Imports and the Modern American Beer Geek

On Saturday night, I spent a few hours with a bunch of beer geeks at an undisclosed location in East Portland for an evening of bottle-sharing.  Owing to the large number of Midwestern transplants, there were a lot of New Glarus, Goose Island (pre- and post-), and Bell's floating around, plus a Three Floyds or two.  In what I thought was a remarkable display of generosity, one nice gent snagged an old cobalt bottle of Sam Adams Triple Bock from his cellar for our tasting pleasure.  All in all, an excellent adventure.

One thing occurred to me the next day as I thought back through the beers I tasted: only one was an import.  That bottle, also incredibly rare (I don't even know the benefactor), was a '97 Samichlaus.  But beyond that, nada.  No Cantillon, no Westvleteren.  No vintage Orval, no Mikkeller.  No Aventinus. 

This may well have been an anomaly, but I don't think so.  We are now so awash in beer that it's impossible to keep up with what's happening in our home town--what to speak of across the sea.  The dictates of an ever sharpening novelty curve mean breweries don't just release a handful of specialty beers each year, they release dozens.  There are anniversary beers, barrel-aged series, wild yeast programs, and on and on.  Lots and lots to keep up with.

I recently brewed a tripel inspired by Westmalle--the most American of the abbey ales.  It's both hoppy and not especially fruity, a distant cousin to our double IPAs.  I recently mentioned Westmalle to a few people and they all give me a blank look.  None had had Westmalle's version--definitely one of the most important extant beers in Belgium's long history.  (I direct you to Stan Hieronymus's excellent Brew Like a Monk for more.)  I understand that we all have patchy coverage of the international greats--but no one having tried Westmalle?  Amazing.

So I encourage you to celebrate mid-November by picking up a bottle of something foreign.  Remind yourself that other countries not only brew great beer, but they do it differently.  We can try to recreate a Cantillon with our wild ale programs, we can dry-hop a saison and brett-age it like Orval, but like everything else in life, there's no substitute for the original.  Don't become too insular, dear beer geek: there's a whole world of amazing beer out there.