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In Praise Of American Beer

Yesterday, here in the south of Holland, I visited a town where I first tasted beer, at age 17. I had sipped American beer before, and didn’t care for it, but this Dutch beer was something else entirely. It was so full of flavor and depth. I didn’t like beer until then. Grolsch, Brand, Heineken, Oranjeboom, Dommelsch and other brands: I didn’t have a mediocre bottle of beer the whole time I was here back then (this was 1984) — and was chagrined to discover back home in America that the Heineken we got was inferior to what was served in the Netherlands.

Back in this town yesterday for the first time in many years, I stopped at a cafe and had a glass of Dommelsch, a local brew. It was … only okay. I was startled, in fact, by how average it was. Now, I don’t think the Dommelsch has changed; I think I have changed. To be more precise, the beer culture in America has changed drastically over the last 30 years, dramatically for the better. In 1984, there were no quality breweries in Louisiana. Today I can think of five craft breweries, all of which make more delicious beer than Dommelsch. What’s more, only one of those Louisiana breweries makes beer that I like almost as much as any of the craft brews from the Philadelphia area. And we’re not even talking about Delaware’s Dogfish Head or Kansas City’s Boulevard, two of my favorite craft breweries. We have an embarrassment of beer riches in America now, and it’s all something that happened in the last generation.

I was talking about this over lunch today with a French friend of mine who lives here in Holland. I told him that for a while, the only craft brew you could get in much of the US was Anchor Steam from San Francisco, or Samuel Adams from Boston. And they were delicious. Now, I wouldn’t drink either if I had another choice, simply because it’s so much easier to find great American beer that’s more to my particular taste.

He said he had the same experience when he first came to America, where he lived and worked for a decade. Samuel Adams was sort of exotic when he first arrived, and he enjoyed it, but by the time he moved back to Europe, there were so many craft beers he enjoyed more. We agreed that Sam Adams is probably no worse than it ever was; it’s just that so many US craft brewers have raised the bar so high now.

I have to say this really makes me proud, as a beer-loving American. Our small brewers, standing on the shoulders of European giants, have in many cases reached even higher. I never imagined a day when I would sit in a pub in one of the great beer-making countries of Europe, drink a pint of the local lager, and think, “This is nice, but it’s not as good as we have at home.”

Later this afternoon, I’m going across the border into Belgium with that French friend, and taste some Trappist at an abbey. For me, the golden ideal is not even delicious Trappist style beer, but rather oude gueuze [1], the sour Belgian brew. I don’t know that it’s possible to make this in America, because it uses wild local yeast. That’s probably just as well. I like to have a beer worth making a pilgrimage to drink.

UPDATE: As a reader points out, I said the same thing about coffee when I was in Paris last fall. Yes, that’s right! It’s still easy to get bad coffee in the US, but it’s not that hard to get really good coffee too. In fact, I’ve found that it’s easier to get good coffee in America than in Europe — and that’s something I never, ever would have predicted 30 years ago, when I started coming over here.

And, a beer enthusiast reader writes:

I enjoyed your post on American beer this morning! You write, “I don’t know that it’s possible to make this in America, because it uses wild local yeast.” A few American breweries have done this:

Dogfish’s D.N.A. (Delaware Native Ale)
Mystic Brewing’s Vinland One
Lakefront’s Wisconsinite<
Lost Rhino’s Wild Farmwell
Allagash’s Coolship Red
Mammoth Wild’s Sierra Mountain Farmhouse Ale
Jester King’s Das Wunderkind
Odell’s Deconstruction

And a yet-to-open brewery in North Carolina–Haw River Farmhouse Ales–had an entire homebrew competition focused on using native yeast: http://hawriverales.blogspot.com/ [2]

Enjoy your time in Belgium!

38 Comments (Open | Close)

38 Comments To "In Praise Of American Beer"

#1 Comment By TTT On June 1, 2013 @ 8:31 am

Jupiler!!!

#2 Comment By Sam M On June 1, 2013 @ 8:49 am

There’s lots of interesting stuff here.

“it’s so much easier to find great American beer that’s more to my particular taste.”

Isn’t that the problem in other contexts? Freed from the constrictions of place, everyone can just choose, willy-nilly, what they like. Choice does allow people to get “good stuff” where they didn’t used to be able to get it. But that’s not limits. That’s the elimination of limits and the proliferation of consumer independence.

“I don’t know that it’s possible to make this in America, because it uses wild local yeast. That’s probably just as well.”

This seems like the opposite of the previous quote. The vast majority, if not all, of the craft brews you prefer use imported ingredients. I am not aware that Delaware has a robust hops industry. And sure enough, a quick Google search reveals that Dogfish’s celebrated 60-Minute uses hops from the Pacific Northwest. I presume that Boulevard (or Budweiser, for that matter) could import the wild local yeast from Belgium.

Would that be better or worse? I can see someone making an argument for either. But not for both.

Straub. It cures what ails me!

[NFR: Jeez, Sam, you are irremediably contrarian about this stuff. I’m NOT praising localism in this post; I’m praising good beer. Coffee beans don’t grow in America or Europe, but aside from Italy, America by and large has better coffee than Europe now. — RD]

#3 Comment By JamesP On June 1, 2013 @ 8:51 am

I, too, often think about how incredibly far craft brewing has come here in America in a relatively short time. Even some bottle-aged Belgians now have worthy peers here in the USA and Canada. Every area has its own very good local beer which I sample when I travel, and many of them are world class. In Fort Worth where I live, we have Rahr, whose fairly basic brews like black lager and pale bock I really dig. Plus, it just feels good drinking local. There’s a local restaurant chain here in Texas called “BJ’s” that has its own proprietary range of beers, and all of them rock. Shoot, even the grocery stores here all carry Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA, which is that brewery’s credible answer to Dogfish Head 90. Darn, if it weren’t yet 8:00 am here, I’d go pop one open.

But I just have to say, Abita Purple Haze is an embarrassment for the entire state of Louisiana.

[NFR: I have to agree with you on the Purple Haze thing. — RD]

#4 Comment By Jeanne On June 1, 2013 @ 9:18 am

“Roll out those lazy hazy crazy days of summer
Those days of soda and pretzels and BEER…”

#5 Comment By Jeanne On June 1, 2013 @ 9:20 am

…with steamed crabs please.

#6 Comment By Dan Davis On June 1, 2013 @ 9:23 am

If Samuel Adams is now just okay, I’ve got to get out more. I seldom drink beer (but when I do, it’s not Dos Equis!), but I notice even chain restaurants serve a lot of Belgian beers as well as American craft beers, even here in Oklahoma. Now if we can just get rid of the 3.2 stuff. (And actually, the liquor store lobby is more responsible for that than the Baptists. You can get “strong” beer in liquor stores and restaurants with liquor licenses).

#7 Comment By Stephen On June 1, 2013 @ 9:26 am

Hear Hear!

The better American craft beers are superior to just about anything in the world that I’m aware of. My understanding is that there are craft beers in the UK that are stellar too, but they are obscure, no better than their American counterparts and in any event the widely available UK beers are much less appealing than craft beers available in almost every supermarket in the US.

Hell – I would even argue that Budweiser (but not the flagship brands of Miller/Coors) is in fact better than many continental beers. Not most – but many.

Not that everything is perfect in American beer. The hops arms race is causing many American brewers to prioritize IBUs over actual balanced flavor. And a handful of the worst American craft brews have, through aggressive marketing, muscled their way onto the tap rows of too many American bars. But such are small sins.

Now if more bars would realize that cask-conditioned options are generally MUCH better than the same beers with artificial carbonation, woo boy….

#8 Comment By Avi Marranazo On June 1, 2013 @ 9:58 am

Indeed Rod. Thanks to our generation’s having traveled and lived overseas, the taste for good beer was brought back to America.

Some of my favorite breweries are Full Sail in Portland and Lagunitas Brewing Company.

#9 Comment By MikeS On June 1, 2013 @ 10:07 am

The improved quality of easily-available beer (and also coffee) is one of the great American achievements of my lifetime.

#10 Comment By eszed On June 1, 2013 @ 10:14 am

Totally agree about the wonderful quality of American beer and beer culture – with the caveat that I have yet to find an American brewer that makes an acceptable English ale.

Russian River Brewery in Santa Rosa, California, makes a great sour beer – though you have to visit the brewpub to get it.

#11 Comment By Rod Story On June 1, 2013 @ 10:30 am

“And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.” 🙂

#12 Comment By surly On June 1, 2013 @ 10:31 am

You said the same thing about coffee when you were in France. A lot has changed here in a few generations…if you look for it you can find all kinds of delicious local beers, wines, distilled spirits, coffee, baked goods, meats, fruits and vegetables.

Local food is the way to go!

#13 Comment By contrarian On June 1, 2013 @ 10:32 am

“I never imagined a day when I would sit in a pub in one of the great beer-making countries of Europe, drink a pint of the local lager, and think, “This is nice, but it’s not as good as we have at home.”

Yeah, this is something my dad talks about. He says that when he was a kid and even as late as college (in the late 70’s), beer was watery nasty stuff and coffee was pretty much gross. You drank both the way they were because you didn’t know any better.

When it came to both, Europe was the place for the good stuff. At least said those special few who had travelled to Europe.

Whereas today, while there are lots of good reasons to go to Europe, beer and coffee–two of the most important things in my world–aren’t reasons that would make my list. Though I wonder if this is because so many of my generation (as opposed to my dad’s) *have* gone to Europe and figured out that the stuff back home didn’t have to suck.

Whatever the reasons, I can now get great coffee and great beer in my own backyard. My dad tells me I have no idea how good we have it compared to when he was my age.

#14 Comment By Roger On June 1, 2013 @ 11:12 am

Rod, do visit the bar ‘Waagstuk’ in Antwerp! ‘The Guardian’ recently elected it one of the best beer cafe’s. My personal favourite there is the Gouden Carolus Classic, very brown/bready in taste.

#15 Comment By TTT On June 1, 2013 @ 11:34 am

You MUST NOT leave Belgium until after trying:

Rocheforte 10
Gulden Draak
Delirium Tremens
Goliath
Leffe
Kwak
Duvel
Rocheforte 10 (listed twice because it deserves it. Best beer in the world.)

#16 Comment By Gretchen On June 1, 2013 @ 11:39 am

As someone who lives in Kansas City I was delighted to hear that you like Boulevard Brewery. Which beers are your favorites? Mine is Irish Ale, made for St. Patrick’s Day. Fall beer Bob’s 47 and year-round Pale Ale are also contenders.

[NFR: I’ve only had their IPA and their Hoppy Wheat, both of which are super-great, but Hoppy Wheat is pretty much my idea of the perfect beer for a hot summer day. I have a bottle of Tank 7 in the fridge. Can’t wait for the occasion to open it. — RD]

#17 Comment By Bo On June 1, 2013 @ 11:42 am

Rod, I knew you were a good writer, but now that I know you think Boulevard is one of the best breweries in the land, I can confirm that you are a good human being!

Just kidding, but glad to hear they are getting the respect they deserve. Their Tank 7 in the Smokestack series is magical, and their numbered “Rye-on-Rye” is great too. Well worth the money!

#18 Comment By Tony D. On June 1, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

Is it OK to plug my current favorite brewery in this thread? If so: [3] Specifically [4] and [5]

Great Lent is now harder since discovering these brews.

#19 Comment By Dan Davis On June 1, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

James P: BJ’s is exactly who I was talking about. They’ve expanded as far north as the Norman/Oklahoma City area. But all our urban-area bars have good selections. Truly a long way from when I was guzzling Coors in college in the ’60s. I do miss the prices, though-a buck a pitcher!

#20 Comment By Sam M On June 1, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

” I’m NOT praising localism in this post; I’m praising good beer.”

Maybe I misread, but this seems like localism to me:

“I don’t know that it’s possible to make this in America, because it uses wild local yeast. That’s probably just as well. I like to have a beer worth making a pilgrimage to drink.”

Just seems to me that a few things are in tension here. If its just an appreciation for craftsmanship and great ingredients, an Australian guy using that yeast to make good beer in Sidney is just as awesome as someone using it in Belgium. But using it where it grows and bringing yourself to the beer seems to have special appeal.

The very fact that lots of wineries have their own vineyards, and lots of craft brewers are beginning to source locally even though it’s hard, seems to give some credence.

[NFR: I don’t see what the problem is. I like the idea of having a special place to go to get beer that I can’t get at home. I’m much happier that now I can get terrific beer at home. — RD]

#21 Comment By K. W. Jeter On June 1, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

I have friends in Quito, Ecuador, a posse of young guys who all graduated from Willamette University in Oregon, who are setting up a brewpub using equipment built by a German guy out in Puerto Viejo. The hops are the critical issue, so they’re scouting out a micro-climate location that would be congenial for growing their own, rather than importing them. The beer revolution is an international thing.

#22 Comment By EngineerScotty On June 1, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

Living here in Beervana, I heartily concur.

One interesting point: Many places in Europe, seem to be dominated by a particular local style–Germany produces many excellent lagers, but it is harder to find a good brown ale or a porter there. (And the German [6], or beer purity laws, at various times have made certain styles of beer essentially illegal–including many styles identified as German, such as hefeweizen. Banning the use of wheat in beer was done to preserve the wheat crop for breadmaking, not because of any aesthetic objection to its use in beer). In America, breweries are far more hetergeneous–producing numerous regional styles, as well as a few indigenous American ones–in the same facility.

One other point. Beer (and alcohol in general) has long been subject to local regulations moreso than other commodities or foodstuffs (above and beyond the Reinheitsgebot), which have distorted local markets in many different ways. A big reason for the renaissance in American beermaking was the legalization of brewpubs, which allowed many local brewers to bypass the monopolistic distribution network that long protected national breweries like Miller or Anheuser-Busch. I’m old enough to remember the day when Oregon ended its ban on cold-filtered beer, allowing Coors (then considered an elite craft beer) to be brought into the state, and when Henry Weindhardt was considered a state treasure. Nowadays Coors is considered piss-water, and Henry’s isn’t even brewed here anymore.

It’s a different world–but yea, ’tis a great thing that our beer is no longer, as the old joke goes, like making love in a canoe.

#23 Comment By Brian On June 1, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

Rod, Dommelsch is owned by ABInbev. It likely doesn’t taste the same because they screwed around with the recipe in order to save costs, or moved the brewing operations or both.

This article may best explain your experience.

[7]

Note, the article explains how they’re ruining more than just America’s beer.

#24 Comment By James C. On June 1, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

I am happy for the renaissance in American brewing, though most of it isn’t especially to my taste.

My favorite beers to drink are English bitters (on cask) and real Belgian lambics/geuzes, with weissbiers coming in third. So far I have yet to find American versions of these varieties than can compare.

The same goes for scrumpy cider, alas, though a small cidery in Maine comes close.

#25 Comment By alcogito On June 1, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

Coffee: shade-grown, organic, top-grade arabica, ethical – Camano Island Coffee Company – [8]

#26 Comment By Chris On June 1, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

Another KC resident here, and I’m surprised and glad that Boulevard sells in Louisiana.

Their Nutcracker Ale (Winter brew) is the best beer I’ve ever had. They also sell mixed 12 packs, with two bottles of each of six different beers.

[NFR: It doesn’t actually; I bought a couple of six packs and the bottle of Tank 7 when I was in Austin last month visiting family. My brother in law advised picking some up at Central Market before I left town. That was probably the nicest thing he ever did for me. — RD]

#27 Comment By Fred On June 1, 2013 @ 8:06 pm

Love this post. As a homebrewer since 1988, the American craft beer revolution has been a joy to live through. I’ll be in San Diego later this summer and am looking forward to visiting Stone Brewery.

[9]

If you find yourself in New Orleans, I recommend this bar for incredible beers:

[10]

Also, the NOLA brewing company has made a big impression here. Their Friday free tastings are quite the scene:

[11]

Currently I have a ginger/honey Double IPA bubbling away in the guest room closet.

#28 Comment By Bo Bonner On June 2, 2013 @ 12:11 am

To my fellow Okies:

I live in Wichita now (and by the way, BJ’s has made it this far north as well), so I have missed the last 3 years of Okie breweries, which seems to be kicking into overdrive. I tried the “Mustang Beer” a while back, and it was pretty good. I personally like the Marshall Brewery–I think their Wheat is good, but really love their McNellie’s Pub Ale.

McNellie’s is the best Pub in Oklahoma if I do say so myself, but it is in Tulsa. It has a big ‘ole picture of the Pope at the main bar, has a side bar where they have Theology on Tap for the Diocese of Tulsa (I saw the wonderful Bishop Slattery speak there), and have the upstairs for the young kids to do stuff, and leave the old farts to drink downstairs.

One of the best memories I have in my life is going to the Traditional Latin Mass Easter Vigil service in North Tulsa (for almost 4 hours!!!) and then hitting McNellie’s, drinking to the risen Christ, with generous friends who insisted that I try all kinds of wonderful beers, including one of my favorite imports–Petrus Old Brown. I have not made the same trip down to OKC–I’ll have to figure out a reason to do that someday.

The only better story I have of drinking in Oklahoma involved the John Senior Colloquium down at Clear Creek Abbey and some of the best Whiskey I have had in my life, but this is a beer post, so I will not go into details!

#29 Comment By TWylite On June 2, 2013 @ 12:29 am

I grew up in Michigan, where it was all Stroh’s, Pabst, Schlitz, Labatts, Miller, Milwaukee’s Best, etc. Cheap watery beer from an aluminum can made by and for hairy men of central European descent watching football on a black and white Magnavox in the garage. No hipster craft nano-breweries. No hoppy IPAs with overtones of Belgium open-air wheat ales that pair well with shellfish and cave-aged muenster. No Neo-Impressionist labels on the bottle. Just cheap beer, sweat, power tools, sawdust and football.
Well, good f-ing riddance to those days. I’d probably be strung out on hard liquor if something much better wasn’t available.

#30 Comment By Heard_Herd On June 2, 2013 @ 12:56 am

I drink beer for an occasional gustatory peak, so it better be good – and this one, speaking of Belgium, truly is: [12]

#31 Comment By pauln On June 2, 2013 @ 8:25 am

Actually, Mirror Pond Pale Ale from Deschutes Brewery is as good or better than any(Commercial) English bitter out there.

Canada hasn’t missed out on the beer revolution either, and the best Quebec breweries do Trippels as good as any Belgian.

#32 Comment By Nancy Wang On June 2, 2013 @ 8:30 am

I have had sour beer at the Portland farmer’s market. I wonder if that’s the same thing?? It was interesting, I had never tasted anything like that before! I love beer too! 🙂

#33 Comment By Chris S On June 2, 2013 @ 9:59 am

Hey, honeymooners boeuf bourguignon VFYT guy chiming in here. If you want good American sours check out Lost Abbey and especially Portland (ME)’s Allagash Brewing Co. They make a range of highly sought after “Coolship” beers which are made in the authentic lambic style. Some are fruited, some are not, none are the least bit artificial and sweet tasting like some of the lesser so called lambics.

These can be very hard to get unless you live near the brewery (as I do), but one recently saw fairly wide distribution: Allagash FV13.

Having a friend who can send you “yeast samples” can get you in, too, depending on local laws.

#34 Comment By AndrewH On June 2, 2013 @ 1:16 pm

Rod, there is a bar in Amsterdam called Beer Temple that serves nothing but American microbrews. So I guess the word has spread.

#35 Comment By Tyro On June 2, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

, I’ve found that it’s easier to get good coffee in America than in Europe

I think this is only true of France, and that is a distinctly French problem. Even in the USA, at French restaurants, the coffee is bad.

As someone who traveled through Europe and tried the beer everywhere he went, I think that the problem is a lack of local innovation. In the USA, there is little to no attachment to the value of the “local” brew. Your local craft brewery either succeeds because people like your beer or it fails. In Europe, the local brewer has always been making that beer and always will make that beer. Sometimes, as in the UK, Belgium, and Germany, there are enough “local” brewers that you can find something good. In Corsica, they have their beer, and they’re going to stick with their beer. No one is going to start another brewery and create a new product. In Amsterdam, if you like beer, you’re just going to get your beer from neighboring Belgium or Germany.

Greece is going to have Mythos, Fix, and the local bottlers of Amstel and Heineken. They’re never going to change their formulas and a new brewer is never going to start marketing anything new or different.

The beer situation is one in which the stereotype of stagnant Europe vs. dynamic, entrepreneurial America has some truth. But the USA benefited massively from the deregulation of the craft brewing industry back in the late 70s.

#36 Comment By Ol On June 2, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

This is pretty amazing that craft brewing has developed so far for last years:) We can buy whatever we want. We’ve got so many beers. Beers from hops, barley, wheat, lager, cider etc. Wherever we go we can find really good quality and new taste. I think this is God’s drink:) Here is nice article about that [13] Even in another countries, not only, Germany, Belgium or Holland, we’ve got local beers from small breweries. I think it’s worth to discover them:)

#37 Comment By Franklin Evans On June 3, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

You can’t have champagne all the time, no matter how many good varieties of it you can find. 😉

When I eat a meal, especially a good basic one like pizzaria, Chinese-American or diner take-out, I ask for Pabst Blue Ribbon. PBR is a solid beer, and goes with nearly any kind of food. Craft and specialty beers should be, well, special, don’tchathink?

#38 Comment By EngineerScotty On June 3, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

Eh: PBR is for getting drunk. It’s what you drink to finish the job, after you longer care what it tastes like, but do still care what it costs. 🙂

And yes, PBR is quite popular here in Beervana, for specifically that purpose.