Friday, September 6, 2013

The Session #79 - USA versus Old World Beer Culture

This month's Session is hosted by DingsBeerBlog and he has a simple question. What the hell has the USA done to beer?

What the hell has the USA done to beer? Everything and nothing, I guess. It depends on which perspective you take when answering the question. From an American point of view, US beer culture has changed tenfold over the years. We have options galore and we have beer with flavor.  

Thirty years ago the question was generally which Macro beer suits you. Nowadays, you can walk into a quality liquor store and find aisles upon aisles with hundreds of options to choose from….most of which you've probably never heard of or tried before. The US beer industry, and craft beer in particular, has given us options. And we thank you.

Not only do we have options, but we have flavorful options. After a multi-year sabbatical, I had a Bud Lite on vacation a few weeks ago. I was shocked how little flavor the beer contained. My palate registered nearly zero hop presence and I think I described the beer in my untappd check-in as mildly sweet nothing. Brewers who weren't afraid to bring the bitter and who are constantly experimenting with new hop varieties have changed drinkers’ palates in an extreme way. Imagine going back in time to have a discussion with someone about why you like the taste of beer. People who had ever only known Macro beer would probably look at you crazy if you started describing flavors such as pine, grapefruit, pineapple, mango, or tobacco. And as I’m a testament to, once you develop a taste for these new flavors for a significant amount of time, there is no going back. Sure, I can drink a Bud Lite without being offended by it, but that’s only because there is nothing to be offended by. And if you need more proof that drinkers palates are changing, look no further than Heineken and the fact that they are starting to add Cascade hops to their beer. 

I took a trip to Germany last year and as far as my experiences were concerned US and craft beer has had next to no influence over there. I tasted Dunkels, Helles, Pils, Hefe’s, and Octoberfests. These are beers that the people know to be of a certain standard and beers that breweries have been perfecting for hundreds of years. They have tradition and they stick to what they know and do it as close to perfectly as they can.  The big flavors of Craft beer don't seem to have crept into the Old World, but I believe that's because the Old World has something that the US does not. The Old World has an appreciation for subtle nuance. The beers I had in Germany were flavorful, but they were delicate flavors and features you could quietly stop and appreciate. These are beers you can sit back with at the biergarten and not be distracted by while you're taking in the scenery. You can't do that with a lot of craft beer. Often times, the beer at hand smacks you in the face so when someone tries a Helles they dismiss it as not having enough flavor because it doesn't hit their mouth with a WWE style ring entrance. 

Different parts of Germany are known for different types of beer. If you go to Koln, you’re drinking Kolsch. And while it’s a great beer that people love, other parts of the country don’t go nuts trying to keep up and start producing their own version of Kolsch. In America, there is a growing trend of eating and drinking local, but this variation of drinking local is a special feature the German beer community (and I’m pretty sure Belgium has the same) has that I envy the most. Accessibility is great, but I love the idea of traveling a little ways to get a taste of something you can’t quite get anywhere else for a product that is produced with the utmost care and pride.

Craft beer touts itself on being different and pushing unique products, but in my opinion it still falls victim to massive group think. I wish we took a page from the Old World and took a little more pride in producing only the best and not always run to keep up with the Jones'. Over here, everybody and their brother has an IPA. Why, because they want to keep up. It doesn't matter that their IPA doesn't bring anything new to the table. It doesn't matter that there are 50 other IPA’s from other local breweries that are better than theirs. They need to keep market share and if producing a mediocre IPA helps them achieve that then so be it. Sure, they have a brown ale that is out of this world, but instead of focusing on pushing that product and doing all they can to perfect the recipe they waste time brewing something that is just average. If the Macro brewers are the bad guys for pushing mediocrity on the masses simply to make a buck, why do we give craft brewers a break for doing the same thing (albeit on a much smaller scale). The same goes for Pumpkin Beers. Do we need 89,000 different options? Hell no. Let those who do it best keep us happy and focus on the product you do best. Heady Topper and the one beer they brew is great example of this. We don’t need brewers who produce one good beer and 9 that are forgettable. We need brewers who push products that move craft beer forward in a qualitative way and not quantitative.

The US beer scene has done a lot to push the envelope forward. We have options and we have flavor like we never have before. As far as that objective is concerned I think we can confidently say Mission Accomplished. Sure, variety is supposedly the spice of life, but it’s important that we not soften up on the idea of standards and perfecting something. We're great at taking risks and always trying to move things along. The Old World is great at respecting tradition and perfecting things over time. We don't necessarily need one or the other, but hopefully the future sees the two view points come together to create the best beers the world has ever known.


  1. Our beer culture - like our country - is still incredibly young. My first thought when reading the Session announcement was how it could easily be placed in an "apples vs oranges" mold because it's hard to compare two beer cultures when one has only been around for 40 years.

    1. I agree with you, but still, it was fun to look at the two and see where things align and differ.

  2. Yes. Subtlety and my post. Right?

    I appreciate your point on the mediocre IPA thing. I do think the prevalence of IPAs and Pumpkin beers are at least partly based on demand, rather than those beers being foisted upon us. For instance, there is lots of crankiness about pumpkin beers (the number and how soon they're released), but people gobble them up. And you're better off from a business perspective paying more attention to what your customers do than what they say. But I do appreciate your ultimate point. Because if you're going to make an IPA because the market demands it (and let's face it, most brewers...perhaps with the exception of some specialized and targeted breweries like Jolly Pumpkin or Stillwater, for example...probably need an IPA in their repertoire) don't freaking half-ass it. Make a great IPA and make a great brown, dammit.

    So, maybe after all I don't actually disagree with you on the IPA pumpkin thing. Maybe I'm just wasting space restating what you already said (more elegantly than how I said it). I'll shut up now.

    Good post.

    1. Thanks.

      I agree with your point about customer demand, but it seemed to me that the point of this month's session was aimed at getting us to be a little provocative with our declarations so I decided not to point/counterpoint myself the whole way through.

  3. Agreed (and I think even I had talked myself out of the importance of the demand counterpoint by the end of my comment).