The sameness of craft beer

<< 2014-11-25 18:11 >>

Placa Reial, Barcelona

I can remember when and where I became seriously interested in beer. I'd been mildly curious for a while, but it was in May 2002, in Barcelona, that it got serious. Geir Ove and I were there for an IT conference, and quickly noticed that a number of bars were selling interesting Belgian beer. This was my first meeting with real Belgian beer, and I remember being deeply impressed by an old-fashioned-looking beer called St. Bernardus 12. I suddenly realized there was a lot more to beer than I'd been aware of.

Then we found a place on the Placa Reial called Glaciar, with a long shelf full of strange-looking Belgian beers. It was a lovely place to sit out on the square, and I suddenly decided I was going to taste my way through all those beers, from left to right. And over the course of the week, that's what I did, providing myself with a crash course in Belgian beer. What really impressed me was the variety of flavours, and from that moment on, I was hooked.

That row of bottles, Glaciar, Barcelona

Later I travelled to the US for conferences and to meet customers, and dived into craft beer, which at that point was a very nearly purely American thing. I explored English beers, cask ales, bitters, porters, and so on, and was perhaps even more impressed with the pubs. On later travels I tasted my way through Belgium, Germany, Japan, the Czech Republic, Russia, Ukraine, etc etc etc. Everywhere I went, the beers were different, the food was different, the bars were different. What drove me was the joy of discovering the ways in which each country was different and had its own signature flavours.

Over the same period, craft beer started becoming available in Scandinavia. First in Denmark and Sweden, then later in Norway, too. These beers were conscious imitations of beers made elsewhere, such as US craft beer, Belgian beers, and to some degree English beers. I welcomed this as a liberation from the tyranny of the sameness of industrial beers, which only a few years before had been very nearly the only beers available by any means whatsoever in Norway.

Later, I went deeper still, discovering that I'd missed something major in Lithuania, and then that I'd also missed something big in Norway. And again what drove me was the delight in discovering how enormous and enormously varied the world of beer was. I'd been losing my enthusiasm a little, since there seemed to be nothing genuinely new to explore, but then suddenly I found that even after a decade of serious beer hunting there were entirely new things to discover.

ALEhouse, Riga

It was in this period that doubts were beginning to creep in about the way things were going. I went to Riga, and discovered that the highest-rated bar in Riga had only foreign craft beers. That is, English, American, and Scandinavian craft beers. The same ones, in fact, easily available in Oslo. And Copenhagen. Since I was in Latvia to try Latvian beers I didn't even buy a single beer, but just moved on to other places.

Then, Lithuanian brewers started making IPAs. That made me downright worried. Was Lithuanian beer culture going to disappear entirely, turning into ordinary craft beer of the kind available everywhere? And that before the world even knew it existed? This worry was one of the reasons I decided to publish my book. I felt it was important to tell both Lithuanians and foreigners that here was something important and unique that was much more valuable than simply copying what people were doing in the rest of the world. (To be fair, Lithuanian beer does not really seem to be headed the wrong way. So far.)

A similar thing has been happening in Germany. Over the last few decades German beer has been in what seemed like terminal decline. Berliner Weisse came to the brink of extinction, Oktoberfestbier turned into pils with a different name, and so on. Traveling around Franconia, the very heartland of artisanal German beer, we saw the signs of recently-closed breweries everywhere. Now, new German breweries are popping up, but they all seem to brew IPAs and wits. Is this progress? Partly, but not entirely. At least gose and Berliner Weisse now seem to be coming back from the dead.

Tap list at Kælderkold, Barcelona

Then, this week, I went to Barcelona again, for a different conference. Knowing that a number of very good Spanish breweries had sprung up in the decade since I was there last I was very eager try their beers. So on the first evening we went, as one does, to the highest-rated bar, BierCab, only to find that while it had an excellent beer menu, it was for the most part exactly the same beers you'd expect to find in Copenhagen. Only three beers were local, and the first one I tried was a standard American pale ale. It could have been a Mikkeller beer. It was nice enough, but there was little about the bar or the beer that gave me a sense of being in any particular place.

The next night we tried another bar: Kælderkold. I guess the Danish name should have warned me, but even so I was shocked to find that the beers were exactly the same as at BierCab, minus the three local ones. La Cerveteceria, described online as a place with many local beers, turned out to have exactly one. Only two places: Homo Sibaris and CatBar turned out to have any real selection of local beers.

In one way it's perfectly understandable that Latvians and Catalans want to drink foreign beers. I often do, too, in Oslo. But why should visiting foreigners seemingly prefer these beers? If their ratings are anything to go by, that's what they do. And why should it be exactly the same breweries all over Europe? It's always the same 3-4 Norwegian, Danish and UK brewers. The world of craft beer is a lot bigger than that.

Foreign beer, Kælderkold, Barcelona

So where am I going with this? Mainly to express my disappointment at how uniform the world of beer is becoming, and how little people seem to mind. One positive development here is the project Ny Nordisk Øl (New Nordic Beer), which aims to develop truly local Nordic beer flavours. Of course, as Martyn Cornell argues, that's not going to be easy when all the ingredients in beer are either easily exported anywhere or easily adapted (like water). Hardly anyone outside of western Norway knew a thing about kveik before our journey this May, yet very soon the first North American brewers will be brewing with it, and a Belgian yeast lab is already exploring it.

So are we necessarily headed for a world where beers taste the same everywhere? Probably we are, at least to some degree, because I don't really see how anyone today can develop a genuinely local beer culture. Quite possibly the last people to do it were the Lithuanians. But more about that in a later blog post.

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Yngvar Ø - 2014-11-25 14:14:33

In a way it's good to see it's not just me that feels like this. It's sad in a way. When I'm at home visiting my locals I want good beers from here, there and everywhere, but when I'm travelling I prefer to drink the local (or at least from the same country) beers. Guess everyone feels the same, hence everyone cherry pick the best beers, both local and from abroad. No matter how much I love drinking gorgeous beers, I need those straight forward session beers most of the time, the one that can be downed by the liter. I could never live on big beers alone. That's why my favorite places are those who focus on the local beers and perhaps have a few interesting non-local ones as well. We all need it to be like that, or else will go in the same direction we did with pale lagers some decades ago.

I have to add that I struggle to see how we can find a true Norwegian or Nordic style of beer, but at least I hope we see more focus on all the fine beers provided by so many Norwegian breweries. Some of the grocery stores are doing an effort, but the way Vinmonopolet works we'll never see the same opportunities for the small breweries there.

Lars Marius - 2014-11-25 15:08:52

"Guess everyone feels the same, hence everyone cherry pick the best beers, both local and from abroad"

I'm not sure I agree with the choices, though, and it's odd that it's exactly the same "best beers" in so many different places.

"I have to add that I struggle to see how we can find a true Norwegian or Nordic style of beer"

Well. In my opinion we already have those. It's just that you can't buy them, because nobody's making them on any kind of scale, except the Finns with sahti. And that they don't export.

As for whether something could developed, a bit more on that in the next blog post.

"the way Vinmonopolet works we'll never see the same opportunities for the small breweries there"

Probably, yes. And it doesn't look like it's going to change, either.

Ed - 2014-11-25 15:27:20

I have had similar thoughts. Though having said that if internationally you can now find American style pale ale everywhere as well as industrial that is an improvement!

Lars Marius - 2014-11-26 03:21:14

@Ed: I agree having pils and pale ale available most places is much better than having only pils. You could say this blog post was about how I expected more than just that when this thing was getting started about a decade ago. It's progress, but I personally don't think it's enough.

Ed - 2014-11-26 08:05:17

Yes, it does seem like we're being short changed.

Mark - 2014-11-27 16:42:03

Well written and interesting comment. I think what the writer is seeing is a cycle. I have seen two of these in my lifetime, in NZ, first in the 60's and 70's where two big brewers went around buying all the smaller brewers. Then again in the 90s when a few small brewers emerged but were quickly bought out by BIGBREW. In both cycles, the BB buyouts resulted in the corporate machine accountants slowly dumbing down the ingredients, removing the passion of the real brewer and squashing anyone who dared to startup. Then the beer becomes boring and the same.

In the past 10 years there has been a big resurgence in new brewers and as the world trend is to make tasty beer, largely driven by passionate young men who were not around while these previous cycles ran. However, BIGBREW has begun the cycle again by buying anyone they can. Expect this to gain momentum again as history repeats and we never seem to learn.

Juris - 2014-11-30 12:54:53

Lars, next time in Riga you should really visit

Lars Marius - 2014-11-30 13:03:06

@Juris: So I've heard. I don't think it had opened yet when I was there in March 2013, but I will definitely stop by the next time I'm in Riga. Whenever that is.

Kyle D - 2014-11-30 14:29:25

I think your work on the Lithuanian beer is of a particular importance given that craft beer is in its own way, as you say, uniform. I cited the rough guide recently ( and have generally come to working conclusion that local beer styles develop through embracing certain constraints, even they are artificial given the ease with which almost anyone can obtain ingredients and equipment; and, they have to develop through communities that learn from and share with each other.

Your trip to examine the Norwegian farmhouse ales really illustrates those two points, because smaller, relatively isolated communities both share yeasts and work with/malt their own ingredients, and the knowledge is/was shared among those smaller groupings of brewers. Those conditions could be replicated, but it wouldn't necessarily happen spontaneously--it would take commitment, organization, and conversation among a community of brewers over time to see those emerge.

Lars Marius - 2014-11-30 16:18:17

@Kyle: Hi! Interesting to see you here. Martin Thibault sent me a link to your blog, and I've bookmarked some of your pieces on Colombian beer, planning to read them carefully.

I agree that the relative uniformity of craft brewing makes the traditional cultures, like Lithuania, especially important. This is why I've felt so excited by it.

And, yes, I agree isolation has been a key factor in developing local cultures and styles, and, yes, it's definitely the interplay between a community of brewers that develops these local styles. In the Norwegian case, the isolation is in a way quite surprising, and probably ending now. In the case of Lithuania, the isolation is easier to explain, given communism.

Whether this can be replicated remains to be seen, and it's going to be extremely interesting to watch. The Scandinavians are trying, with the New Nordic Beer project. I hope they succeed, but it's going to be difficult.

Svein - 2014-12-02 14:30:57

I can understand your concerns regarding the development and the sameness of beers - the IPAfying of the beer market so to speak. But we must not forget what the last 15- 20 years have brought us, and what the situation was before. The "sameness" today is quite different from the "sameness" of the past.

That said, I hope there will be a development in bringing farm house ales to the market. That is both a political challenge given our strict laws on alcohol serving, and it is also a logistic challenge. But the microbreweries have shown that it is possible to grow from very small scale to a fairly big.

The 'Fjærlandsøl' I gave you some time back I think could be a good example of what a bottled farm house ale would taste like. I think it is the closest thing to original farm house ale I have tasted from a bottled beer.

Lars Marius - 2014-12-02 15:19:33

@Svein: IPAifying is a good way of putting it. A large chunk of the innovation in craft beer has been "add more west coast hops," giving us IPA, double IPA, black IPA, and India saison. Which, as you say, is fantastic compared to what we used to have, which was simply pils.

As for the farmhouse ales I hope we can develop that into something more here in Norway. The Lithuanians (and arguably the Belgians) did it, so it must be possible. The question is whether we can do that without turning it into craft beer. That is, can we preserve what's truly different about it while scaling it up? That remains to be seen.

Metukkalihis - 2015-01-05 17:22:22

Have you tasted Estonian rye beers? While Estonian micros have their fair share of IPAfying, I think the koduolu culture has a nice influence in this respect. At least Pöide from Saaremaa has a very nice rye beer.

By the way, my vote also for visiting Labietis when you're around.

Lars Marius - 2015-01-06 02:27:37

@Metukkalihis: No, I haven't tried Estonian rye beer, or koduolu, yet. I plan to rectify this with a trip to Saaremaa (and perhaps also Hiumaa) in 2016. The Pöide is on my radar. Thank you for the tip about Labietis, too.

Metukkalihis - 2015-01-06 09:31:02

If you have the time, I think Hiiumaa is worth the visit - from koduolu perspective as well. Last summer we stayed here for a couple of nights, the host makes his own koduolu.

Lars Marius - 2015-01-06 09:39:39

@Metukkalihis: Oh, thank you! This is extremely useful to know. I may be in touch when the time approaches. :)

Luke - 2015-02-23 19:38:23

A corollary of this observation can be found in beer marketing.

Small-scale breweries usually market their beers in opposition to the larger corporate breweries of their home country. The entire "craft beer revolution" is predicated on this, with craft beer slogans usually some kind of derivative of "this beer is different" i.e. "off-centred ales for off-centred people".

The irony here is that there are now so many small breweries in mature beer markets trying to be "different" that they actually all blend together; they share a sameness in their "authenticity" and "localism".

All breweries need to make great beer first and foremost. But small breweries should pay more attention to their branding also, as this is a huge part of the subjective experience, including the taste, of beer.

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