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The American craft beer scene goes global

Foreign breweries draw inspiration from U.S. craft brewers, who are increasing exports (and looking to build overseas). There's even a black market for the States' specialty suds.

February 03, 2011|By Jenn Garbee, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Stone Brewing of Escondido has its eye on an international market for its craft beer.
Stone Brewing of Escondido has its eye on an international market for its… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

While craft beer fans hedge their bets on whether Sunday's Super Bowl play-by-play is more suited to hopped-up IPAs or intensely flavored stouts, Greg Koch will be deliberating over a lot more than what to sip on game day. In the coming weeks, the co-owner of Escondido-based Stone Brewing Co. will finalize the location of the first American craft brewery on the European continent.

After decades of taking hops advice from foreign brewers, American craft brewers are beginning to return the favor. Several are now exporting their beers, and others are inviting upstart foreign brewers stateside for a lesson in brewing American favorites such as double IPAs (an India pale ale amped up with extra hops to intensify the flavor). Or, as with Stone, they are getting a surprisingly bubbly reception in the bid for permanent resident status abroad.

"We had no idea we would suddenly need a Stone employee with 'European acquisitions' added to his title," says Koch. After scouting locations in May, Koch and co-owner Steve Wagner received more than 75 brewery site proposals from nine countries, including Denmark, Estonia, France, Italy and Britain. They recently narrowed the playing field to the top two contenders: Bruges, Belgium, and Berlin.

While Stone and other craft brewers have their eyes on the international consumer, their experimental, boldly flavored American beers also have been influencing a new generation of cutting-edge overseas brewers.

"When American craft beer got its start, we were imitating styles from the great brewing nations like Belgium, Germany and the U.K.," says Bob Pease, chief operating officer of the Brewers Assn., the Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit craft brewers' trade organization. "Now 20 to 25 years later, we've come full circle, and they're looking to us for inspiration, but we're really just getting started overseas."

Like their American colleagues, Scotland's BrewDog and Nøgne Ø of Norway make no apologies for their distinctly "American style" double IPAs and coffee-infused stouts.

James Watt, the 27-year-old co-owner of BrewDog in Fraserburgh, Scotland, credits the absence of longstanding brewing traditions in the United States with encouraging a more creative brewing scene. "Beers in the U.K. have become fairly stuffy and old-fashioned, almost as if brewing traditions here have constrained brewers," he says. "When it comes to beer, we are light-years behind the U.S., and California in particular."

Before opening BrewDog in 2007, Watt and co-owner Martin Dickie visited several Southern California breweries, including Stone Brewing Co. and AleSmith, a San Diego brewery known for its unusual twists on Belgian- and British-style beers. "We really wanted to make beers like the American brewers who completely follow their muse," says Watt. BrewDog's Paradox, a high-alcohol stout aged in whiskey barrels, is noticeably similar to AleSmith's 12% alcohol-by-volume (ABV), bourbon-barrel-aged Speedway Stout; its Punk IPA is described on the brewery's website as a transatlantic fusion made with Chinook hops, an American variety of the herb often used in domestic IPAs.

BrewDog is not alone in its American influence. Hildegard van Ostaden's Urthel Hop It, a 9.5% alcohol IPA, came to fruition after the Belgium brewer tasted American-style IPAs at the 2006 Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival (it is now the brewery's most popular beer). Nøgne Ø, the first craft brewery to introduce IPAs to Norway, was co-founded in Grimstad by a former commercial pilot, Kjetil Jikiun, who purchased home brewing supplies on flight layovers in the U.S. (Stone Brewing Co. has since collaborated with Nøgne Ø on a holiday ale made with California sage and Norwegian juniper berries.)

Although these multicultural brews have increased the demand for American craft beers overseas, getting those IPAs to the customers tasting as good as they did when they left the brewery has not been easy.

"The biggest problem is that fresh, big hoppy flavor we're known for can fade quickly if the beer isn't stored properly or it sits too long in the distribution chain," says Koch. In 2010, Stone reserved most of its 115,000 barrels for stateside sales, shipping very limited quantities to Britain, Sweden, Japan and Singapore.

Pease says the limited shelf life of most craft beers is the primary overseas shipping hurdle. "Most craft beers are not pasteurized like commercial beers, which makes them basically the same as an unpasteurized food product and causes all sorts of export problems. But there are some styles of craft beers that fare better because they contain natural preservatives."

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