Article By: Andy Crouch
Beer tourism is on the rise. As someone who covers the industry, I have spent a lot of time over the past three years traveling to various up and coming beer spots around the world. A decade ago, beer tourists endeavored to travel to Belgium, Germany and Britain to try the classic, traditional beer styles that first spawned their interest in better beer. They visited the pleasant and cozy cafes of Bruges, Brussels and Antwerp, where they sampled young and old lambic beers carefully presented in wicker baskets and served in proper, individualized glassware. They popped from pub to pub in the city streets of London, enjoying quiet pints of classic bitters hand drawn from cellared cooled casks of ale. And they clinked half-liter mugs of Helles and Marzen in leafy beer gardens in Munich, surrounded by hundreds of other revelers of good beer.
Fast forward to the present day and beer tourists have a new world of options available to visit in terms of better beer offerings. While the classics, to some extent, remain so, these pioneers of the new international craft beer movement, ranging from Japan to Italy, Denmark to Scotland, now turn away from traditionalism in favor of a surprisingly American brewing model. Despite a slow start compared to other renowned brewing nations, the United States has quite quickly, over the course of thirty short years, become one of the world’s leading brewing nations. American craft brewers mix a healthy respect for traditional brewing practices with a New World curiosity for experimentation.
The American brewing renaissance has also served as a model for foreign brewers who look to those successes to support their dreams of building similar operations in their home nations. Once considered to be the pinnacle of world brewing prowess, European brewers have run into some difficult times in recent decades. Ensconced in a world of brewery conglomeration and mergers, these once proud brewing leaders now fret over their futures. Classic international brands – such as Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, Labatt, Boddingtons, Beck’s, Franziskaner, Lowenbrau, and Spaten – have been consolidated under a single roof, while a handful of other companies have similarly scooped up other well-known brands. As a similarly styled Pilsener derivative took hold around the world, smaller brewers saw an opportunity to distinguish their efforts and make some money in the process.
The Brewers Association’s efforts, financially supported by the United States Department of Agriculture, have been at the heart of a confluence of events leading to the expansion of craft beer’s global reach. Started in 2OO4, the association’s Export Development Program assists American craft brewers in educating international markets about their products and helps their distribution efforts abroad. After five years in operation, the EDP assists Americans in sending more than thirty thousand barrels of beer to more than a dozen countries in Asia and Europe.
American craft brewers now send a substantial amount of beer to bars around the world. From Tokyo to Copenhagen, you can find Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Brooklyn Lager and Great Divide’s Oak Aged Yeti, along with many other specialty releases. Bars in these countries, and many others from Britain to Australia, are packed with thirsty locals clamoring to try great American beers they have only read about on the internet. American brewers have also taken their brewing efforts abroad, bringing their new tricks of the local trade to Italy, Indonesia and beyond.
These global efforts have led to a growing change in local markets around the world, creating enough of a shift that enterprising individuals in these nations saw the chance to start their own breweries. Inspired by their American counterparts, a new generation of foreign brewers has started breweries based on entirely American business and flavor models. We have seen older European breweries adopt practices of smaller American craft brewers and even expand their portfolios to include collaborative beers and new styles that once would have been unlikely. Brewers including Cantillon, De Proef and Fantome have announced deals with American importers and in turn been convinced to produce new beers. As one of the first examples, importer B.United convinced Brasserie d’Achouffe to make an unusual hybrid beer, called Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel, for the American market. Other breweries quickly followed suit and craft brewers, such as Picobrouwerij Alvinne and De Struise Brouwers, ushered in a new wave of extreme brewing in Belgium.
While many European breweries struggle with how to manage a changing world and marketplace, others see value in adopting or giving in to the American craft beer model. Going forward, many of the old guard breweries hope to strike a balance between tradition and the newfangled attitudes underlying American craft beer.
the race for alcohol supremacy
Everyone in the beer industry knows the story of Utopias, the super strength, cognac like product crafted by the Boston Beer Company. It was the reigning champion in a long battle for the title of world’s strongest beer. This race started more than a dozen years ago in Europe where German brewers started testing the outer boundaries of yeast fermentation with beers such as EKU 28 at eleven percent alcohol and Samichlaus at fourteen percent. Using champagne and wine yeasts, American craft brewers ramped up fermentation levels of their high gravity beers far beyond the previously existing restrictions. The first shots were fired by Boston Beer in 1994 with the release of its Triple Bock, a seventeen percent monster that stood next to Cognacs and Ports. Soon thereafter, the brewery released its Millennium at twenty-one percent, followed by Utopias, which reached to twenty-seven percent alcohol, or higher than fifty proof. During these early days of the alcohol boom, the Dogfish Head brewery of Delaware also entered the mix with its World Wide Stout, Raison D’Extra, and other high alcohol releases.
With many states restricting the sale of such high alcohol products and in light of their high price points, things calmed down considerably after the release of Utopias. While a hit with beer geeks, the $15O price tag offers some serious sticker shock. Recently, here in Massachusetts, the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) sent out an advisory to all wine and beverage licensees noting that they are prohibited from selling beers whose alcohol levels exceed twelve percent by weight (or fifteen percent by volume). The advisory statement derives from a state law defining malt beverages, in relevant part, as those products made with malt or cereal grains and fermentable sugars, resulting in alcohol levels less than twelve percent alcohol by weight. Any beer exceeding this threshold can no longer be classified as a malt beverage in the state, the practical effect of which prohibits many licensees who lack a liquor license from selling these products. This advisory led to local distributors having to scramble to take back the expensive Utopias bottles from several retailers, leaving the pool of available high alcohol beers a little smaller for enterprising stores and bars.
Fast forward a few years and hop across the Atlantic Ocean where European brewers renewed their efforts to retake the alcohol crown. Seemingly out of nowhere, the tiny Schorschbräu brewery in the Franconia region of Germany released its Schorschbock, a thirty-one percent alcohol number of which the brewery produced a limited release of 25O bottles. It then released beers claiming to be the world’s strongest lager, the Schorsch Bock 16, and a wheat beer, the Schorsch Franconian Wheat 16. Its more recent offerings, the super-high alcohol Schorsch Bock 32 and Schorsch Bock 4O, are produced through a combination of traditional fermentation and a process of freeze distillation, one used in the production of rare ice bocks.
Never one to miss a moment for hype and self-promotion, the Scottish brewery BrewDog launched its own high alcohol campaign with the loud release of its Tactical Nuclear Penguin. At thirty-two percent alcohol, Tactical Nuclear Penguin bested its German rival and catapulted far ahead of Utopias. The beer was produced again in part from freeze distillation but also through aging in wet whisky casks. This latter production technique has come under criticism by some in the beer industry, including the brewers at Schorschbräu, for transgressing the line between beer and spirits.
So, of course, Schorschbräu quickly responded with an updated version of its bock beer, weighing in at forty percent alcohol. The title of world’s strongest beer changed hands for a matter of hours before BrewDog was at it again, with the release of its Sink the Bismarck!, a forty-one percent alcohol quadruple India Pale Ale. This time, things became personal as BrewDog announced the release of the disturbingly named beer in a parody viral video that poked considerable fun at the German brewers at Schorschbräu.
Having taken flack from various alcohol control groups in the United Kingdom, BrewDog’s James Watt noted that the beer should be enjoyed in small sizes. “Beer has a terrible reputation in Britain,” he said in the release, “and it’s ignorant to assume that a beer can’t be enjoyed responsibly like a nice dram or a glass of fine wine. A beer like Sink the Bismarck! should be enjoyed in spirit sized measures.” Even one of BrewDog’s biggest critics, Alcohol Focus Scotland, has waived the white flag of surrender when it comes to commenting on each new high alcohol release. The association simply issued a statement saying, “Over the past few months BrewDog have continued to produce stronger and stronger beers. By commenting on this irresponsible brewing practice we only serve to add to their marketing and therefore we have no further comment to make.”
Unsurprisingly, Schorschbräu has responded with news that it plans to release the Schorschbock 45, a forty- five percent alcohol beer. At this rate, I expect we will be hearing soon from BrewDog. These beers, which cost anywhere from seventy-five to one hundred and twenty-five dollars per bottle, are not for sale from retail accounts in the United States and are mainly sold in small batches from the online retail stores of the breweries themselves. With this in mind, the sales appear mainly designed for promotional purposes.
When it comes to higher alcohol, bigger certainly does not mean better. Many high alcohol beers simply taste like fusel booze bombs, consumed with hot alcohol warmth and as undrinkable as rocket fuel. Boosting alcohol for its own purpose, without any appreciable and accompanying increase in the beer’s complexity and flavor, is simply like adding pure grain alcohol to Kool-Aid solely for the purpose of getting drunk. But when attempted by a talented brewer who appreciates the art of balance and the subtle beauty of alcohol, not just its pure blunt force power, the beers can be rich, complex and fascinating to experience.
TAKE THEIR PRODUCTS to the WORLD
Far beyond merely shipping beers to deep corners of the globe, one American brewery has decided to look into the possibility of opening its own brewery on foreign soil. After a number of collaborations with brewers in Britain and Scandinavia, the Stone Brewing Company of Escondido, California, announced that it intended to research the possibility of opening a second brewing facility in Europe. The brewery, which produced nearly 1OO,OOO barrels last year and grew its volume by twent- four percent, is a widely lauded operation that has fans around the globe. As brewery president Greg Koch said in a release supporting the announcement, “We look forward to joining in the fight in Europe by doing our part to add to the growing trend towards unique, flavorful artisanal beers, as opposed to the mass-blandification efforts characterized by megabrand sameness.” Citing international demand, the brewery, which distributed small amounts of beer to Japan, England and Sweden, is creating a request for proposal so that European cities and countries can make pitches for hosting the brewery. According to Koch, the brewery’s announcement has generated a substantial response from several European nations. Far from a done deal, the brewery plans to thoroughly review the possibilities before making any decision about whether to open a European operation, which would be the first by an American craft brewer.