The View from Abroad: Foreign Perceptions of the U.S. Craft Brewing Scene

By Jill Redding

It’s no secret that the American craft brewing movement is on fire here in the U.S., but what is the perception overseas?

As American brewers expand their markets abroad, more people are able to experience the flavor and diversity of American craft beer. But are all the reviews positive, especially from the hallowed brewing grounds of Belgium, England and Germany?

The New Brewer contacted individuals in various foreign countries (brewers, U.S. craft beer importers, beer aficionados and event organizers) and asked them to write a mini-essay on their perception of the U.S. craft brewing scene, including what brewers in their country can learn from American craft brewers, and vice versa. Here are their perceptions, in their own words.

Kjetil Jikiun, head brewer, Nøgne Ø, Norway

The American craft brewing scene has been a major source of inspiration. Not only is there a small gap between homebrewers and craft brewers, there is also a close relationship between brewers/breweries and the public. Breweries communicate well and the public cares and pays attention.

I find the playfulness with regards to making hybrid and crossover beers, and experimenting with new ingredients, absolutely liberating. I once read about an Australian winemaker explaining the key to success for Australian wines: “It is because we have no traditions.” The same can explain the success of American craft beer.

Even though we try to establish our own beer culture and traditions in Norway, we at Nøgne Ø emphasize that we want to mirror some elements from the American craft brewing culture. Life is too good to waste on boring beer!

Anders Kissmeyer, former brewery director, Nørrebro Bryghus, Denmark

My relationships to my American colleagues have been instrumental in forming my philosophy on beer and brewing. U.S. craft brewers are highly innovative and have a very un-dogmatic approach to the art of brewing: On one hand embracing and respecting the old, European traditions—that I actually feel many of the native brewers of the great, old beer cultures are wearing as straightjackets—and on the other hand mixing them, tuning elements up and down, straying from them. I have always been awed by the passion and dedication of my American colleagues.

If I were to find one issue where I believe that we as Danish brewers are a bit more advanced, it is in the area of “terroir.” Here, we are beginning to actively seek out forgotten cultivars, malting barleys as the most important, that are unique to our region, thus trying to create unique Danish and Scandinavian beer styles. I know and admire the unique American hops and the way they are used in the U.S. to create beers that owe their character to a local cultivar, but why this does not happen with the other essential ingredients, I don’t know.

Danish brewers and beer geeks were practically ignorant of the wonder of American craft beer seven or eight years ago, whereas today everybody here looks to the U.S. for inspiration.

James Watt, Emperor Penguin, BrewDog, Scotland

I co-founded BrewDog with my best friend Martin in April 2007. We could not find any beers we wanted to drink in Scotland and decided the best thing to do was to start brewing our own.

The UK brewing scene really bored us. Everything is constrained by tradition and anything interesting is strangled by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), which is almost single-handedly responsible for holding back innovation in British brewing. The beer culture we grew up with is stuffy, boring and mundane, with most UK brewers making similar boring 4 percent bitters all using the same malt and hops. We were looking over the Atlantic and seeing the progressive craft beer culture grow, seeing brewers not afraid to push the boundaries and not afraid to take risks. The innovation, the more extreme beers, and the edge and irreverence of how craft brewers promoted their brand fascinated us. When we started BrewDog, we wanted to take some of that innovative, pioneering spirit of the U.S. craft beer movement and try and start a great good beer revolution in Scotland.

Dan Ihrelius, beer purchaser, Systembolaget, Sweden

The craft beer scene in Sweden has been growing steadily for a number of years now, with 2009 showing a 14 percent increase in total volumes for specialty beers. During the same period, U.S. specialty beer volumes have increased by 26 percent, the main drivers being Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada. Specialty beers, however, still only account for just below 3 percent of total beer sales.

We try to maintain a relatively high launch rate when it comes to U.S. craft beers. So far that has proven quite successful, with volumes selling out rather quickly, and as a consequence we little by little increase the volumes that we commit ourselves to. We can also see that the number of importers working with U.S. craft beer is slowly growing, a positive thing since that surely means we will see even more diversity of brands and styles in the future.

The most popular offerings seem to be IPAs. The price levels are rather high, compared to European brands, but so far consumers seem willing to pay extra. U.S. craft beer, and its diversity in styles, has been a source of inspiration for many Swedish craft brewers.

Kris Herteleer, owner, De Dolle Brouwers, Belgium

Here we know about American beers by having samples and talking to brewers/visitors who visit the brewery. The impression I have is that the quality of American beer has stabilized up to a reasonably good level, sometimes very good level for the breweries that are specializing in “abnormal” beers.

The thing of “copying” beers is annoying for Belgians, who feel like the inventors of special beer and feel themselves a bit stolen of that hegemony. As more a painter than a brewer in my mind, I sometimes compare beer with painting appreciation. Imagine a museum of art with nothing but copies of famous painters.

In the last decades, we have seen an increase of high density beers/special beers exported to the States, followed by the increase (start) of a marginal special beer market as well in America. That makes things interesting! We are at the start of a new beer era where diversity is more important than production.

Hans-Peter Drexler, head brewmaster, Schneider Weisse, Germany

The first time I came in touch with the American craft brewing scene was about 10 years ago. I found a lot of very interesting people with an enthusiasm for brewing that I have never seen before in any other country. For them it seemed to be a passion and not business.

When I collaborated with Brooklyn Brewery creating Hopfenweisse with Garrett Oliver, I learned how to talk about beer, to give beer tastings, to bring the beer to the consumers. This was completely different from the German way of communication from the brewer to the consumer. I learned to jump over the fence of traditions.

When you walk around the American craft brewing scene as a traditional German brewer with open eyes and ears and an open mind, you will find beer styles and traditions from all over the world together in one country. Sometimes, the quality is not totally perfect but you can feel the brewer’s bumping heart.

In Germany, brewers’ minds are blocked by tradition. But they hear more and more about that multicoloured, interesting beer scene. And they think about it.

Andy Benson, director, Bières Sans Frontières, Great British Beer Festival, England

I have been working on Bières Sans Frontières, the international bar at the Great British Beer Festival, for the last 13 years. In this time the popularity and amount of American craft beer served has increased dramatically.

Gone are the days when I would get the comment that all American beer is bland lager. These days I get people following which beers will be at the festival and asking me to let them know when certain beers become available.

The American craft brewing movement is in certain respects is like a huge family. This camaraderie has led to collaborations between other breweries both in the U.S. and beyond, which again enforces the respect in which American beers are now being held overseas. In recent years this is starting to come full-circle with brewers in the UK and Belgium now taking inspiration from American beers and starting to experiment with their own recipes. So craft beer continues to go from strength-to-strength, and long may it continue.

A version of this article originally appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of The New Brewer.

Where have you experienced American craft beer while traveling abroad?

Jill ReddingJill Redding is editor-in-chief of The New Brewer and Zymurgy magazines for the Brewers Association. She is a BJCP beer judge and loves attending events like the Big Beers festival to further her beer education (and drink great beer, of course).