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Monday, November 11, 2013

Imports and the Modern American Beer Geek

On Saturday night, I spent a few hours with a bunch of beer geeks at an undisclosed location in East Portland for an evening of bottle-sharing.  Owing to the large number of Midwestern transplants, there were a lot of New Glarus, Goose Island (pre- and post-), and Bell's floating around, plus a Three Floyds or two.  In what I thought was a remarkable display of generosity, one nice gent snagged an old cobalt bottle of Sam Adams Triple Bock from his cellar for our tasting pleasure.  All in all, an excellent adventure.

One thing occurred to me the next day as I thought back through the beers I tasted: only one was an import.  That bottle, also incredibly rare (I don't even know the benefactor), was a '97 Samichlaus.  But beyond that, nada.  No Cantillon, no Westvleteren.  No vintage Orval, no Mikkeller.  No Aventinus. 

This may well have been an anomaly, but I don't think so.  We are now so awash in beer that it's impossible to keep up with what's happening in our home town--what to speak of across the sea.  The dictates of an ever sharpening novelty curve mean breweries don't just release a handful of specialty beers each year, they release dozens.  There are anniversary beers, barrel-aged series, wild yeast programs, and on and on.  Lots and lots to keep up with.

I recently brewed a tripel inspired by Westmalle--the most American of the abbey ales.  It's both hoppy and not especially fruity, a distant cousin to our double IPAs.  I recently mentioned Westmalle to a few people and they all give me a blank look.  None had had Westmalle's version--definitely one of the most important extant beers in Belgium's long history.  (I direct you to Stan Hieronymus's excellent Brew Like a Monk for more.)  I understand that we all have patchy coverage of the international greats--but no one having tried Westmalle?  Amazing.

So I encourage you to celebrate mid-November by picking up a bottle of something foreign.  Remind yourself that other countries not only brew great beer, but they do it differently.  We can try to recreate a Cantillon with our wild ale programs, we can dry-hop a saison and brett-age it like Orval, but like everything else in life, there's no substitute for the original.  Don't become too insular, dear beer geek: there's a whole world of amazing beer out there.


  1. This will, unfortunately, fall largely on deaf ears and numb taste buds. With the breakdown of style guidelines, our beer scene resembles Baskin-Robins...saturated by a revolving list of flavors. There may well be a whole world of amazing beer out there, but the average fan can't even keep up with what's happening locally or regionally. Who cares deeply about beers from the old country? Mostly elitist geeks, I suspect.

  2. Thanks, Jeff. US beer drinkers can find Westmalle retailers via our search feature:
    -Craig / Merchant du Vin, Specialty Beer Importers

  3. There was an '04 Thomas Hardy Ale at the tasting as well. So, two imports.

  4. Were the contents of that 3xBock as similar to the residue of a soy sauce bottle left open in a backyard through a Portland winter, with a touch of mucous, as last sample he shared? (I had some that had been cellared by Boston Beer Co themselves perhaps 4 years ago and it was the most amazing beer I'd ever had from them, though.)

    Funny thing about trying foreign beers. Living in a foreign land, the more I explore, the more I'm finding many are unreliable. Not every American craft brewed beer is a New Glarus or Firestone Walker. But not every Belgian brewed beer is a Westmalle, either. Many of them really need to cool it with the sugar. (Also, I think it's fair to say that a sizable chunk of next generation craft breweries abroad are directly emulating American brewing styles and techniques. I genuinely don't think that's being Amero-centric.

  5. Anon, I missed it! Too bad, too. That's a lost beer.

    Brian, this cracks me up: "Many of them really need to cool it with the sugar." Your American cred remains intact. I agree that a number of Europeans are emulating America, but I wouldn't say that's a permanent thing. Look at how long America has emulated Britain and Belgium. Who knows from where the winds of change will next blow.

  6. Hi Jeff,

    I wish everyone around my age (28) would read this article. The younger craft beer enthusiasts often get caught up in the American craft beer scene, forgetting completely about the great beer not brewed in the States (Although I will argue that Cantillon and Westvleteren are not forgotten considering their "whale" status). Recently I traveled abroad to experience different beer cultures. I ended up at Oktoberfest in Munich, Cantillon in Brussels, and a number of different pubs in England and Ireland. Trip of a lifetime.

    I learned a lot but the one thing that stuck with me was this: The world is huge. If I only stay in my little of corner of it, I may miss out on something truly wonderful. *Cough* Saison DuPont.


    One final thing: When I returned from Europe, I had a tasting with all of my friends. I shared beers from Cantillon, Westvleteren, Horals, Hanssens, and Boon. Only one beer from American made the cut (Rare Bourbon County)!

  7. Jeff,

    I've long been a huge fan of imported beer. In fact, that's the primary focus of my writing at There are both some outstanding traditional beers to be had as well as new, interesting and innovative ones. The US doesn't have the lock on innovation or quality, just the ego. I do drink a lot of American beers, but mostly find myself yearning for a good Belgian beer. Although I am heartened by increase in quality that some breweries are making around imported styles. It's great to see innovation going both ways on the Atlantic.


  8. Great points Jeff. Awesome write up, and hopefully new craft drinkers will give themselves the chance to enjoy some of the great beers coming from Europe, especially the iconic beers. These beers inspired and are still enjoyed by the same American craft brewers so many of the new craft drinkers hold in high esteem.

  9. It's also worth remembering that some of the 'originals' have never been bettered. I paid £11.80 for a bottle of Mikkeller 'It's alive' (a tribute to orval im told) in a beer shop selling Orval for under £4. Should I have bothered?

    I'll be doing a comparison and letting you know...

  10. When I do classes at PCC I'm constantly amazed by how many beer enthusiasts haven't had things I consider European classics. But many of them tell me that they end up adding a few of those beers to their regular buying habits. Sometimes it's Weihenstephan Helles, sometimes, it's Fuller's or Meantime, sometimes it's Westmalle or Dupont. But sometimes getting folks to see past the latest "it" beer or brewery is hard.

  11. I wonder how much of an impact pricing has on younger beer geeks buying habits. I doubt most will admit it, but I suspect that many would choose a $6.99 22oz bottle of Anderson Valley Dubbel over a $5.79 11.2oz bottle of Westmalle Dubbel. Even if the import is superior there's that underlying search for value or "bang for the buck."

    I don't spend a ton of time on the sales floor these days, but when I do I notice that the vast majority of the classic imports (especially the Belgians) are being purchased by people who are 50+ rather than the younger crowd. Perhaps it's because they have more disposable income, or possibly health/diet restrictions that force them to cut back on alcohol (if you can only have 1 per day it might as well be a good one), or maybe it's simply force of habit carried over from the dark times of the 70's-80's when beers like Chimay and Westmalle were the only good options in their respective styles.

  12. Thanks for attending the bottle share at my place. I could be wrong after looking at these comments but I feel that most of the beer geeks at said tasting are probably already familiar with the aforementioned Belgians and imports and the goal of the tasting is to pull out beers that most have not likely had. That said maybe the younger beer geeks havent done the drinking research I give them credit for. When I first really got into beer I made my way through almost all of the imports at Belmont Station.

  13. Chris, great insight as always. It's so valuable to know what happens in stores.

    Ezra, thanks for hosting. I didn't mention your name in the post because I figured that wasn't my place. As for the point at hand, I'd say there are a couple of issues there. My sense is that people are nowhere near as versed in international styles as you are (your experience is an outlier). But even when they have done run through the classics, I think they're worth revisiting fairly often. American brewing is constantly changing, and standards like Westmalle provide a sense of continuity. It's good to be reminded.

    I think if you do this again, I may just cruise by Belmont Station and pick up some foreign rarities to share. They would provide a nice contrast in any case.