Point of Brew: Europeans thirst for American craft beers

By From page A7 | July 31, 2014

Travel in foreign parts is not just about the scenery or historic places or architecture or museums full of amazing things; it’s also about eating and drinking. This last item comes with risks and benefits.

On a trip from which we have just returned, and from which we have suffered, for some reason, the worst dose of jet-lag I can remember, we ate rather well in France and rather badly in Britain.

We bear some responsibility for this: It is perhaps not the best choice to order a beef vindaloo at a pub with peeling paint in the heart of Welsh-speaking North Wales. I have never ever before had meat that I could not actually chew because my jaw muscles were too weak.

Fortunately, the chef made the mistake of coming out of the kitchen to ask me, with tattoos and a smirk, if the vindaloo was hot enough; this gave me the opening I needed and I got my money back.

I had a similar dining experience in the shadow of Cardiff Castle, which is the center of yuppy South Wales and perhaps as cosmopolitan as Britain gets outside of London; this time the meal was a rump steak at a smart restaurant. Also inedible and again money refunded.

I wish I could say the experience was better with the beers I drank. I no longer go into a pub and sample all the beers present working my way, half-pint at a time, from left to right across all the bar handles; these days that would be price-prohibitive. But I did not have a really good pint of beer in the whole two weeks or so we spent in Britain; a few were quite doubtful and one or two simply ill-made. This was a great disappointment.

In France I had no expectations of interesting beers because French beverage interests lie elsewhere; my low expectations were met. I found the beers started out well but halfway through the glass I was tired of them and quite satiated; were it not for the mind-numbing cost I would have left them half-drunk.

I drank a lot of cider in both countries that I found tasty, refreshing and reliable in quality. I don’t think the decline in the British and European brewing industry is all about outside influences; maybe it’s also partly about quality of the products made.

This is borne out by a rather surprising development: The beers that are all the rage in Britain and Europe these days turn out to be American craft beers. This is an odd turn of events in our strange old brewing world, because, if you ask most craft brewers in this country for the source of their inspiration, they will almost inevitably point to the extraordinary, amazing, wonderful, spectacular beers of Britain and Belgium and Germany.

There’s a quotation that I can’t quite recall about a reputation surviving its deserving. Something like that is happening here I think.

Nevertheless, in an article titled “Thirst for US Craft Beers Grows Overseas” Michael Felberbaum quotes Mike Hinkley of Green Flash Brewing (San Diego) as saying “Even though they’re used to all these amazing European beers, now there is just more variety.” You notice the nod to those “amazing European beers.”

Frankly, American success is not just about more variety; I think some American craft brewers have learned to make truly excellent beers and have now far surpassed the achievements of those British and European brewers who originally inspired them.

Although the present exports are relatively small at about 300,000 barrels worth about $75 million, American craft brewers see a new market for their products and are making the investment. Green Flash is making West Coast IPA under license in Belgium for sale there and in Germany, the Netherlands, France and Italy.

Perhaps more interesting Greg Koch of Stone Brewing, makers of Arrogant Bastard Ale among many other products, announced recently a plan to invest $25 million to renovate an historic gas works building in Berlin to be a full-blown brewery and distribution center for all of Europe. The site also will include a restaurant and (believe it or not) an American-style beer garden in a country that famously and iconically invented the biergarten centuries ago. That’s Arrogant. The whole shebang expects to be open in 2016, maybe earlier.

Of course Western craft brewers are expanding eastwards (see the Sierra Nevada label now carries two addresses) but trust Greg Koch to make the ultimate and most dramatic eastward leap!

It’s strange how there are always counter currents and event that do not fit the general theme. Just last week I was asked to write a letter in support of a visa application for a Belgian brewer to come to the USA. If that brewery owner had read Michael Felberbaum’s article perhaps he would look for a brewer closer to home. I encouraged him to do that anyway.

— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Michael Lewis

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