Craft beer culture conquers Europe

nørrebro bryghus

Nørrebro Bryghus is one of Denmark’s leading craft breweries

Where did American craft beer come from?  Well, America would be the obvious answer.  But maybe Europe would be the truer one.  The American beer industry was essentially started by a handful of 19th century German immigrants of course, but I’m talking about the roots of what we call the craft beer “movement”.

Most of the true pioneers of the American craft scene – men and women like Boston Beer’s Jim Koch, New Albion’s Jack McAuliffe and New Belgium’s Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan – were inspired to start a commercial brewery by family connections to Europe or visits there.  (The clue is in the names of New Albion and New Belgium.)  And apart from Anchor Steam’s Fritz Maytag, you could argue every craft brewer before about 1996 took her cues from European beer, directly or indirectly.

In a country in which the vast,  vast majority of beer sold was mass-brewed pilsener-style lager, the tale of the average pioneering craft entrepreneur was a visit to England, Ireland, Germany or Belgium and an epiphany of “Europeans are drinking these varied and tasty beers and Americans aren’t.  We should change that!”.

Before Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada popularized the use of Cascade hops, beginning the shift in American taste toward hop-forward brews, early craft beers were direct interpretations of European beer styles.  Malty German-style lagers, English-inspired dark and pale ales and stouts, and riffs on Belgian amber and golden ales.

The American craft scene has come a long way since the 1980s, and now the trend has gone into full reverse.  I mentioned in my top predictions for 2015, the European beer industry would noticeably be dancing to an American tune by year’s end.

On a recent visit to Denmark, Scotland and England I found that to be the case.

There is now such a thing as American style craft beer and it’s getting pretty popular.  What gets popular in American doesn’t usually stay in America – apart from Garth Brooks, perhaps – and the distinctly hoppy, bright, adventurous beers being brewed in the US are the biggest influence on new European breweries.

The American influence on Nørrebro Bryghus's beer list is pretty clear

The American influence on Nørrebro Bryghus’s beer list is pretty clear

I visited two craft beer bars on my trip that exemplify the trend.  What I loved about both was that they were experimenting with beer in genuinely innovative ways, not just carbon-copying American craft brews.

Nørrebro Bryghus, Copenhagen, Denmark

While planning a visit to Copenhagen to visit family I knew I had to pay a call on this famous brewpub and brewery in the trendy neighborhood of Nørrebro.  It’s had some press in the States for a gold and silver in the 2010 World Beer Cup, but much more because it was the training ground for “Best Brewery In The World” Hill Farmstead’s Shaun Hill.  (He was working there when they won those two medals – go figure.)

Nørrebro Bryghus was founded in 2003 by an ex-Carlsberg brewer, Anders Kissmeyer.  Kissmeyer was actually looking to do what most American craft pioneers had wanted to do – convince his countrymen there was more to beer than mainstream pilsener.

(Contrary to what you may think, Denmark, birthplace of master beer innovators and twin brothers Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Mikkeller and Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Evil Twin, was until recently dominated by two beer brands: Carlsberg and Tuborg.  Carlsberg bought Tuborg in 1970, so it was not the most competitive, innovative atmosphere.)

Where did Mr Kissmeyer take his inspiration?  Trips to America of course.  While working for Carlsberg in the mid-1990s he made research visits to the West Coast, loved what he saw, and attempted to persuade his employer to get ahead of the trend and try brewing some more experimental beers.  Which they didn’t, so he quit to do it himself.

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A look at the bar at Nørrebro Bryghus

While Nørrebro Bryghus looks and feels distinctly Danish (Danes pride themselves on sparse yet cosy interior design) the variety, styles and (some of) the names are reminiscent of an American craft brewery.

I tried and loved several on my visit.

The New York Lager, an homage to Brooklyn Lager (as Anders Kissmeyer was particularly influenced by a meeting with Brooklyn Brewery’s Garett Oliver before he founded Nørrebro Bryghus), is bready and malty; Ravnsborg Rød, an amber ale inspired by Fat Tire, is enticingly spicy; Bombay Pale Ale is a well-made English IPA with a subtly citrus hop nose; and I fell head-over-heels for The Brewer’s Guide To The Galaxy, a triple IPA made with 90% Galaxy hops and 10% Citra, that is unlike any other beer I’ve tasted.  It is an incredibly complex combustion of subtle tropical fruit, intense molasses and damp straw.

I’d drink it all night if it weren’t 10% ABV.

(Worth noting also that their food is off-the-charts “New Danish”.  If you visit Copenhagen: go.  In fact, visit Copenhagen so you can go.)

Following dinner at Nørrebro Bryghus I popped into nearby bar Øl (that’s Danish for beer) and dipped into their extensive menu of Danish craft beers, European specialty beers and – ahem – bottles of American craft beer.  According to Bryggeriforeningen, the Danish brewers association, there were only 17 microbreweries in 2004 and there are now 120 breweries in Denmark. (This makes Denmark the country with the highest number of breweries per capita.)

Only about six of those breweries are dedicated to the traditional Danish pilsener. The remainder are getting extremely crafty, and, as its exports the Bjergsø brothers are showing America, the new wave of Danish brewers is highly experimental if not downright weird.

Maybe Denmark is one country where the inbound American influence could turn over time to an outbound Danish influence on the American scene.

BrewDog, Edinburgh, Scotland

With the possible exceptions of Jim Koch and Sam Calagione, there are no beer personalities as prominent and easy to Google as James Watt and Martin Dickie.  They are the founders and owners of BrewDog, the Scottish brewery and international network of beer bars.  Amazingly, Watt and Dickie only founded BrewDog in 2007 (while Jim Koch’s been going since ’84 and Sam Calagione since ’96).

In the eight years since then, BrewDog has grown to about 80,000 barrels and 17 branded beer bars (of which five are outside the UK) and has brewed and sold over 60 different beers.  The variety, styles and names of their beers are at the outer extreme.

Examples include a triple IPA called Anarchist/Alchemist; their pilsener, This.Is.Lager.; Never Mind The Anabolics, an IPA brewed with bodybuilding supplements; and Tactical Nuclear Penguin, a 32% ABV imperial stout that was their first bid at the title of world’s strongest beer.  (Must be a contender for best beer name of all time.)

In the US, Watt and Dickie levgeraged their strong personalities and their objectivity as foreigners to host the most popular beer show on TV, Esquire’s Brew Dogs.  This has led to plenty of awareness of the brewery on these shores, and pretty reasonable export sales to America.  Word has it BrewDog is strongly considering building a US brewery in Columbus Ohio, which would be pretty interesting.

(I wonder if a US craft brewery would open a site in the UK, as Brooklyn Brewery has done in Sweden, or Stone Brewing has done in Germany.)

BrewDog Edinburgh

BrewDog’s Edinburgh bar

When meeting a friend for lunch in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago, the choice of venue was obvious. I wanted to see what the fuss was about, so we hit BrewDog’s Edinburgh bar.

There are typically two types of beer “bar” in the UK: the traditional pub and the hipster boozer.  BrewDog is neither – though it has touches of each – instead looking and feeling like the tap room of an American craft brewery.  They serve wood-fired pizza, the BrewDog logo is everywhere, there are cartoons and beer paraphernalia on the walls, and, of course, a huge great bar with banks of taps sprouting out of it.  The full list of draft beers on offer is a big old chalkboard behind the bar.

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While waiting for our pizzas, my friend and I tried a few BrewDog staples, including Punk IPA, their answer to Stone IPA (Watt and Dickie often cite Stone as their biggest inspiration), which was very much like, and just as good as, a typical west coast IPA. At 5.6% ABV it’s perhaps a little gentler than many of its American cousins, but its hops – Chinook, Ahtanum, Amarillo, Cascade, Simcoe, Nelson Sauvin – certainly fit the profile.

We also tried Five AM Red Ale, a mildly hoppy, highly characterful red brewed from five different malts and Alice Porter, a rich, super-malty porter with hints of cocoa.

The star of the show for me however – and a beer which best showcases the similarities and differences between BrewDog and the US craft scene – was Dogma, their rich, fruity Wee Heavy.  I tried it two ways.  On its own it was luscious, dark and characterful.  But I also tried it run through a Hop Cannon (or what I would call a Randall – perhaps there are some mild patent issues with Dogfish Head there – a device to flavor a beer while dispensing it) which was full of rhubarb crumble.

For the American reader’s benefit, a rhubarb crumble is a very traditional British desert, a staple of school cafeterias across the land, that is made from stewed, sweetened rhubarb covered in a thick layer of crumbled pastry and oats.  In this case the bar had simply filled the chamber of the Hop Cannon with boiled rhubarb, dark sugar and oats.

The result was powerful, and pretty unique.  The richest, fruitiest, oatiest beer I have ever tasted – like liquified desert in a glass!

BrewDog Dogma Rhubarb Crumble

BrewDog’s Dogma run through a Hop Cannon full of Rhubarb Crumble

Of course there were touches of Scotland about the BrewDog bar – and there was certainly nothing definitively American about it – but I couldn’t help thinking there was no way it would exist without the creative lead taken by the American craft beer industry.

As with the scene in Copenhagen, it was reassuring to see BrewDog making their own tweaks and innovations, and brewing up some frankly delicious beers.  (I was a little nervous that the beers might be gimmicky, as their names suggest, but the ones I tasted were up there with the best of ’em.)

Should BrewDog move to America I would welcome them with open arms.

What next for craft beer in Britain?

After a trip through Scotland I made my way to my home town of London and spent plenty of time reflecting on what’s happening to beer in the Old Country.

First up, there is now such a thing as craft beer in Britain (and Ireland, though I haven’t been for a few years).  People used to benevolently ignore what was happening with craft in the States, seeing it as a necessary correction to the dominance of light beer.

We Brits believed there was no need for it at home as we had always had a great number of greatly varied breweries making plenty of pale ales, stouts, porters, bitters and IPAs.  But now, not only is there a new wave of brewers and breweries who see themselves as different to their more traditional predecessors, they are even trying to define what craft beer is, as this excellent article by John Holl describes.

Why has craft beer taken off in Britain when it already had hundreds of local breweries that had been making dark, rich, tasty beers for centuries?  Put simply, because America took those dark, rich and tasty beers and made them cool.  (And I don’t just mean by serving them below cask temperature.)

When I was growing up, cask ale, the locally produced, traditionally brewed and cask fermented beers that are the cornerstone of the traditional British brewing industry, was not a cool choice.  Cask ale was championed by CAMRA, the Campaign For Real Ale, an association begun to fend off the encroaching blandness of mass-brewed lager.  The typical CAMRA member was male, lived in the past, and had a tendency to wear socks under his sandals.  He was never happier than when watching a traditional Morris Dance outside of a 16th century country pub, a mug of room-temperature ale in hand.  Quaint, but not cool.

Then a bunch of young Americans came along, grabbed hold of the ancient beer styles of Europe and shook them.  These are the beers of tomorrow, they said, not yesterday.  They made the beers fresher, hoppier, stronger and – yes – colder.  They fermented them in steel tanks, and put them in steel kegs to serve – something CAMRA only recently, reticently, acknowledged was okay with them (after years of saying it wasn’t proper beer if it wasn’t cask fermented).  They were adventurous, they pushed the boundaries, and they built very successful independent businesses while they were doing it.

The freshness and vibrance of the American craft scene has won over the American public, and provided momentum to its stagnant beer industry. (Though it has yet to provide growth.)  Gourmet restaurants now serve beer, hipsters drink craft beer, celebrities drink craft beer – the White House has even brewed a craft beer.

The energy behind the American craft movement has caught on in Europe as surely as Starbucks did.  It’s invigorated Europe’s beer industries too (which are also in decline in the face of wine, spirits and lower per capita alcohol consumption), and younger drinkers are beginning to turn away from Heineken and Stella and take an interest in traditional beer styles made innovatively.

Generalizing magnificently, I’d say most of Europe is about five years behind America in the craft trend.  But breweries like Nørrebro Bryghus and BrewDog are leading the gap-closing charge.  It may not be too long before American brewers look back across the pond for thirst-quenching inspiration.

My cousins and I toast the future of craft beer in Europe in Copenhagen

My cousins and I toast the future of craft beer in Europe in Copenhagen

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