The American craft beer scene goes global
While craft beer fans hedge their bets on whether Sunday’s Super Bowl play-by-play is more suited to hopped-up IPAs or intensely flavored stouts, Greg Koch will be deliberating over a lot more than what to sip on game day. In the coming weeks, the co-owner of Escondido-based Stone Brewing Co. will finalize the location of the first American craft brewery on the European continent.
After decades of taking hops advice from foreign brewers, American craft brewers are beginning to return the favor. Several are now exporting their beers, and others are inviting upstart foreign brewers stateside for a lesson in brewing American favorites such as double IPAs (an India pale ale amped up with extra hops to intensify the flavor). Or, as with Stone, they are getting a surprisingly bubbly reception in the bid for permanent resident status abroad.
“We had no idea we would suddenly need a Stone employee with ‘European acquisitions’ added to his title,” says Koch. After scouting locations in May, Koch and co-owner Steve Wagner received more than 75 brewery site proposals from nine countries, including Denmark, Estonia, France, Italy and Britain. They recently narrowed the playing field to the top two contenders: Bruges, Belgium, and Berlin.
While Stone and other craft brewers have their eyes on the international consumer, their experimental, boldly flavored American beers also have been influencing a new generation of cutting-edge overseas brewers.
“When American craft beer got its start, we were imitating styles from the great brewing nations like Belgium, Germany and the U.K.,” says Bob Pease, chief operating officer of the Brewers Assn., the Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit craft brewers’ trade organization. “Now 20 to 25 years later, we’ve come full circle, and they’re looking to us for inspiration, but we’re really just getting started overseas.”
Like their American colleagues, Scotland’s BrewDog and Nøgne Ø of Norway make no apologies for their distinctly “American style” double IPAs and coffee-infused stouts.
James Watt, the 27-year-old co-owner of BrewDog in Fraserburgh, Scotland, credits the absence of longstanding brewing traditions in the United States with encouraging a more creative brewing scene. “Beers in the U.K. have become fairly stuffy and old-fashioned, almost as if brewing traditions here have constrained brewers,” he says. “When it comes to beer, we are light-years behind the U.S., and California in particular.”
Before opening BrewDog in 2007, Watt and co-owner Martin Dickie visited several Southern California breweries, including Stone Brewing Co. and AleSmith, a San Diego brewery known for its unusual twists on Belgian- and British-style beers. “We really wanted to make beers like the American brewers who completely follow their muse,” says Watt. BrewDog’s Paradox, a high-alcohol stout aged in whiskey barrels, is noticeably similar to AleSmith’s 12% alcohol-by-volume (ABV), bourbon-barrel-aged Speedway Stout; its Punk IPA is described on the brewery’s website as a transatlantic fusion made with Chinook hops, an American variety of the herb often used in domestic IPAs.
BrewDog is not alone in its American influence. Hildegard van Ostaden’s Urthel Hop It, a 9.5% alcohol IPA, came to fruition after the Belgium brewer tasted American-style IPAs at the 2006 Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival (it is now the brewery’s most popular beer). Nøgne Ø, the first craft brewery to introduce IPAs to Norway, was co-founded in Grimstad by a former commercial pilot, Kjetil Jikiun, who purchased home brewing supplies on flight layovers in the U.S. (Stone Brewing Co. has since collaborated with Nøgne Ø on a holiday ale made with California sage and Norwegian juniper berries.)
Although these multicultural brews have increased the demand for American craft beers overseas, getting those IPAs to the customers tasting as good as they did when they left the brewery has not been easy.
“The biggest problem is that fresh, big hoppy flavor we’re known for can fade quickly if the beer isn’t stored properly or it sits too long in the distribution chain,” says Koch. In 2010, Stone reserved most of its 115,000 barrels for stateside sales, shipping very limited quantities to Britain, Sweden, Japan and Singapore.
Pease says the limited shelf life of most craft beers is the primary overseas shipping hurdle. “Most craft beers are not pasteurized like commercial beers, which makes them basically the same as an unpasteurized food product and causes all sorts of export problems. But there are some styles of craft beers that fare better because they contain natural preservatives.”
One of those natural preservatives is hops, the bitter herb that enabled the Dutch brewers to ship beer to Britain as early as the 15th century (many of the earliest beers made without hops had a shelf life of less than a week). Pease says craft beers that are heavy on hops and have a high alcohol content, which also acts as a preservative, fare best when being shipped long distances.
Still, navigating the logistics of shipping to multiple countries can be difficult. “It took us two years just to figure out how things work in Italy because the system is somewhat archaic,” says Eric Wallace, the 49-year-old co-founder of Left Hand Brewing in Longmont, Colo. The former Air Force communications officer lived in Italy and Germany during the 1980s and opened Left Hand Brewing shortly after returning home to Colorado in 1993.
In 2004, the Brewers Assn. launched its Export Development Program with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help American craft breweries meet the increasing demand for their products in international markets. According to the Brewers Assn., since 2003 total U.S. craft beer exports have tripled to more than 1.3 million gallons. (Sweden is the largest importer of American craft beer, followed by Canada, Japan and Denmark.)
Most of those sales are limited to large craft breweries such as Stone, but some small breweries are beginning to test the international waters. The Bruery in Orange County recently began shipping about 100 cases of its spice-infused ales to Europe every quarter as part of a shared shipping arrangement with Green Flash Brewing in San Diego and the Lost Abbey in San Marcos. “Volume-wise, exports really can’t happen in large quantities for us, as we just don’t make enough beer,” says Bruery owner Patrick Rue, who hopes to increase exports in the future as his company expands production.
For large craft breweries, the demand for American beer abroad creates a more pressing problem than shipping headaches. Koch says rising illegal beer trafficking is one reason why Stone decided to build a brewery abroad. “I’ve seen our beers in Australia, and we don’t sell there,” he says of the growing underground ring of illegal exports. Koch says black-market beers are often procured from illicit distributors or by individuals who buy a retail store’s entire inventory. He hopes to curb illegal sales by making Stone beers more widely available abroad once the brewery is built.
“I have no idea how that Australian beer had been stored or how old it was, but I imagine it didn’t get there in a refrigerated truck like we require,” Koch says. “Once someone tastes a bad version of our beer, they’ll never taste it again.”
Wallace believes making sure that those first American beer impressions are good also depends on the quality of foreign brewery start-ups making American styles. “I’m really trying to help new brewers [in Italy] crack their own market and create something for themselves … with beers more focused on flavor,” he says. In recent years, Wallace has hosted Italian start-up brewers at his Colorado brewery who want to learn about American brewing practices. “It benefits us all if that craft beer specialty market emerges.”
At BrewDog, Watt and Dickie are focusing their efforts on customer education. They recently opened a pub in Aberdeen featuring their brews alongside a small rotating selection of beers from their American friends, including AleSmith, the Bruery and Stone. “We’re just at the start of this craft beer movement in the U.K., so we really feel that part of our job is to educate people here about the different kinds of good beers out there, just like American craft brewers did 20 years ago,” says Watt.
With the Brewers Assn.'s Export Development Program focused on helping brewers navigate foreign markets, exports to pubs like BrewDog’s will likely continue to grow. But for Koch, the decision to build his own foreign brewery rather than increase exports ultimately came down to a very red-white-and-blue business model.
“We like doing things ourselves,” he says.
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