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, 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
Lost Rhino’s Wild Farmwell
Allagash’s Coolship Red
Mammoth Wild’s Sierra Mountain Farmhouse Ale
Jester King’s Das Wunderkind
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/
Enjoy your time in Belgium!