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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
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Continental Divide

Jason Foster
Published Thursday June 11, 06:01 pm
Why are some beer-drinkers dumping on Europe these days?

Photo Credit: Illustration by Paul Klassen

I’ve been spending a fair bit of time lately pondering the gulf that’s emerged between European and North American approaches to beer. The two traditions have always been quite different when it comes to approach: Europe is known for very drinkable beers, traditional brewing methods and a heavy emphasis on balance, while North America is famous for experimentation, edginess and, for lack of a better word, imbalance (like big hop, big oak or big sour, to name a few).

But the gulf I’m talking about is a more recent development, and it’s not related to brewing approaches or even flavour profiles for the most part — it’s related to how consumers view each tradition. Increasingly, I find North American drinkers to be dismissive (and sometimes even insulting) about European approaches beer, and (while it’s rarer) I’ve also come across some Europeans who simply refuse to acknowledge any value in North American craft beers.

Obviously, I know a ton of beer people who hold a healthy respect for both traditions, and see them as equally legitimate ways to approach making a good craft beer. But I host a lot of tastings and other beer events, and I’m definitely seeing that, amid a growing openness to craft beer in general (a good thing, of course), there’s an increasingly large group of people who are clearly choosing just one side when it comes to the two approaches.

The division is most clear when we’re talking about India pale ale, though you can find it with other styles as well. Fans of North American IPAs often have absolutely NO time for British-style IPAs. I hosted a tasting a while back where one of the beers was Fuller’s IPA — it’s not a world-beater but it’s definitely a decent English IPA (overall I find Fuller’s beers to be remarkably consistent), and certainly a good example of the sub-style. But a table of hopheads in attendance basically hated it, and said so quite loudly.

They’re completely welcome to their opinion, but in talking with them I found their only point of reference were West Coast IPAs — and from that measure, Fuller’s doesn’t stand a chance. What they didn’t realize is that even though the name is the same (and legitimately, in my opinion), the beers themselves are completely different beasts, requiring different frames of mind. But they either couldn’t or wouldn’t get it: for them, it was hops or bust.

I found that discouraging, as it blocks you out of enjoying half the world of beer. If it’s your money on the table, it’s clearly your right to buy whatever beer best suits your fancy. But this was a free tasting, the point of which was to be open to all options, and, hopefully develop an appreciation for something new.

If the issue occurred only with IPAs, I’d be fine with writing it off as an isolated issue quirk, but more and more I’m finding that many traditional European styles are rejected with a wave of a pseudo-authoritative hand. English brown ales are “boring”; German helles lagers are written off as “insipid”; European dark lagers are somehow “lacking” the robustness of American dark ales; and English bitters are “too malty.”

I think the problem is directly related to the North American fascination with big stuff. Everything has to be bigger or more extreme — hamburgers, houses, cars and so much more. Even our politics is becoming much less moderate, as market fundamentalism takes an ever-greater hold. Everything has to push a boundary, because anything less is apparently settling for second best.

And sadly, the exact same thing is happening in the world of beer. Making a solid, drinkable pale ale is no longer enough: if it doesn’t have three-digit IBUs (International Bittering Units) or some odd oak-aging regime, many people automatically bounce it into the boring category.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve always been a big fan of experimental, boundary-pushing beer. Just today I sampled New Belgium’s La Terroire Dry Hoppe, a sour beer which was fascinatingly tart and citrusy. They have their place, and I completely respect efforts to create something new and innovative.

I’m also well aware that the bulk of beer consumers don’t fall into the trap of extremism. There’s a reason fruit beers are the dominant sellers in many brewery’s portfolios, because most consumers still like something that’s refreshing, drinkable and balanced. But while people who dismiss European-style beers are in the minority, they are an increasingly vocal minority and they do seem to have breweries paying attention.

My intention here isn’t to diss the beer-consumer who likes experimental beer — I’d love to see more of them in fact, as they push the boundaries of the industry. I just want to remind people that despite the increasing availability of brash, out-there beer, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it takes a hell of a lot of skill to make a Munich helles or, for that matter, an English IPA.

So, let’s stop trashing beers that don’t meet our particular preferences — and start appreciating beer for what it’s actually trying to do. 

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