English hops, but it will be a 5% beer made with American malts and served on regular CO2 taps.  When she makes a tripel, she'll make similar decisions based on the expectations of her customers and her own preferences.  It will be hoppier, use less sugar, use different malts, and likely not be bottle-conditioned. 

And so if you want to know what a Belgian tripel tastes like, you gotta drink a Belgian tripel. 


  1. I can recall Fred Eckhardt saying many imported beers are tweaked for the American pallet. He said that many times, and I use that quote in my book to suggest why fans of authentic beer became interested in the craft movement. I believe Fred originally made the comment in one of his books from the 1970s. Do you believe we have reached the point where imports are not modified for our pallets? I'm not talking about garbage like Heineken and Corona; I'm referring higher end stuff. Was that stuff imported at all in the bad old days? Was it tweaked? Has that changed? Inquiring minds, ya know.

  2. Yes, they have been tweaked. The imported beer, brewed for the native folk, is simply far too heavy for the American pallet, once brought stateside. Those overweight beers have ruined far too many pallets on too many docks and in far too many warehouses. The American pallet needs to be made of sturdier material.

  3. Belgium beer is among my favorites, even compared to other well know imports such as the German for example!

  4. There are some Northwest Breweries that are making the effort to source ingredients from Europe, modify water profiles to match specific regions and carbonate at levels you would find these beers locally and strengths very common in this foreign land. Hats off to these brewers!

  5. RE "tweaked for American" palates: Westmalle Tripel sold in the US is the same as sold in Belgium. All MdV beers brought to the US are the same as sold in their home countries.
    Anonymous #1: well played :)
    -Craig Hartinger, Merchant du Vin - importers of Westmalle and other beers

  6. Excellent points. I'm European, and I have tasted too many American interpretations of classic beer styles. And come to the conclusion that among the classic styles, American brewers are great at interpreting American Pale Ale, American IPA, American Stout and American Sour...

    And you use a great example. Sweet American all-malt or nearly all-malt tripels are awful :)