The British call it gnat piss. Germans call it wasser. Ask the average European what they think of American beer, and the response will be as tepid as the dishwater to which they’ll liken it. But for the past decade, an influx of American craft imports has led to a growing craft beer movement in Germany, Britain, Denmark and other European countries as younger generations tire of traditional beer in favor of more varied and interesting choices. For now, Europe’s outdated perception of what American beer really is—and what it isn’t—is the biggest hurdle to earning some long-deserved respect for American craft brews.
"The term I've heard is 'watered-down water,'" said Sam Adams founder Jim Koch. "The average German doesn't yet understand craft beer in the U.S."
And while most Europeans think of American beer as Budweiser, Coors, Miller and other similarly lackluster (though impressively consistent) cans of carbonated beer-flavored water, the reality is that craft beer has taken well over a fifth of the United States' overall beer market, raking in $23.5 billion in 2016, according to the Brewers Association. When Americans want a good beer, chances are they’re reaching for a craft.
An American Invasion
America’s craft brew scene has been exploding since the 1980s, leading to innovative and flavor-packed beers that compare and surpass their European rivals. Due to fewer cultural norms and a less rigid brewing tradition, the U.S. avoids limiting influences like Germany’s reinheitsgebot (beer purity law) that some see as holding back the continent’s craft brew scene.
California’s Stone Brewery decided to try to fill that gap in 2016, opening Europe’s first American-owned and -operated brewery in a 116-year-old gasworks plant outside Berlin, coinciding with the 500th anniversary of the German beer purity law. For Stone co-founder Greg Koch (no relation to Sam Adams’ Jim Koch), this was no coincidence.
"The anniversary is getting a lot of [attention], but I don't think it'll survive the spotlight because it's old-line thinking that has little to no relevance in today's world,” Koch told Conde Nast Traveler. “The reality is a lot of commodity brewers follow that law, making cheap, crappy beer. And a lot of artisanal breweries don't follow that law, making expensive, highest-possible-quality beer."
On Stone’s groundbreaking at their Berlin brewery, Koch made this challenge public by dropping a boulder from a forklift on a pile of European and International industrial macro-brews.
"The real harm was done at those breweries by making cheap, pale facsimiles of 'beer,'" said Koch. "That's the insult."
A fitting, if tasteless, symbolic stunt for an irreverent brewery with a flagship beer named Arrogant Bastard Ale.
A Growing Craft Scene
While Europe may be a decade or two behind in the craft movement, Germany is starting to catch up with new breweries popping up in places like Hamburg and Berlin, and older breweries like Hamburg’s Holsten starting to brew craft-versions of their beer.
"Yes, there are many beer drinkers who want to stay true to their pils,” said Holsten spokesperson Christoph Boneberg, “but there are more and more people who want to find out what they like about a pale ale or a red ale. They are willing to experiment, and I wouldn't rule out that most drinkers will do so in the long run.”
This willingness to experiment is leading many European craft breweries to hire American brewers to join their teams. At Spring Beer Day, a beer-tasting festival held at Hamburg’s Altes Mädchen Brewery, many of the brewers I spoke to were from the U.S. and were either working for or collaborating with local breweries. Within Hamburg’s brewing community, American cities like Portland, San Diego and Denver are revered for their craft beer scenes. No longer just the students, American brewers are beginning to spread the gospel of true American craft beer.
Will Craft Last?
While European supermarkets continue to be dominated by big traditional breweries like Augustiner, Heineken and Becks with prices rivaling water, more expensive craft brews are starting to gain shelf space as some consumers are beginning to see the point in spending more money for tastier American-style brews. But how willing will the general public be to follow suit? At Hamburg’s new Craft Beer Store, more than 500 local and international beers are available, and with some costing as much as 10 euros per bottle, many may stick to the tried and true standards one can buy for less than a euro. Though, some beer-drinkers see it differently.
"I would never have thought that hops and malt can produce such diverse flavors," a shopper told Deutsche Welle. "I like buying a beer that tastes different to the industrial beers. If you are willing to buy a good bottle of wine, why not buy a good bottle of beer?"
This attitude, while not yet the norm, is starting to spread as younger beer drinkers begin to step outside tradition and reach for American Pale Ales, IPAs, chocolate stouts, cream porters and other flavors that have been considered “other than beer” for centuries.
“German beer got boring,” said Katharina Kurz, co-founder of Berlin’s BRLO brewery. “The baseline quality was always amazing, which is why it took so long to discover craft. But it became a commodity. We take huge inspiration from the American market; not just beer styles, but how to do brewpubs and the whole culture.”
But changing the perception of the average European hooked on Belgian and German beers? That may take a few more years to age.