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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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