A few months ago, I was interviewed by friend for a piece on import beer. Very quickly, I realized the questions were directing me towards proving that imported beer has little value in today’s craft beer market. As the article came out, I realized that my feelings were right. The piece was well written and covered a lot of the struggles imported beer are going through. However, all the points were wrapped in the editorial of the superiority of buying local craft beer. Note: By imported beer, I don’t mean mass-produced macro lagers like Corona or Heineken. I’m talking true, authentic beers from Belgium and Germany, etc.
I recently read a list that rates Belgian and Belgian-style triples. This perspective assumes that you’re comparing apples to apples or talking about widgets. This removes so many important factors that go beyond simple dollars and geographic points. It’s this lack of perspective that puts together and includes 3 canned offerings. Their quad list included 1 canned/crowlered option. The standard glass and aluminum cans used in the US tend to fail in the 3.5 volume range. Most American craft beers range from 2.5-2.8 volumes. A Belgian beer in the triple and quad range will be closer to 4 or 5 volumes.
Carbonation doesn’t seem like a place to plant my first flag, but think about British beer. Americans have long called traditional British cask beer “flat,” bringing no amount of consternation to British cask ale enthusiasts who rightly think their beers are misunderstood. On the flip side, if I read another review of Belgian beer by a Brit that uses the term “too fizzy,” I may pull my hair out. Carbonation levels matter. CO2 provides its own flavor while reacting with other flavors in the beer. Most noticeably, it provides for a dense head and a huge amount of texture. How can it be a triple if it’s got a thin, flat mouthfeel? It says “triple” on the can…
Quality and Price
The other day, I stopped by the grocery store and like I always do, walked the beer aisle. Saison Dupont, the defining Saison of the category, was $10.99 for a 750ml. Down the row was a Saison made 80 miles away from a relatively new and unheralded brewery – $14.99. Next to the Saison Dupont was a bottle of Rodenbach Grand Cru priced at $10.99. The Grand Cru is a complex blend of old and young Flemish Red ale that involves a mix of various microbes. The local option down the line cost $30+ and only goes through a simple lactic souring with no additional microbes before going into a barrel leaving a beer that’s nowhere near as complex or interesting yet 3x’s more expensive.
I’ve tasted a lot of American brewed Belgian-style beers. Usually it’s just some “Belgian” yeast slapped into an under carbonated, sugary concoction that tastes of alcohol and poor fermentation practices. And you can say all you want about beers like this being an “American” interpretation, but a bad beer is a bad beer is a bad beer. There are a handful of American brewers who are making truly authentic Belgian-style beers, yet those beers still retain their sense of place as a beer from Hood River or a beer from Portland, Maine. One can pay homage to the beers of Belgium, create a beer that would stand up next to a Belgian beer in a competition, and still be innovative and American. But if a brewer doesn’t truly understand what goes into a Belgian beer, their results will be mediocre at best and more likely, a poorly executed mess that should never see the light of day.
And as a consumer, if you’re not drinking an authentic German Schwarzbier or Trappist Triple from the source, how do you know the craft beer you’re drinking is executed properly? The other day, I tried a schwarzbier from a local German focused brewery who usually makes pretty good stuff that’s both authentic and unique. While the beer was nice, it wasn’t a schwarzbier. It drank like a porter. Joe Stange summarizes it best in a piece he did for Craft Beer & Brewing – Belgian Beer: You’re Probably Doing it Wrong.
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of brewers and brewery owners in the United States and Europe. They, by and large, are great people who are following their passions. The Americans are new to this, even those who were founding members of the Craft Beer Revolution. Some of the Belgians and Germans I’ve met have been part of a multi generational effort to keep their family dream afloat through the destruction of 2 World Wars, economic depressions, and the predations of multinational conglomerates. Many of these small breweries have to export a large part of their beer because their market is so dominated by AB-InBev and its money that it’s hard to even sell their product in their own hometowns.
When people say drink local, to me Belgium is local. When you travel a lot, the world gets smaller and people on the other side of the globe become your friends. When people say drink independent, why should I not support a small family brewery that’s struggled through a couple of centuries of hardship to try to keep their family business alive?
Authentic beers from Europe provide perspective to American drinkers. Without the originals to compare to, how do you know you’re being sold an inferior product or one that’s truly amazing in its authenticity and innovation as an American brewery? But beyond just being a model for comparison, these products are truly worthy of being drank regularly. And I know some people say you can get local beer cheaper, but can you?
Sure, you can get a 6-pack of IPA for less than a 6 bottles of Orval. But when you factor in quality and price on similar items, the price argument quickly disappears. How is a $5 of Petrus Aged Pale in a 330 ml that spent up to 2 years in foeders not a better deal than a $4 12oz can of kettle sour Gose? How is a complex Duchesse de Bourgogne not a better deal than a basic barrel aged beer that has its simplistic flavor profile covered up with fruit additions? When you compare apples to apples, it becomes clear how great a value these imported beers can be.
There are great people all over the world making wonderful beer. Limiting yourself to a map seems so parochial. Why does the AB-InBev owned former craft brewery 3 hours away deserve my money more than the family brewery that rebuilt after Nazis stole their kettles for munitions simply because they’re located closer? What’s more important than supporting local first is supporting independent, quality beers. I’m not going to give my money to a local brewery that treats its employees like crap just because they can claim being local. I’m not going to give my money to the local brewery that is owned or partially owned by the predatory multinational conglomerate that’s trying to do everything in its power to stifle competition around the world. I’m going to give my money to the great local, independent that’s down the road or across the Atlantic. Both are worthy of my patronage. Both are worthy of your patronage.