Saving Oktoberfest…

Oktoberfest is an unavoidable tourist trap of a beer drinking holiday in much of the world, with perhaps no greater faux revelry than in the United States. With no ties to any continental or European history or tradition, bars simply stock up on some half-liters (often plastic, ugh), some white and blue checked flags, and maybe even an oompah band, and they’ve got instant fest-in-a-box. Zum what?

And despite being one of the most popular seasonal beer drinking occasions, American brewers sure do make some shitty Oktoberfests. While giving a required nod towards the tradition of Germany, many so-called American versions of this historic style, their resulting beers fall so wide of the mark as to be unrecognizable. Often cast as ales, the trademark smoothness imparted by extended cold conditioning is replaced for a ubiquitous and yawn inducing fruit character. For many U.S. crafts, Oktoberfest beers also just mean a lightly red-hued beer, with no toasted or bready malt character, and little to no soft and subtle beauty. Often brewed without the addition of German or Euro malts or noble hops, the beers offer little if anything beyond the chance to slap an Oktoberfest label on the bottle and score some easy seasonal sales.

In the last decade, Americans have grown quite adept at celebrating if not quite replicating Belgian beer culture, with pubs and restaurants dedicated to all things Flemish and Wallonian. With classy and well-appointed gastropubs popping up in cities throughout America, the future of the Belgian beer bar seems undeniable. These upscale, Belgian themed establishments offer dozens of characterful and diverse styles, distinctive and well-presented glassware, and rough approximations of traditional pub fare. Belgian brewers often marvel at how well-established their nation’s beer culture is here. Between these dedicated pubs and the wide varieties of Lambics, Tripels, and Witbiers available at even your corner packie, Belgian beer culture is arguably more popular now in the United States than in its home country.

The same cannot be said of poor old Deutschland. While the development of the United States market has saved many traditional Belgian beers from extinction, German imports into the country have stagnated. Sure, we’ve got a handful of Hofbrauhaus knock-offs popping up around the country, but few bars let alone American craft breweries look to Germany for inspiration and great beers.

That brings us back to the saddest German beer story of them all: Oktoberfest. Perhaps the world’s quintessential and most iconic beer event, the original beer festival now largely masquerades as a beer selling bonanza for massive, foreign owned corporate behemoths. While some glorious, rich, toasted and malty beers still exist in Germany, they are increasingly difficult to find, having been replaced at the fest either by lighter colored facsimiles or just plain Helles beer.

Oktoberfest is undoubtedly one of the most enticing and saleable beer drinking occasions on the global beer calendar and its charms are appreciated across the world. Despite its obvious appeal, brewers, bar owners, and consumers often just treat it as a German Cinco de Mayo, an excuse to eat vaguely foreign food and get trashed, with a little polka mixed in. German beer culture deserves better and it’s time to start treating traditional German brewing styles with respect and not just as novelty.

That leaves us here in the states with a task ahead of us. As a beer loving nation dedicated to preserving and promoting great and classic beer styles from around the globe, however obscure (Gose anyone?), we need to step up and help resurrect Oktoberfest beer. To date, we’ve sufficed with the production of bland, traditionless Autumn or Harvest Ales posing as Oktoberfests.

-Article appeared in Issue 57 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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The GABF That Was And Wasn’t…

I’ve just returned from my 15th annual trip to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. That number still boggles my mind and I’ve seen the fest (from its days at Currigan Hall), the City of Denver, and the attendant brewing and drinking communities change greatly in that time. Taking a cue from another beer writer, I’ve decided to avoid writing another lengthy diatribe on the GABF (like the controversial one from last year) and here’s an only slightly less diatribe-y list of my thoughts on this year’s GABF.

Let’s Start With The Positive…

1. What an electric moment it was when Jack McAuliffe walked onto the stage during the awards presentation. It was great to see him receive the praise he never did during his brief brewing days.

2. Denver is becoming one hell of a city. I’ve been attending the GABF for 15 years and the changes have come fast and furious in that time. The last year has seen a massive amount of new construction and the continued expansion and growing prominence of new neighborhoods, such as the Highlands. No longer are visitors restricted to scouring the same two or three bars in the increasingly seedy LoDo district. By avoiding the usual suspects, I also ate (and largely drank) better than I ever have in Denver during the fest. The potted salted caramel cheesecake at Colt & Gray was reason enough to leave LoDo.

3. It was fantastic to visit a bevy of new breweries of varying sizes that have opened up in Denver in the last week to year. From the unbelievably tiny Wit’s End Brewing to the fantastically communal Denver Beer Company to the excellent Renegade Brewing Company, these new entrants have brought a renewed vitality to a self-proclaimed “Napa Valley of Beer” whose scene was frankly getting a little stale. That several of the new faces also won their first GABF medals was a great celebration of their hard work.

4. The best beer I had at the festival was Remi’s Saison IPA from the Equinox Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado. This was apparently (and sadly) a one-off collaboration with a local homebrewer, named Remi Bonnart, who won the National Homebrewer of the Year title in 2010. Tasty and intriguing stuff.

5. Despite some grumbles from attendees regarding floor space, I actually thought recreating the 30th anniversary floor plan with the original brewers was kind of a nice touch.

6. Thank god that Falling Rock finally reopened the lower pit area in front of the bar (if only for one night). I attended one Dogfish Head event and an Oktoberfest style event in this area a long time ago and the extra room makes the difference between being smashed together in a hot assed bar after standing in a half-block long line and having the ability to actually talk and share pints with friends. Let the nerds pack together in the basement. I’ll take the outside pit any day. We almost skipped Falling Rock this year (in part because of Point 2 above) due to the horribly packed environs this central meeting point offers experiences every year. Let’s hope this happens again next year.

The Less Positive Parts Of The Festival…

1. I have no idea what a dozen or so of the awarded beer styles mean. I’m sure you can explain to me what Field or Indigenous Beers are but the categories left folks around me at the awards presentation scratching their heads.

2. I really wasn’t blown away by many of the beers that I tried at the festival. Perhaps it is age, cynicism, or something else, but I thought the overall trend was towards pretty mainstream flavors and without many particularly noteworthy offerings. I did have some solid lager beers and saw more of them at the fest, which was a very positive trend. The IPA’s, however, tasted pretty samey across the board.

3. Considering this was the festival’s 30th anniversary, I expected the Brewers Association to celebrate with more events or to put a greater focus on it. The association really didn’t and it seemed a bit of an afterthought.

The Downright Disappointing Parts Of The Fest

There is only one point to be made here, with a few sub-points:

1. Where did all the brewers go?

1a. Putting the awards presentation aside, I saw or ran into a grand total of 5 brewers at the 2 sessions I attended. I’ve never experienced such a shortage in my years of attending.

1b. Brewers were as scarce at booths as sartorial good taste (paging Garrett) and sober restraint. I lamented this fact last year and called upon the Brewers Association to do something about it. Instead, I saw a lot of booths (even whole aisles) staffed only by volunteers (many of whom knew nothing about the beer–I heard one get both the beer’s style and brewer’s state wrong in one exchange with an inquiring consumer) or by faux-brewery staffers wearing brewery lanyards but who actually were just working as know-nothing stand-ins for their brewer buddies.

1c. A number of brewers either decided not to attend the GABF or were locked out from attending due to the awards and floor space closing up early. I heard several grumbles about some breweries being permitted to enter a large number of beers while others were then shut out entirely. I also heard from several well-known brewers that they were focusing on their local markets instead of attending the more national (or hyper-local, see below) GABF.

1d. It appears that the GABF is no longer vital to the industry nor a must-attend event for many brewers or beer lovers. It is at its essence grown into a company paid vacation (for admittedly hard-working) brewers and a gigantic local beer fest. Without the benefit of numbers, I would imagine that three-quarters of the attendees at minimum hail from within 30 miles of the 80202 area code. And while the hotels and car rentals are booked long in advance, beyond industry folks, the impact of the festival seems largely lost on many of the 49,000 attendees. And I understand why you would be hesitant to attend. If you run a little brewpub in Virginia or even a large craft brewery in Boston, it’s hard to say what value the GABF offers your brand or brewery. (With this said, I need to ask someone like Joe Short why he spends so much time and money on his GABF presentation. I may be missing a whole side to this or maybe he just likes to party). Perhaps the GABF medal is still a coveted commodity and it’s clear that many breweries still want to take a shot and send a few beers to compete. But the festival itself seems much an afterthought. It has simply turned into the world’s largest bar for Denver-ites. Unless you’re trying to sell beer in Colorado, it seems as if the festival has turned into the last place you’ll see a brewer during the last week in September.

Reading over my post from last year on the unfortunate aspects of the Great American Beer Festival, I think most of the criticisms remain true and that the opportunities for beer education and brand building have essentially been lost at the GABF. For next year, I hope the Brewers Association considers the simple point I made last year: breweries that choose to pour beer on the festival floor should be required to have a representative at the booth at all times.

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American Craft Beer Hegemony

Walk into a bar in Copenhagen’s trendy Nørrebro neighborhood and one expects to find the occasional Danish craft beer alongside the standard Carlsberg and Tuborg offerings. In Tokyo, Kirin and Asahi mainly go over the bar, while Shanghai bars offer only Tsingtao and Snow. So no one would blame a visitor for double-taking at bottles and taps of Brooklyn Lager and Great Divide’s Oak Aged Yeti.

For a country that has never possessed much of a discernible brewing heritage, America has taken a leading role in exporting its nascent beer culture around the world. With the help of brewing trade groups, the federal government, and a band of curious American and foreign brewers, American-style craft beer can now be enjoyed in bars from Stockholm to Manila. And while this growing sphere of influence is good news for small American brewers, its expansion has created an unexpected identity crisis in the world’s richest brewing cultures.

The efforts of the Brewers Association, financially supported by the United States Department of Agriculture, has been at the heart of the confluence of events leading to the expanding global reach of craft beer. Begun in 2004, the Export Development Program helps American craft brewers educate international markets about their products and aids in distribution efforts abroad. Having completed its fifth year, the EDP assists Americans in exporting more than 30,000 barrels of beer to more than a dozen countries in Europe and Asia.

Beyond the official export efforts, a quiet confluence of events has helped expose the world to the new American way of beer. American brewers started plying their trades abroad, in Denmark, Italy, Japan, and beyond, further expanding the reach of the new U.S. brewing approach. Craft beer inspired a new generation of foreign brewers, in places such as Scotland, Italy, Scandinavia, and Australia, to start their own breweries based on American models. Add in a new generation of global beer geeks, including some influential and rabid Scandinavian raters, and a modest but expanding international market for big-flavored American beers developed.

These events have resulted in some unexpected and fundamental changes in the traditional beer world. While the growth of new American-style craft breweries in places such as Denmark and Italy, with their relatively prosaic lager brewing histories, was welcomed news, the movement’s reverberations have been particularly acute in countries with deeper brewing traditions. Reeling from the effects of globalization, small brewers across Belgium, Britain, and Germany began to see their market shares shrink as bigger players consolidated and swallowed their customers then their breweries. Younger drinkers abandoned traditional beers for the safety of bland pints of lager. In these difficult times, the success of better beer in America caught the eye of some distressed European brewers.

Faced with possible extinction, a pionerring group of Belgian brewers in particular looked to America for help. Brewers including Cantillon, De Proef, and Fantome, struck deals with American importers and suddenly saw pallets of their handcrafted beers leaving for long trips abroad. In return, hoards of American beer tourists started showing up at their favorite brewery’s doorsteps. In an unanticipated turn, Belgian brewers also realized there was money to be made in playing to the radical American palate. Importer B.United convinced the Brasserie d’Achouffe to make an unusual hybrid beer, called Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel, for the American market. Other breweries followed, resulting in joint efforts with their U.S. counterparts and the birth of the collaboration beer era. Completing the circle of America’s expanding beer influence, the next wave has seen the rise of extreme breweries in Belgium, such as Picobrouwerij Alvinne and De Struise Brouwers.

Small European brewers today find themselves in a tenuous position in a quickly changing marketplace. As guardians of deep and honored brewing heritages, the task of protecting historic styles from the encroaching American beer geek palate will grow increasingly difficult. To date, these breweries have managed well the task of delicately balancing adaptation and innovation with the traditions that built their brewing reputations. In maintaining this equilibrium, we can only hope they can defend their valuable beer cultures and brewing traditions against the forces of dilution.

–Article appeared in Issue 28 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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