Europeans thirsty for American craft beer

Yes it's true: European brewers are looking for inspiration to U.S.

Jim Clarke By Jim Clarke

American beers now make the rounds in Britain. (Reuters/Luke MacGregor)

Editor’s note: Our condolences to beer lovers. This Sunday, the world famous Oktoberfest comes to an end in the German city of Munich. It’s the world’s largest festival, a celebration of beer and beer drinking that draws an estimated six million people every year.

To mark the passing of Oktoberfest 2012 we couldn’t resist republishing our piece on the rise and rise of American brews in Europe. How many of them were being feted or envied, we wonder, in Munich this year?  

British comedian Eric Idle famously pronounced American beer like making love in a canoe – f***ing close to water. Oh, how things have changed since 1982.

These days, the UK rather fancies U.S. beer. Just listen to Scottish brewer James Watt: “The spectrum of beers coming from U.S. craft brewers is just so much wider than that coming out of the UK. The UK spectrum is so narrow and the U.S. craft brewers brew things all over the charts.”

Irreverence and inspiration

Watt says U.S. beers inspired the founding of his BrewDog brewery in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2007. “We very much wanted to put our own spin on the beers, inspired by the U.S. scene,” says Watt, Head of Stuff at BrewDog. “It was more this irreverence and pioneering spirit we wanted to follow as opposed to specific beer styles,” he says.

Claiming American brewing as an inspiration might sound like a recipe for commercial suicide in Europe. But BrewDog is not alone – British breweries like Meantime and Dark Star also cite American forebears.

That UK brewers don’t run for cover about their American admiration reflects that the U.S. beer market bears little resemblance to 30 years ago. The first microbreweries appeared in the late 1970s, and expansion has been dramatic, especially in the past decade. Not only is craft beer growing rapidly at home – sales have seen double-digit growth for the past several years, even as mainstream brands have been slipping – it’s also seeing growing demand overseas.

A fast-growing U.S. export

In 2004, the U.S. Brewers Association, which supports craft beer, created an Export Development Program, funded by the Department of Agriculture’s Market Access Program. The results have been encouraging: 440,000 gallons were exported in 2003; by 2009 that was up to 1.5 million gallons – a 246 percent increase, if still a tiny amount compared to total production.

Brewdog’s James Watt (Credit: BrewDog)

The UK is the biggest importer of American craft beers, and one of the fastest growing – imports grew 14 percent last year in the UK, compared to nine percent overall. At the 2010 Great British Beer Festival, the U.S. Brewers Association sponsored the international Beer Without Borders area and featured 180 beers from 26 American craft brewers; Bob Pease, COO of the Brewer’s Association, says the American stands were the busiest area of the festival, and many of the beers sold out before the five-day event was even half over. It sponsored a similar pavilion in 2011 and will do so again this year.

London beer enthusiast Edward Codrington was “unbelievably impressed” with some of the U.S. beers at the Festival. “The thing about American beer at the moment, as at the Great British Beer Festival, is that they’re making extraordinary craft beers that wouldn’t be thought of in Britain, using very unusual hop combinations or beer combinations [hops are a preservative in beer, enhancing bitterness and aroma]. The best examples are the India Pale Ales – IPAs – that use a variety of hop strains and are very, very intensely hopped.”

Codrington says he’s definitely on the lookout for American beers when he goes out. He says medium-sized U.S. brands like Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams aren’t hard to find, and others are also doing well there, like New York’s Brooklyn Brewery, Flying Dog of Frederick, Maryland and Chicago’s Goose Island Beer.

Also copied on the continent

Sharing a common language has made it easier for American beer in the UK, but other European countries have also been receptive. In Germany, as proud about its beer as a nation can be, brewers keep tabs on the American scene. Bavaria’s Schneider collaborated with Brooklyn Brewery to create their Hopfen-Weisse; in November 2010, Sam Adams released Infinium, a collaboration with Weihenstephan, the Bavarian state brewery and reputedly the oldest brewery in the world.

Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver (right) with Schneider brewmaster Hans-Peter Drexler and the fruit of their collaboration: bottles of the Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weissen. (Credit: Brooklyn Brewery)

In Denmark, “We … are very preoccupied with what is going on the American scene,” says Thomas Schøn, marketing manager for the Danish brewery Mikkeller. Mikkeller, founded in 2006, is part of an explosion of craft brewing in Denmark since 2003. At the time, there were six craft brewers in a market that was 90 percent Carlsberg. Now there are 150 brewers. “We think all the best breweries are in the U.S. We copy a lot of things from you. We almost only use American hops, we use barrel-aging, and our bar in Copenhagen looks somewhat like an American beer bar.”

Still, Europe remains a challenging market for U.S. beers. Craft beer is typically unpasteurized and has a limited shelf life, so it needs to be kept fresh as it crosses the Atlantic. Taxes and duties can make American imports pricey. And in the case of draft beer, breweries have to figure out how to get their kegs back.

But American brewers remain eager to bring coal to Newcastle. Brooklyn Brewery ships its beer over in tanks to be kegged or bottled locally. Stone Brewing’s CEO Greg Koch intends to build a brewery in Europe. He’s been scouting locations in Bruges, Belgium and Berlin.

And he isn’t planning on bringing a canoe.