With pronounceable names, eye-catching packaging and, of course, great liquid, the American craft brewers are threatening to do to the UK beer market what the Australians did to wine. God Bless Uncle Sam, says Nigel Huddleston
Not so long ago, the US taking the crown of trendiest brewing country in the world would have been about as likely as Rochdale winning the Premier League or an MP filling in a legitimate expenses form.
That this has come to pass is down to the passion, expertise, confidence and entrepreneurial flair of a growing legion of craft brewers whose beers have helped to rewrite the brewing rulebook.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
As their profiles increase, US craft brewers have been in danger of being typecast as experimental pursuers of what has become known as ‘extreme brewing’ with beer descriptions such as black pilsner, Belgian-style IPA and smoked porter challenging both consumer perceptions and brewing-style conventions. Some of the most extreme, such as the port-like Samuel Adams Utopias – with an abv of 27% – even stretch the very definition of beer itself.
But, behind all the showboating, it’s a fact that the beers from some US craft brewers are among the most exciting, flavoursome, accessible and inventive on the planet. The US really has come a long way since its beers were a byword for mass-produced anonymity in the beer market.
Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at New York’s Brooklyn Brewery, says: ‘Twenty years ago in the US we thought we had beer but we didn’t. We had fizzy liquid that was technically proficient but had no flavour or character. We’ve now got 1,500 breweries in the US and on the innovation side we’re
doing a lot of fun things.’
Craft brewing is the heart and
soul of beer. Drinkers want variety
Although still accounting for a very small slice of the total UK beer market, American craft beers are growing fast. The US Brewers Association – which represents the interests of US microbreweries – estimates that exports of its members’ beers doubled to around £1.5 million in 2009, though the exact amount of American craft beer sold in the UK is probably considerably more because several of the biggest exporters aren’t members of the organisation.
Shipments to the UK were given a big boost by Vertical Drinks, the long-time importer of Sierra Nevada beers, bringing in half a container of 21 beers from five breweries last summer. The operation was a mixture of straight sales and market research which could lead to more permanent and wider distribution for those producers further down the line.
Vertical Drinks sales and export manager Andreas Falt says: ‘It’s a growing market. When we first started out in 2003 with Sierra Nevada we took four containers in six months. Today, we’re bringing in one a week. We’re importing 21 new brands and I can’t say that we’ll be doing them all in the future, but if some get interest we may carry on as agents ourselves or help fix the brewer up with another British distributor.’
Brewers Association vice president Bob Pease adds: ‘We really just want to see what gets some traction. Craft brewing is the heart and soul of beer. When they go to the supermarket or local pub, British beer drinkers deserve variety and the opportunity to drink great beer.’
Along with the likes of Goose Island and Brooklyn, Sierra Nevada is one of a clutch of brands that have established themselves as fixtures in some of the more specialist on-trade outlets, and increased listings with supermarkets are testament to the commercial potential of such beers.
US craft beers are no longer the preserve of the beer nerd. Much of the appeal lies in the quality of the beers themselves. The same, of course, can be said for plenty of brews from Germany or the Czech Republic, but the US scores in so many other areas. First, the names generally make for easy bar calls, making a Goose Island a much easier proposition for consumers tiptoeing into the speciality beer category than a Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier, for example.
Then there’s the packaging, which tends to be modern, bold and colourful when compared to the traditional gold leaf and heraldry of much Old World beer, appealing to the notion that people drink with their eyes.
If you’re running a style bar or a
serious real-ale pub, American
beers offer something completely
different – Nigel Stevenson
Finally, there’s the lack of a language barrier, which makes it much easier for importers to put young, confident American brewers on the tasting and festival circuit to promote their beers.
Nigel Stevenson, sales manager at James Clay & Sons, which imports beers from Brooklyn, Goose Island of Chicago, Flying Dog of Maryland and San Francisco’s Anchor, draws parallels between the emergence of US craft beer now and Australian wine two decades ago.
THEN AND NOW
‘They’re producing some great beers and there’s no history to hold them back,’ says Stevenson. ‘Belgian or German beers can be quite hard to get into because of the language on the labels, in the same way that people used to struggle with German or French wine labels – and then the Australians came along and changed everything by giving people wines they could understand. America has got the potential to do the same in beer.’
Stevenson believes that there’s nothing to stop American beers eventually enjoying the same revered status in the UK market that those from Belgium have today.
‘If you go back 10 years, the US is at about the same level now as Belgium was then. They’re not going to be for every mainstream pub, but if you’re running a style bar or a serious real-ale pub then they offer something completely different to the other beers you might have. Put Greene King IPA alongside Goose Island IPA and they’re almost unrecognisable as the same beer style.’
Unlikely as it seems, the Americans just might be what the beer market needs to give it an injection of vitality and personality.
|It worked in Fulham, it could work for you|
THE WHITE HORSE, PARSONS GREEN, LONDON
The White Horse stocks 40 different bottles US craft beers including beers from Sierra Nevada, Flying Dog, Rogue, Goose Island, Shmaltz, Coney Island, Blue Moon, Victory and Anchor. Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale and Unrivaled – a smoked rye beer – are both on draught.
Manager Dan Fox says: ‘We’ve got a range of anything between 32 and 40 draught beers in total at any one time and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale outsells them all.
‘They need to have a good taste profile to sell well, but because the smaller American brewers don’t have any great heritage it means they don’t have to trade on particular traditional beer styles. If they want to do an American-style IPA or a Belgian Dubbel or a French-style bière de garde they can.
‘The ranges and individual beers can be very versatile. Something like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has an ale profile so it sells to the beer tickers, but it’s cold and fizzy, so it also appeals to lager drinkers. The beers have a long stretch in that respect.
‘As for margins, we do Flying Dog beers for £3.75 and Brooklyn Lager for £3.50, so it’s a premium product but not that expensive compared to something like Budvar at £3.30. Sierra Nevada is £4 a pint but if you go to a Young’s pub near here it has Peroni at £4.25, so America is still very competitive.’
|Three of the best|
DOGGIE STYLE CLASSIC PALE ALE, 4.7% abv, 35.5cl
James Clay, 01422 377560
The flagship brew from the Flying Dog brewery is more complex than an episode of The Wire, which is quite apt, given the brewery recently relocated from Denver to Baltimore where the TV show is set. If it were a wine, it would be one of your aromatics, with a heady whiff of fresh, green hops, but the bitterness is reasonably restrained for a US upstart, while the finish is drier than Clive James reading a drought warning. The Ralph Steadman label, complete with Hunter S Thompson quote, is a bonus.
SIERRA NEVADA PALE ALE, 5.6% ABV, 35.5cl
Vertical Drinks, 07831 581171
This standard-bearer for US beer in the UK market is heavy on the Cascade finishing hops that have given many American pale ales and IPAs their characteristic floral and spicy aroma. Hints of orange citrus, vanilla malt and serious but not unwelcome hop bitterness make for a beer with a bigger character range than the delegate list at a Rory Bremner convention.
BROOKLYN BLACK CHOCOLATE STOUT, 10.1% ABV, 35.5cl
James Clay, 01422 377560
Brewed each winter on a when-it’s-gone-it’s-gone basis, this cult beer from New York’s finest is made from a blend of six varieties of black chocolate and roasted malts, and has a heady chocolate aroma, and a not-so-subtle nod of chewing tobacco spice on the palate. Get your orders in for the 2009 ‘vintage’ while you can.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – January / February 2010