How Does the United States Stack Up?

In the niche-y world of craft brewing, American boosters love to proclaim our place in the world of good beer. (I am not immune.) True, only 5% of the American market is composed of good beer, but never mind--we have Pliny the Elder and Black Dark Lord, so step back. Well, having just been to Britain, France, and Belgium, I'm now in a slightly better position to evaluate America's place. The results are fascinating. (I have yet to hit Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, and Ireland, so bear with this provisional assessment.)

The sad reality is that ales aren't doing so hot. The "ale" countries of Belgium and Britain now produce and drink way more boring, international lager than their traditional styles. In Britain, lagers have a stunning 86% share (according to Fullers' John Keeling). Belgium's a little better at 30%, but they've been stuck at that figure for decades, a period that has seen a precipitous drop in beer consumption (according to Rodenbach's Rudi Ghequire). Britain has roughly 800 breweries (according to Adrian Tierney-Jones' latest article in All About Beer--a great piece, by the way), Belgium has about 125, and the US has 1700--or to adjust for population, per-capita densities of one brewery for 77,500 in the UK, 87,200 in Belgium, and 176,500 in the US.

But the stats don't really tell the story. Each country has its own potpourri of pluses and minuses, qualities that make it surpassingly beery, but others that make it suspect--and this includes the United States. Here's how I'd break it down--of course with the acknowledgement that a month in Europe doesn't make me an expert.

By far the most impressive thing about the UK are the number of pubs. What I loved was the knowledge that if I set out walking, I would come to a pub in no time at all--big city or tiny village, it made no difference. In those pubs one always finds at least a good pint, if not a variety of great ones. You have to contrast that with the US, where vast stretches of the country have few pubs, and the ones you find serve two or three varieties of industrial lager. As a population, the British are far more knowledgeable about their beer than Americans and it forms a much more substantial part of British culture. Where Britain falls down is variety--and this is a function of that same strong culture of drinking. You'll find bitters and lagers in a put and rarely anything else. Worse, there's an embrace of a depressing trend toward "extra cold" beer. Often pubs will have two versions of the same tipple, one frozen to the point of tastelessness.

There's a lot of excitement in the market, though, and craft breweries are starting to have a real impact on the market. To a person, every brewer I spoke to said this was the best moment in their careers for beer. There's a lot of excitement for flavor and experimentation, and anyone who reads the English bloggers will recognize names like Marble, Thornbridge, and Kernel as leading-edge experimenters. Interestingly, though, the styles of beer these new breweries make are heavily influenced by American craft breweries.

Even more than Britain, in Belgium, beer is a major source of local pride. In the tourist districts of the big cities, you'll find chocolate, lace, waffles, and beer. These are the markers of national identity. It seems taken as a given by locals that Belgian beer is the best. People are even more knowledgeable about beer in Belgium than Britain (though perhaps not as knowledgeable as they think themselves to be). Everywhere you go, you'll find a selection of decent beer, even if you pop into a corner pizza joint. Things are dire if you only have a half dozen beers to choose from.

The downside to this is a complacency. Unlike British brewers, Belgian brewers are depressed. Sales for good beer continue to decline as an absolute figure; worse, for small breweries, they're declining faster because the Stellas and In-Bevs are seizing an ever bigger portion of the market with macro-ales. (And this is where the knowledge thing backfires a bit, too; macro breweries play on consumers' sense of history with made-up heritage and antiquity. Tons of marketing dollars help them swamp the little breweries.) The result of all of this is that while there's still amazing beer in Belgium, it's not a healthy market and some of the beers that we revere most are in jeopardy.

Obviously, France can't stack up to the major beer countries, but it's worth noting that there's a lot of excitement there. People will be surprised to learn France has more breweries than Belgium, and new ones are opening up all the time. The market is similar to what it was like in the US in about 1988--breweries are experimenting, trying to find their place in the brewing world. In two decades time, the country will actually be a real player in brewing, and it's a pleasure to watch.

Which brings us to the US. The country's greatest strength is diversity--we brew anything. Since there's no national tradition of brewing here, there's no consumer expectation, and that frees breweries to do whatever they want. When I mentioned this in an earlier post, some non-Americans took exception. Sorry, guys, it's true. This is America's great virtue in the brewing scene--absolutely amazing varieties of styles.

American recreations may not be identical to the styles brewed in other countries, but that's totally predictable. That's the story of style development. And that very experimentation is what has inspired breweries in other countries. I managed to tour craft breweries in all three countries I visited, and it's really hard to underestimate the influence of Americans on these folks. Of course, the craft brewing movements in other countries will evolve in ways unique to those countries, deviating from the American model much as our beer deviated from the Belgian and British beers that inspired it. Round and round the cycle goes.

The US is so big that the geographic majority of the country has been barely touched by good beer. This is different from Belgium and Britain, which have good beer in every corner and cranny of their countries. To talk about American wild ales is absurd in North Dakota or Mississippi. When people criticize the US as lacking a true beer culture, this is what they point to, and they're right. On the other hand, there are pockets--the NW, New England, Colorado, the Bay Area and San Diego, Pennsylvania--where beer culture is every bit as developed as the UK and Belgium. I think people in those countries may not be aware of how far things have gotten in certain pockets here.

It makes the US slightly hard to characterize and categorize. It is simultaneously one of the best good beer countries and one of the countries most bereft of good beer. But I now feel more confident in saying that in those good beer pockets you'll find more good beer and more varieties of good beer, than nearly anywhere else. Whether they're stable and whether they will spread is impossible to say, but they are impressive even by world standards.