Back in the 1980s, when I started writing and thinking seriously about beer, it went without saying that the best, most interesting brews came from Europe. Germany, Great Britain, and Belgium dominated the industry and my conversations with other beer geeks. (There were just a few dozen of us at the time.)
American craft brewers soon began mimicking those foreign beers, producing pale ales, pilsners, stouts, tripels and dubbels, bocks, and forerunners of what would become best-seller, IPA. The beers weren’t exactly the same as the ones from the old country, but they were good and they were fresh. And they only got better and better.
But for a long time, nobody would give our nascent craft beer scene any respect. (Lovers of American beer were truly the Rodney Dangerfield of the booze world.) It was damn irritating that even though we were drinking these good, flavorful brews, Europeans still thought that U.S. was just producing light beer. I’d explain over and over and over again that the industry had evolved, but my conversations with foreign friends usually went nowhere.
Fortunately, that started to change when Garrett Oliver, who has been the brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery since 1994, did more than just talk about this new generation of American beer. He went to England and made beer with an English brewer. “Our first collaboration (and supposedly the first collaboration brewing of any sort in the modern era),” he told me recently, “was with Brakspear at their original brewery at Henley-upon-Thames. I think that was 1996.”
Oliver’s collaboration was the first step in the rebuilding of American beer’s reputation in Europe. While it took a good 20 years, American craft beers are now sought across Europe. (The wave of acquisitions of craft breweries by larger corporations has certainly opened up distribution channels that few of the small guys could have ever dreamed about obtaining.) What’s even more impressive is that California’s Stone Brewing actually built a brewery in Berlin last year. And not to be outdone, Oliver has collaborated on one in Stockholm, that is making new beers inspired by local tastes.
And partnerships between U.S. brewers and their continental colleagues are getting fairly common. But this time around the Europeans are as excited about them as their American counterparts. The American brewers are also no longer always the student and the recipes aren’t always traditional.
For example, to celebrate its 150th anniversary, old-school Wisconsin brewer Leinenkugel’s is working on a beer with centuries-old Hofbräu in Munich. After some discussion and test batches, they wound up creating a classic German Märzen amber (a throwback Oktoberfest type of beer) but instead of using traditional European hops, the team went with a combination of American hops.
“We wanted to use all German malts,” the brand’s fifth-generation president Dick Leinenkugel explained. “It really delivers that elusive crisp malty dryness. But both Hofbräu and Leinie have very popular Oktoberfest beers, and we wanted to differentiate it from both. So, we used all American hops. That set it apart.”
It’s an amazing development that these historic European brands are willing to use an ingredient from the U.S. Bill Covaleski, co-founder of Victory Brewing in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, has a simple explanation. “I hate to take any magic out of this but what happened over there is what happened here: American hops. They have caused a sensation on all continents now.”
Covaleski introduced me to Katharina Kurz, one of the founders of Berlin craft brewery BRLO, and she had some great insights on what European brewers can learn from America. For her, and for many Berliners, it’s variety. “German beer got boring,” she told me. “The baseline quality was always amazing, which is why it took so long to discover craft. But it became a commodity. We take huge inspiration from the American market; not just beer styles, but how to do brewpubs and the whole culture.”
Like many other European craft brewers, Kurz is all about American beers. So, has the student now surpassed the teacher? Are American craft brewers now making the best beer in the world?
Oliver tosses cold beer on that idea. “Anyone who believes that ‘American beer is the best in the world’ needs to get out more,” he says. “What we do have is open-mindedness and creativity, both as brewers and as customers. This stage where other brewers are copying us is, I hope, only a phase. Frankly, it bores me. I’m proud that we’ve contributed something. But I want to see a flowering of native styles; throughout Europe, China, Japan, and Brazil. One of these days, maybe American brewers will be brewing Brazilian-style IPA. Wouldn’t that be cool?”