Industry publication headlines scream in bold type about the double digit growth of big brands, such as Corona, Heineken, and Guinness. Industry analysts fall over one another in their attempts to spread the gospel on the second coming of imported beer.
While beverage industry publications focus on Amstel, Labatts, and Tecate, many smaller import brands slowly trek along the distribution process. This article focuses on some little noticed import products. While a handful of brand names grab all the headlines, many classic imports fly under the radar and fail to register in America. These smaller products have a range of unique selling points - some are brewed in unlikely locales, some have very unique stories to tell, and some represent little known and nearly defunct styles.
Across the beer market, import products have weathered a bumpy decade. After lackluster mid-decade sales, many import brands are in full gear for a new assault on the marketplace. As of 2000, imports represent a ten percent share of the American beer market, with the volume to support it. According to Beverage Dynamics, Corona is now the seventh largest brand in the country. Not the seventh largest import brand, but seventh largest overall. After a confused mid-decade identity crisis, Corona relocated its sense of personality and has experienced 35 to 40 percent growth in recent years. After a mid-decade slump, Heineken has staged an impressive comeback, posting a near 15 percent increase last year, to 54 million 2.25 gallon cases. Guinness has also made some impressive inroads, nearly doubling the number of cases sold in the last five years.
But the real story of imported beers, as far as uniqueness goes in this market, is not to be found in Beverage Dynamics' Rising Stars or Fast Track growth lists. It's in the brew kettles of some unlikely brewers.
UNIQUE LOCALES When a beer drinker thinks of great brewing countries, s/he might dream of Belgian monasteries or old German brewhouses. When one ponders great brewing countries, one does not think of Norway or Sri Lanka. But when it comes to great imported beer, these countries each produce at least one noteworthy product.
The Aass Brewery was established in 1834 and is the oldest modern day brewery in Norway. The brewery was purchased in 1860 by Poul Lauritz Aass, who then donned it with his unique and often mispronounced name (the proper pronunciation is "Ouse"). The brewery has been family run ever since, with the forth generation of Aass running the business today. The brewery is located on the Drammen river, 25 miles south of Oslo, and produces 85,000 barrels a year. Citing its unlikely allegiance to Duke Wilhelm of Bavaria, the brewery produces all of its beers in accordance with the purity law of 1516.
Aass' best known beer is its bock, a classic of the style. This deep auburn beer has a creamy flavor, with some spicy and nutty hints, and offers a full mouthfeel. It has a faint hop base, with 20.5 IBUs of German Hallertau hops, and an intriguing base of Scandinavian malt. The Aass Bock is lagered up to six months, has a 5.9 percent a.b.v., and is sold in an 11.2oz green bottle. The beer is imported by All Saints Brands.
Across the globe from Scandinavia, Asian nations have produced a number of lagers that are popular in package stores and ethnic restaurants. Brands including Kingfisher, Sapporo, and Asahi are well known to those who dine in Chinese, Japanese or Indian restaurants. Beyond pale lagers, there is one standout dark beer from an Asian country that many people couldn't find on a map. In the nation of Sri Lanka, the Ceylon Brewery produces the potent Lion Stout.
This beer, which is imported by Quest Importers of Purchase, New York, has a small following outside of its home country. This following is mainly the product of the writing and beer exploration of noted beer writer Michael Jackson. During the days before Lion Stout was exported, Jackson made a risky beer hunt to the hilltop brewery to taste this mythical stout. The brewery is perched precariously in the hill town of Nuwara Eliya, a locale that Jackson describes as "frighteningly remote". The trip to the brewery requires a careful and harrowing jaunt up a narrow, winding road to the town.
The brewery, which is Sri Lanka's first, was founded by Sir Samuel Backer at the base of one of Sri Lanka's most famous waterfalls, popularly named Lovers Leap. The area is surrounded by tea plantations and impressive landscape according to those who have visited. Initial production was intended entirely for local consumption, with little thought about expansion. More than a century after the brewery's founding, Ceylon's products were exported to the UK, Backer's native country.
A new, fully-automated brewery, named the Lion Brewery after the company's most popular brand, was recently established in the town of Biyagama, replete with modern brewing equipment and production facilities manufactured by Steinecker and Krones. The purpose of the new brewery's construction is to handle the increasing local and international demand.
The Ceylon Brewery is capable of brewing 125,000 hectoliters (about 105,000 barrels), while the new Lion Brewery is capable of producing 300,000 hectoliters (250,000 barrels). The new brewery has the potential to expand to a mind-boggling 1,800,000 hectoliters (1.5 million barrels) a year.
While I enjoy a good beer hunt as much as anyone, I prefer the harrowing walk to the package store over long, winding mountain bus rides for my taste of the Lion Stout. And thankfully, this beer is now available in the United States.
Water for the beer is provided by a stream located above the brewery, and malt is obtained from Britain and the Czech Republic. The brewery uses Slovenian hops and a British yeast strain. The beer pours with a big, bubbly and creamy tan head. The aroma is very creamy, with some dark malt and smoky hints. The Lion Stout has a slightly sweet malt beginning, sliding into a smoky malt middle, and finishes very smooth. While this is certainly an impressive stout, I would take issue with Jackson's lending of his reputation and name to advertisements for the beer - his imbing photograph can be found adorning product posters and the bottle itself!
UNIQUE STORIES In the eyes of lawnmowing beer drinkers everywhere, the classic Summer beer is most likely the Pilsner. Far from the American-style lagers of Budweiser and Miller Genuine Draft, pilsners are often light in color, medium-bodied with a floral hop nose and a crisp, dry finish that lasts on the palate. This popular and often imitated style of beer is truly Bohemian in origin. The original Pilsner was brewed in Pilsen, Czech Republic, and was thus given its namesake. In the Czech Republic, pilsner is an appellation reserved exclusively for the beers of this region.
With the granting of brewing licenses by King Wencelas II in 1295, the history-making production of beer in Pilsen began. In the 1840s came a shakeup in the Czech brewing industry, and a number of local brewers decided to found a new brewery. The group created the Mestansky Pivovar (Burgess Brewery), and began brewing in 1842. The brewery's offerings were quite popular, and it experienced growth throughout Prague and rest of Czechoslovakia. Near the end of the century, the brewery was exporting its popular pilsner to all major European cities - and even to the United States. The popularity of the Pilsner style caused quite a stir in international brewing circles. The production techniques and flavor structure of the beers spread on a global scale, with many brewers creating similar, if less flavorful versions of the style.
The so-called original pilsner is the 150-year-old Pilsner Urquell, a wonderful beer with a floral bouquet and a remarkably refreshing and crisp finish. The beer is, beginning to end, all about the Bohemian Saaz hop, a finishing hop with a low alpha-acid bitterness. The Saaz hop imparts a spicy and fragrant aroma to the final product.
Another important pilsner, which has lately received a lot of media attention, is another Czech beer, appropriately named Czechvar. As you may know, this is not the original name of the beer. But first to the history. The town of Budweis, Czech Republic (that may give away the rest of the story...) is home to a strong, historic brewing tradition which spans seven centuries. It appears, through a review of Czech history, that the nation's kings were extraordinarily involved in the creation of some great beers. When founding the town of Budweis ("Ceske Budejovice" in Czech) in 1265, King Premysl Otaker II granted its burghers the right to malt, brew, store and sell beer in their homes. The brewers did not take this privilege lightly, and set out to make some world-class beers.
Over the next few centuries, a period of time that should not be thrown around in such a seemingly light manner, the local brews made the town famous. According to the people at Czechvar, in the 1500s, Emperor Ferdinand I gave the local city council a special award for its quality beer and then ordered it to send the brewer and his workers to the imperial court to brew for the emperor himself.
The beer is more full-bodied, has a greater malt sweetness and larger hop presence than its Czech brother, Pilsner Urquell. It shares a base of Moravian malt and Bohemian Saaz hops with the original, but is most noticeably different in the sweetness of its underlying malt flavors. It is this difference that is crucial to the beer and its current state of affairs. The brewers suggest that the brewery's dedication to the finest ingredients is the major virtue of the beer's quality. This ordinary proclamation would usually be a predictable statement by a brewery seeking to differentiate itself from its competition. In this case, however, the statement is only half-complete. The brewers say their dedication to their ingredients is important, and that the brewery "has never sacrificed quality to business goals". It is this last swipe at the competition that begins to reveal the true story behind Czechvar.
After moving to the United States, an eager-minded German immigrant named Adolphus Busch began making a beer inspired by the city of Budweis. Back in central Europe, the Budweis Brewery was brewing a beer known as Budvar. This beer had been distributed in America until 1939, when the brewery, now referred to as the B.B.N.P. in America, signed a trademark and exportation agreement with Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest brewing company.
The long-running trademark dispute between the B.B.N.P. and A-B over the Budvar moniker has continued for nearly 100 years. Originally, the export agreement prohibited the use of the Budvar name on products exported to the US. The B.B.N.P. claims the agreement was signed under litigation threats by A-B. After a variety of negotiations and settlement attempts, including some time before the International Trade Commission, the two sides finally inked a recent deal. The B.B.N.P. is now allowed to distribute Budvar in the United States under its original moniker when the imports are destined for extra-territorials, such as embassies or UN bodies. Otherwise, the brewery must distribute the beer as "Czechvar". As the brewery puts it, "only the name has been changed to protect the beer". The beer is now imported by Czech Beers Importers, and is currently available in many markets. The company expects nationwide distribution in coming years.
UNIQUE STYLES The final section of this article will consider two very unique and rarely enjoyed styles of beer. One is a lager, while the other is an ale. Both are holdovers from another time and place - beers with strong character and pronounced flavor. The first one looks a lot tougher than it really is. The second, however, is every bit as tough as it looks.
The first beer is Kostritzer, a schwarzbier brewed by the brewery of the same name in the East German town of Bad Kostritz. Schwarzbier is simply German for "black beer". This lager is something of an enigma - its appearance can be deceiving. This style is morosely dark brown or opaquely black in color. But this is not the kid brother of stout or porter. Black beers have a roasted malt flavor, but without the associated bitterness of many other darker beers. The complex flavor is low in sweetness, with some hop flavor. Overall, this beer is a light dark beer, if such a thing can exist. The beauty of the style is its ethereal nature. Beers of this style often give off the impression of having strong, bitter or highly roasted dark malt flavors. But this beer manages a certain light flavor that will confound many experienced beer drinkers.
Kostritzer is one of the original black beers, if not the original itself. The brewery boasts a more than 450 year brewing history, dating back to 1543. The beer had its heyday many, many decades ago, only to see its popularity wane with the onslaught of pale lager beer in Germany. Its lightness, however, is one of its most positive attractions for German beer drinkers, who consider it a dark beer with a light soul. It has been roundly accepted in Germany, with particular affinity vesting in northern Germany. Bismarck was known to have enjoyed this beer, and Goethe heralded it as his favorite beer. A beer of Germany, it is brewed in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot of 1516.
The storied history of the Kostritzer Brewery almost came to a close during the Cold War. After construction of the Berlin Wall, the brewery, along with many other East German breweries, was cut off from the rest of the world and sank into financial difficulties. The doors of the old brewhouse were closed for a while during this time. After German reunification and the symbolic destruction of the Berlin Wall, the old Kostritzer Brewery reopened under the tutelage of the Bitburg Brewery of West Germany. The story goes that the president of the popular Bitburg Brewery had enjoyed the light flavor of this dark specialty during his youth and was saddened to see its premature demise. After some consideration, he purchased and reopened the brewery, and in the process managed to revive a dying style of beer.
Schwarzbiers are beginning to make a quiet comeback in the US. In a strange testament to the enigmatic qualities of this style, one unlikely city swept all three awards at the 2000 Great American Beer Festival for the schwarzbier style. Portland? Denver? Lager-loving Milwaukee? None of the above. The answer? Salt Lake City. Completing its sweep of major international competitions in the schwarzbier style, including gold medals at the GABF and the World Beer Championships, the Uinta Brewing Company of Salt Lake City, Utah, won for its King's Peak schwarzbier. I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me how this dark beer style made its way to one of America's least hospitable beer communities, let alone how the city's breweries managed to sweep all three medals! Regardless of the fact that there were only 12 entries, this was an amazing categorical sweep. The other two, for those interested, were the Red Rock Black Bier from the Red Rock Brewing Company and the Black Forest Schwarzbier from Squatters Beer.
Some bartenders recommend a mix of the two beers proud enough to call themselves "black beers" - Guinness and Kostritzer. The so-called "black on black" is an interesting concoction that is rarely possible due to the varied distribution of the Kostritzer brand.
The second oft-neglected style is the full, eclectic and sometimes overpowering Baltic porter style. This style of dark ale is not popular enough to even constitute a sub-style of the porter group under the Association of Brewers' style guidelines. This style is a definite relative of the Imperial Stout style. These deep, rich porters, popular in Poland, Finland and Russia, are rich in flavor and usually big in alcohol content and flavor. In a nod to hybrid style beers, many Baltic porters are brewed with lager yeasts. The representations of this style are eclectic because they are so wide-ranging in flavor. Unlike many other styles, one Baltic porter will not likely taste like another. The flavors range from softer malt flavors to overwhelmingly powerful malt and alcohol flavors.
In support of the "go big or go home" movement, this part of the article will focus on one of the biggest of the Baltic porters: the Okocim Porter. This beer is brewed by the Okocim Brewing Company in Poland, packs a big 8.1 percent a.b.v., and is stunning in massive malt aroma and flavor. The Okocim pours with a deep, dark brown color, a remarkable tan head, and offers a huge, rich malt nose, with some coffee hints. This beer lets you know upfront that it isn't messing around. It reaches its full potential after warming at room temperature for a few minutes, and has a layered, almost dry finish. On my most recent taste, the bottle had been aged for more than a year and help up very well.
Though not widely available, the Okocim is most likely to be found in the Chicago area. And there is good reason for such a distribution point: Chicago has the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw, Poland. The beer is most often found at import-heavy liquor stores and in areas with large Polish or East European populations.
Marketers want consumers to believe that every beer has its own story. And for the above brands, this is certainly true. Many little noticed imports offer unique flavors, styles, and stories that too often go undiscovered. So the next time you read the numbers in an industry publication, give some thought to what you don't see. To truly appreciate the real flavor and range of imported products, a drinker must consider something beyond the top ten.