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Oakes Weekly - June 9, 2005

Why America is the Greatest Brewing Nation on Earth
Oakes Weekly June 9, 2005      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

The new world is the focus of the beer world. Twenty years ago, heck maybe even ten years ago, the old world was everything. Now, the US has long since surpassed Germany as the country with the most breweries. The availability of beers has skyrocketed – rare treasures once thought impossible to ever ship commercially to America are now available. Consider that I had – though I was disappointed – Uerige Doppelsticke last weekend from a wooden barrel in Seattle. A beer from that brewery? Made especially for the US? In a wooden barrel? On the West Coast? And then there are all the other countries. While Canada is largely in a timewarp, in other countries the past decade has seen progress – see Scandinavia, Japan, South America, Italy, former beer backwaters now home to thriving brewing scenes.

In this time, the US has extended its dominance over the world of beer. The American trademark of innovation is driving things, not the Old World focus on tradition.

But American brewing has many faces. I wanted to take a look at some of them. I wanted to get the stories and try to find out why America is ground zero for great beer.

The first place I wanted to look was California. No, not because I am madly in love with Imperial IPAs. They aren’t bad, but most of them are pretty lazy – cheap knockoffs of the early examples. Like throwing coffee beans into an imperial stout, or something strong into a bourbon barrel, it’s talentless me-too stuff and doesn’t impress me much unless it’s executed flawlessly.

No, my interest lies in the creations that are fusing Belgian influence with American innovation and boldness. A phrase like “Belgian influence” is, like most references to the old world, tossed about fairly loosely on North American shores. But at the base level, nobody would be making sour beers aged in wood if it weren’t for the Belgians so in the case of trailblazers like Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River and Tomme Arthur of Pizza Port, it’s fair to describe some of their finest creations as Belgian-influenced.

But they are doing things Belgians aren’t doing. They have moved beyond mere imitation and arrived at creation. Where did this come from? First, it takes the right mindset. “I never seek to recreate something that’s already been done,” says Arthur. This is a guy who, after a year at a long-defunct micro, has spent his entire career at a pizza joint on a southern Californian beach. When he started, there was no beer scene in San Diego. Even today, the majority of the beer he makes is the standard house brands that beer geeks usually ignore when they make the pilgrimage to Solana Beach. There is nothing in that environment that suggests that it could breed a great brewer. Except his mindset.

“You must embrace the brett,” preaches Vinnie Cilurzo. Brettanomyces scares a lot of brewers. But it is a signature flavour that hardcore beer lovers can’t get enough of, not unlike botrytis in wine or the peaty phenols of Islay malt. You find it in lambics, the sour ales of Flanders, saisons, and foreign stouts. But it was always a case of whether it was appropriate in a style or not. Cilurzo addresses brett independent of beer style. His brewery is filled with it, and other yeasts that most brewers would prefer to keep out. By embracing something that can bring a lot of good as well as bad to a brewery, he’s been able to produce some of the most unique, complex, sour ales around.

But why the experimentation? These guys aren’t afraid of trying new things, but what drives them? Ron Jeffries, brewmaster at Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Michigan, summed it up. “I’ve been an apprentice and then a craftsman. Now I want to be an artist, a visionary.” There is a desire amongst America’s best brewers to leave their mark on the beer world. To try what hasn’t been tried. They have the ability to imagine beers unlike any others in the world, and the ability to make it happen.

That, I feel, is another crucial component to the rise of American brewing – technical ability. You can see this in Washington State. They grow great brewers on trees. How? The guys who’ve been making great beer for the past twenty years are still in the business. They’ve inspired thousands to take up the craft. They’ve also trained hundreds of young brewers. They’ve raised the bar for talent. In Washington, it seems like just about every brewer has passed through either Pike or Big Time. The knowledge at establishments like this is collected and filtered through the years, like glacier water, so that each successive generation of apprentices gains the knowledge of guys like Fal Allen and Dick Cantwell. This raises the talent level for the region, and now wonderful beers are made everywhere.

Some American brewers even rely on technical ability. Kirby Nelson of Wisconsin’s Capital Brewing cut his teeth at an old Heileman brewery in Florida. “I was hanging out with rats and cockroaches down there. But I learned very quickly how to make good beer by fixing the place up.” In Utah, restrictive laws force brewers to largely eschew big, brash beers. This puts the focus squarely on session beers, and that puts the focus on the brewer to make them as perfectly as possible. That is the mission of Uinta Brewing, and their ability to meet this specific goal has resulted in them becoming the leading microbrewer in the state.

Innovation and ability are aided by a third component. Enthusiasm. In some parts of the world, brewers simply don’t want to take risks. Either that, or their bosses don’t. The result is risk-free…boring…beer. Compare that with Adam Avery. “I’m a homebrewer gone berserk. I get ideas and I want to do them. I like to brew a lot of different beers because I like to drink a lot of different beers.” When you have brewers – brewery owners – who are beer geeks that enthusiastic, interesting beers will be made, and more importantly pushed. The consumers notice this enthusiasm, too. If a brewer mails in a few standards – amber, lager, maybe a pale or brown – the consumer will probably mail it in as well. Avery struggled for years, until they started feeding off of Adam’s enthusiasm for great beer. Since then, business has been growing.

If you take any one of these components on their own you’ll have a pretty good beer scene. The Germans are great technically. The Belgians are innovative, letting no preconceived notions hold them back. The English have a tremendous enthusiasm for beer and brewing. Put all three together and you have America. This is why America has become, in only 25 years, the greatest brewing nation on Earth.


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