Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Symbiosis of British & American Craft Beer


On Thursday night, I was delighted to give a short talk to the Northern branch of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD). The topic that I'd been asked to address was the relationship between British and American craft beer cultures, which is something that I like to pretend I know a bit about. Of course, when faced with an audience of very well-respected brewers and other assorted luminaries, it's hard to remain cool, so rather than major on trifling things like facts, which are either right or wrong, I fell back on the safety net of telling a story anchored to a couple of key points.

To summarise thirty minutes of rambling into a few sentences: a lot of the early American brewers came out of the homebrew scene, and looked to Europe generally and Britain specifically for inspiration; Jack McAuliffe at New Albion was just ahead of the curve; when Ken Grossman brewed an English-style ale with local Cascade hops, he set the blueprint for the industry; for a country whose culture has dominated the world, the craft brewing scene in the US is still mostly about local beer, drunk fresh; there is an ongoing, symbiotic realtionship between American and European brewing traditions; dragging bottled beer from California to Europe is, if you stop and look at it, a really stupid idea.

Let's expand on some of those, shall we?

When Ken Grossman brewed an English-style ale with local Cascade hops, he set the blueprint for the industry.

The beer that became Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was a local interpretation of what brewers in Britain were doing at the time. It was born out of expediency, using local ingredients feremented in converted dairy tanks, a tried-and-trusted route into the game. The key point here is that the beer is about what is available, a bottom-up approach to craft foodstuff production. That Sierra Nevada have become the worlds largest consumer of whole-cone hops is born out of that mindset of wanting to do something in a traditional way, but just do it on a scale that boggles the mind.

For a country whose culture has dominated the world, the craft brewing scene in the US is still mostly about local beer, drunk fresh.

Americans don't mess about. They take everything very seriously, even fun, perhaps down to the fact that they have so little paid holiday that when they are on their own time, they want to have fun RIGHT NOW. Craft beer is an expression of that. But despite the fact that Sam Adams Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Brooklyn Lager (or at the very least, one of those three) are available in most UK supermarkets, American beer is still about local production and consumption. For example, Odell Brewing have a wider presence in the UK than they do in the US, but they only export a half of one percent of their output to the UK.

There is an ongoing, symbiotic relationship between American and European brewing traditions.

This just can't ignored. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is Fullers ESB brewed with local ingredients. Access to cheaper air travel in the 1980s meant that people and brewers (actually, brewers are people too, aren't they?) were able to travel to the USA and discover these new-fangled beers. You can't brew American beer without American hops, and so back over the pond they came, vac-packed and ready for action. British drinkers turn their back on traditional British ales, and the UK hop industry starts to founder. With wonderful symmetry, American craft brewers become interested in traditional British (actually, damn it, they're English, aren't they?) hop varieties, and the UK hop industry is saved via export to the US (This was put forward by Venkatesh Iyer, head brewer of Leeds Brewery - I think it's such a wonderful idea that I'm going to start passing it off as my own).

Dragging bottled beer from California to Europe is, if you stop and look at it, a really stupid idea.
Most beer is around ninety five percent water, and comes in a heavy glass bottle. Why wouldn't you move the key raw ingredients nearer the point of consumption and make the beer there? It will be fresher, tastier, and cheaper in the long run. So while Sierra Nevada are approaching carbon-neutral status by virtue of solar power, CO2 capture and anaerobic digesters, they they squander all that by insisting on refrigerated transport for their beers. You can look it it the other way too - they've earned the right to use refrigerated containers by virtue of being so eco-friendly at the point of production. Of course, this raises the issue of whether a beer brewed under licence is the same beer. Sam Adams Boston Lager for draught dispense is now being brewed at Shepherd Neame. Some moan about this, I'm on the fence about it. Would we feel happier if Sam Adams built a European brewery? What about a generic European American Craft Beer Facility that contract brewed for, say, Sierra Nevada, Brooklyn, Sam Adams and Stone? Or do we need the brewery's badge on the door to make us happy?

A couple more further thoughts. I was asked what I thought future trends would be. I think freshness is going to be a real driver of growth over the next 10 years, and allied to that, I also think that gap between the producer and the consumer will become smaller, and maybe the brewpub will make a return. But simply put, nothing tastes better than fresh beer.

The second point comes out of this. As British consumers come to realise that freshness is important, so understanding will grow about the ingredients in beer, and how those ingredients are key to enjoyment. I've said it before, but what American craft beer is doing to the beer industry in the UK is similar to what happened in the late 80s with Australian wine - it demystified the subject and made it easier to understand. Citra is basically Aussie Chardonnay in hop form, and that's actually good thing. But a lot of the key American hops - Citra, Amarillo, Simcoe, Ahtanum - are owned by individuals and grown under licence as registered brands. The question was asked of me; what to do when the year's crop runs out. My answer is to stop production of that beer, and explain to the drinker why. This was, you reinforce the idea that beer is a natural, agricultural and, to a certain extent, seasonal product, and imbue with all those qualities beloved of foodies the world over. Maybe the reason that BrewDog stopped making Chaos Theory is that it rested solely on a particularly sensational crop of Nelson Sauvin one year? (Thanks to Stuart Ross of Magic Rock for suggesting this to me). If that's the case, why not make a virtue of it?

These aren't finished ideas, or even close to being fully-formed, but I'd still love to hear about it if you agree or disagree with any of them.

33 comments:

  1. Yep I agree with all of this...

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  2. I heard about this talk from one of the attendees... thanks for putting it up for us all to read, excellent.
    I understand there was some further Magic Rock talk, any chance of this making it online too???

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  3. Good stuff. I do find the comparisons interesting having had a bit of time working in the wine rather than beer industries. The issue of transporting bottled products half way round the globe is liable to become more of a sensitive issue rather than less of one, but will beer drinkers who demand the exotic accept some of the alternatives? Imagine there was a tax based on the weight and 'air-miles' of imported goods. Beer from NZ that comes here via tea-clipper (odd, but it's been done with wine from France) wouldn't carry the stigma of being brewed under license, but it would hardly be 'fresh'. I wonder which would be the easier pill to swallow, probably from a can?

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    1. Gareth - as someone who does a bit of import work, I can tell you that there is a tax on imported goods, and that's basically the cost of freight! As I say, beer is 95% water, and the bottle the beer comes in tends to weight about the same as the beer. The logic doesn't stack up

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  4. As always, a very intetesting read.

    When I first started getting into "craft" I thought it was mad that a lot of US brewers, like Odell, are more readily available to us Britlanders than they are to the majority of Americans.

    There are very things as enjoyable as a drinking a good beer served at a brewpub or the brewery itself. Freshness is the future!

    As for the lack of hops issue: I suppose it's easy to stop supplying a beer when it only has a limited reach as good pubs and discerning drinkers tend to be quite understanding about such issues but supermarkets aren't very forgiving when you can't give them the quantity they demand and they always have someone waiting to fill their shelf space.

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    1. I don't really see it like that with regards the hop issue. Supermarkets do a great job of selling seasonal produce. The example that springs to mind is asparagus - British asparagus for 6 weeks, or Peruvian year-round. Why not "new crop Citra"?

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    2. I was thinking of brewers who have existing contracts to supply x amounts of y product every month. I might be wrong but I'm not sure a supermarket would be happy to stop selling a product that shifts a load of units and take something else in its place. I don't think the majority of people understand the concept of fresh beer or even the fact that the hop crop of a year can seriously alter the taste of a beer, and supermarkets are fundamentally about appealing to the mass market. I think your idea (beers such as 'new crop Citra') is great and supermarkets may get there eventually but I think it'll take a lot of re-education and time.

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  5. Lots of interesting stuff here.

    You're bang on re: freshness. Especially with more subtle styles, that elusive 'zing' seems to disappear within about half a mile of the brewery. We've given up on buying, for example, bottled Koelsch or Alt: they're not usually downright bad -- they've just died in transit.

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    1. Bailey - I believe that's the exact reasoning behind Thornbridge brewing Tzara and Versa - they are beers that are best drunk fresh, and all my experience points to that being the case.

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  6. Interesting points, and as an expat Oregonian, the bit about SNPA basically being Fullers with Cascades is interesting. Never thought of it that way before, at least not that I can remember. I would've always thought they'd set out to brew something distinctly unique, like Fritz Maytag did with Liberty Ale, which predates SNPA, IIRC.

    Bailey, Kölsch and Alt die in the process of bottling IME. Not really the same issue, but I disagree with those who say bottled beer is so sensitive to travel. I've had bottled Oregon beer here in Franconia that's come by way of trading with Texans and Floridans, and they've been just as good as they were when I've drunk them locally. Yes, flying beer around the world isn't the same as shipping it; what I mean is the distance travelled isn't the issue, rather, the travel time and the conditions underway. A day or two of jostling won't kill it.

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    1. I should probably just clarify that the SNPA/ESB comparison was just a top-of-the-head thing - two beers that share a similar make-up but with very different end results

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  7. not sure I concur with the argument that nothing tastes better than fresh beer, this had largely been an argument put forward by the awful BUD (in which case I agree that nothing does taste better than Bud). With the heavy advertising budget behind the 'Born on' hype it's easy to see that people are persuaded, but freshness something that applies more to lighter beers than dark and heavy ones. Freshness is important, but it is only one part of the make up of a beer, and beers are different. Nobody like 'green' beer, but it's fresh!
    There is a great deal of difference between drinking Reissdorf Kölsch fresh in Köln to drinking a bottle of Reissdorf in Reading, it's both the freshness and the bottling that make the difference.
    With American bottled beers the hop profile will diminish over time, especially for those that use aromatic hops, but shift the accent to the malt and you'll find that a little age can be a good thing, and for some beers it is essential.
    Yes, American brewers tend, in the main, to be local distribution and some are more easily accessible in the UK and on the Continent. But, apparently, it is easier to export beer than to achieve distribution out of State.

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  8. As someone who lives in Florida and occasionally visits Asheville, I think I can answer the question of whether you'd be happier if (to pick an example at random) Sierra Nevada opened a brewery in your backyard. Alas, the answer is a muddle.

    On one hand, I'm happy to get fresher beer and the possibility of more variety and special beers. But on the other hand, I'm not sure it's going to be the same beer (even if I can't tell the difference).

    I guess this is a philosophical issue of what makes craft beer. Part of it is being part of a community, and not an international behemoth. I know Sierra Nevada has promised to engage with the local community (and I don't doubt them). But I wonder how real that will be, and what the net effect is going to be on the native Asheville breweries I love.

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  9. This points to the difficulty of discussing "local" in the United States. It's almost 600 miles from Chico (Sierra Nevada) to the Yakima Valley (Cascade hops). Not much farther than from Wolnzach (heart of German hops) to London.

    Also, dragging beer from the US across the Atlantic and dragging it the other way strike me as equally dumb.

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    1. That's a fair point, although I guess local is relative notion in the US simply by virtue of size

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  10. I like this but, like Stan, do see North America as made of brewing regions by necessity of distance and the links between people as much as ingredients. The New England region that goes beyond those six states demonstrates a pattern that is little affected by Sierra Nevada even if it is in many gas stations now. Yet, it has echoes of what you are describing in the connections between Geary, Noonan and Pugsley and those they trained with certain patterns of British brewing what separate from what was happening in California.

    I was over the border beer shopping in the US today and so much of what I did was antithetical to local. Northern New York offered me beers from Colorado, Michigan, Massachusetts and California as well as some New Yorkers. The greatest part of US craft beer is now much more about mass distribution than local. But I see this as a concurrent theme, not a contradiction. They don't harmonize well and get infected with PR around the best of each, a blind eye turning to the worse.

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  11. It's the Institute of Brewing and Distilling.

    And do you know what proportion of the English hop crop is exported to the US?

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    1. Thanks for the correction Ed - there's nothing like inadvertently insulting one's host! And as Stan implies, there are people better placed than I to answer that question (and I have absolutely no idea)

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  12. Ed - Tony Redsell sells 25% of his hops to the US. He's the largest, but I don't know of he is typical. Paul Corbett would likely know the overall number.

    BTW, Redsell is Boston Beer's supplier for Golding, so that may also skew the number. Interestingly, he ships his bales to Germany, so they can be pelletized in a special way for BBC.

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    1. I could see East Kent Goldings having a market in America, but the hop farmer closed to me grows Sovereign and Boadicea which I suspect there's less demand for.

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  13. Agree with all - especially your point about importing beer. We spoke about it briefly at the beer and cake night, and the more I think about it , the less it makes sense. Freshness is key; an idea that's really, really growing weight with me; so much so that i'm actually consdiring 'miles' when I'm buying beer. I'm certainly not buying as much from NZ and Australia, that's for sure.

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  14. I agree essentially with all these points, which are salutary. I agree too with the poster who said Liberty Ale, the Cascade-heavy pale ale from Anchor, preceded SNPA. It did d, by a few years; so did Henry Weinhard's Lager, from the old Blitz-Weinhard in Oregon which used and advertised Cascades in the mid-70's.

    The funny thing about Cascades is, rather than being some age-old local hop, it was released for commercial use in about 1973, having been developed with money and expertise contributed by major American brewers (the old A/B mainly I believe)in cooperation with the USDA. They were trying to find a substitute for expensive European aroma hops. However, based on things I've read in Google Books, I believe the taste typified by Cascades and the other C-hops comes from the soil and is quite old, hops by other names had similar tastes I believe in the 1800's (piny, floral, gooseberry, etc.). So basically yes they were using something that came out of the soil in their area or at least on their side of the Continent rather than import hops from many thousands of miles away. And now the symbiosis stresses European essays in the same style, it's all to the good as you said.

    SNPA and Liberty were IMO attempts to create an American style of pale ale (which proved very successful). The early craft brewers admired English practice and precedent and rightly so. In some cases, they felt they could improve on it - they did great work but have not exceeded the originals IMO, au contraire - but in general England was the model including also for Imperial stout, finally porter, brown ale, etc.

    Gary

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  15. Two words: thought provoking!

    Lots to agree with, but freshness is interesting. It's one of those things easy to bastardise with marketing (Subway the best example of leveraging the implications of freshness to trick people into perceiving them as healthy/healthier than alternatives. It doesn't necessarily mean quality or sustainability, though is intrinsically linked to those things.

    Sustainability, now there's an overlooked topic in beer. Shipping water and glass around the world - that's madness. 100% agree. Bring on more cans, more solar panels and breweries with grass roofs!

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  16. One thing I'm not clear about: those local ingredients - the highly distinctive, flavoursome US hops - were presumably being grown commercially when Ken Grossman found them, so who was using them? Miller, Coors?

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    1. as my comment below argues, Anchor. But yes Cascade was being used as a generic bittering hop for the big boys. It was developed to be mildew resistant rather than specificaslly for its flavour and aroma characteristics.

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  17. I don't really have anything to add here, Zak, except one side observation. I'm the third Oregonian to write in comments here--of 15 different commenters. On an English blog. I point this out because the US has evolved into a serious beer-producing region, but not uniformly. Places like Oregon (or the Pacific NW) are very different from the Great Plains or South. But then, Franconia is different from Northern Germany, too, so I don't know where I'm headed with this. Just noticing all the damn Oregonians around here...

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  18. While I agree with the spirit of what you say I have an issue with a historical point (doesnt change the spirit or message so I am being pedantic). Anyway, I think to say Ken Grossman set the blue print ignores Fritz Maytag and Anchor. Anchor Liberty had been going since 1975 and was unmistakibly the result of English influence meeting American ingredients. SN Pale certainly took up the torch and ran with it but Maytag drew up the 'blueprint'.

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  19. I agree with Kieran.

    Some essential history:

    http://inhoppursuit.blogspot.ca/2010/01/cascade-how-adolph-coors-helped-launch.html

    Gary

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  20. I have come very late to this I know. The pint about freshness is well made but while UK beer geeks and bloggers remain in thrall to everything that comes out of the USA and almost ignore the fantastic beers that are now being made in Europe (from Scandinavia down to Spain) that will remain an issue. A good example is the Borefts and Bruges festivals. While many UK bloggers and geeks are happy to make pilgrimages across the Atlantic (or aspire to do so) their attendance at two of Europe's best beer events is minimal. Not elite enough for them perhaps? Too accessible to the non-blogging fraternity who got there first? Answers on a postcard please.

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  21. It's a good point and I've always wondered about it.

    Could it be simply that the shared language and history with North America inclines the English beer punter to look there first, i.e., despite the distance?

    Gary

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  22. Really interesting post Zak.

    The freshness issue caught my eye in particular, and is certainly relevant when you're looking at hoppier beers (pale ales, IPAs, etc) - it's a big headache for our guys (not my problem thankfully!) when they're looking at things like American draught options. I think people are oversimplifying it by just looking at distance/time spent traveling though.

    Brooklyn, for example, as I understand things (you can speak to James to confirm if you like), brew their draught Lager to order for us (i.e. we place an order, then they brew it), and it then takes 10 days to ship to the UK. I wouldn't have thought that time frame to be detrimental to the beer at all.

    Of more relevance than distance is to consider how quickly a brewer or distributor is turning over their stock. If a UK brewer produces an IPA in large batches, but then takes 3 months to shift that stock each time, it would probably be less "fresh" than a USA import that's being turned around and replenished on a monthly basis. Similarly, if a bar is selling its Australian Pale Ale at a ratio of 5:1 vs its British Pale Ale, the Aussie stuff is most likely going to be as fresh, if not fresher, than the British beer, by the time a punter actually drinks it.

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