Session #122: Views on Imported Beer

On the first Friday of every month, there’s a beer blog roundup called The Session. Someone picks a topic, and everyone blogs about it. This time around, Christopher Barnes wants to know:

What place do imported beers (traditional European) have in a craft beer market?

An interesting question! When I was getting into “good” beer, imported stuff, particularly Belgian beer, was my inspiration. We’re talking turn of the century timeframe here, so even the American craft beer that was knocking my socks off was inspired by Belgian beers. Ommegang Hennepin was my entree into great beer, and saisons in particular. Chimay was something that was pretty regularly available, but after some time, I eventually made my way to things like Orval (my first Brett dosed beer) and Fantôme.

All of that was before I ever got the notion to start a beer blog, but even after that, I was enamored with Belgian beer. I went through the Trappist rituals, ticked obscure breweries, played a little game I called Belgian Beer Roulette. It was great fun.

As the American craft beer scene exploded, I went through a period of import contraction. It’s tough to keep up with all the new local breweries, let lone American breweries in general. Since the import market is relatively stable, the number of new beers crossing my path there was relatively limited. The one big exception is lambics. They were what made me see the light when it came to sour beers in general, and while the best lambics tend to be a little more difficult to obtain, they are indeed among the best beer’s I’ve ever had. This will most likely continue.

There were, of course, more than Belgian imports out there. I’ve enjoyed beers from all over. There are definitely some beer regions I want to explore more thoroughly. Germany has some interesting beer cultures, and I have some friends in Dusseldorf who really want me to try their best Altbiers (which don’t get imported with any sort of regularity, though I have seen some). Italy’s beer scene has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years, but I get the impression that a lot of the best stuff doesn’t make its way over here, which is probably the same for a lot of foreign beer.

I suspect this is similar to what a lot of European drinkers see of American beer. Yes, they get some of the U.S. craft beer explosion, but it tends to be the larger regional powerhouses like Stone, Victory, Lagunitas, and the like. Nothing wrong with those beers, for sure, but the most interesting American beer is happening at the tiny scale breweries that can barely supply their local environs. Again, I suspect a lot of great European beer falls into the same category: fabulous beer that doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t!) expand beyond its native land. Fortunately, there are plenty of great beers that do get over here. And it’s worth noting that much of what drives American beer is descended from imported beer traditions. It’s probably not an accident that my initial exposure to Belgian beer styles was from an American brewery…

So I do expect imported beers will continue to play a role in my beer diet. Perhaps a little diminished than in years past, but still present! That being said, I don’t think imported beers are going away or anything, nor do I think that American beers are supplanting their imported brethren. I may drink more American beer, but that’s probably more a function of where I am than anything else. New things rarely supplant the old things. I shall leave you with a quote from Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World, where the character Daniel Waterhouse ponders how new systems supplant older systems:

“It has been my view for some years that a new System of the World is being created around us. I used to suppose that it would drive out and annihilate any older Systems. But things I have seen recently … have convinced me that new Systems never replace old ones, but only surround and encapsulate them, even as, under a microscope, we may see that living within our bodies are animalcules, smaller and simpler than us, and yet thriving even as we thrive. … And so I say that Alchemy shall not vanish, as I always hoped. Rather, it shall be encapsulated within the new System of the World, and become a familiar and even comforting presence there, though its name may change and its practitioners speak no more about the Philosopher’s Stone.” (page 639)

Surround and encapsulate, but not destroy. Seems apt.

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