The Specter of Stateless Beer

In the past few months, I've missed the opportunity to comment on a few interesting developments.  Perhaps the most interesting is the newly-founded Global Association of Craft Beer Brewers.  As the name implies, it's an international collection of breweries lashed together in a spirit of collaboration.  It appears to differ from the Brewers Association in the sense that it is a way for breweries to pool their collective resources and knowledge to their mutual benefit; it's not a trade organization designed to give the member breweries greater exposure and political heft.  (Which makes sense: it's hard to accomplish those goals when you have a diffuse, international membership.)

So you get sunshiny but vague organizing principles like (emphasis theirs):
The GACBB stands on this spirit of collaboration and exchange. We believe that not only does this new generation of brewers share our attitude and our passion for brewing, but they share an interest in working together instead of always in competition. We invite independent craft brewers from across the globe to join us in empowering independent craft brewers around the globe.
We want to help independent brewers come together and learn from each other. We've set up a few projects which we think will be helpful to our members, and are pulling together information to keep our community better informed. Various events and publications will keep members informed and give them the opportunity to exchange with each other. Databases of scientific articles, international cicerones and experts, international media outlets, and interested distributors (micropubs/bars in other countries) will be available to registered members and we will also distribute a newsletter and a yearbook of our members' best brews.
The criteria for inclusion is similar to (and slightly more straightforward than) the Brewers Association's.  Seventy percent of your beer must be sold "in and around your brewery's community"; the founders must own 51% of the brewery; and it must be "creative."  One might reasonably ask how big a "brewery's community" is and who gets to arbitrate questions of "creativity," but you see where they're headed. All well and good.  It makes sense that small breweries would see other small breweries as kindred spirits and find greater prospects for collaboration than, say, national breweries from their home countries. 

What is unnerving to me, though, is how American craft brewing has become a kind of national tradition all to itself.  I first started noticing this trend a few years back, and at the time called in "international extreme."
The internet has been a huge boon to tiny breweries who can now reach out to drinkers a continent away for almost no cost. Exotica, strength, and hops are their calling card, and as Fromson notes, sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer generate massive excitement (blogs and Twitter help, too)... 

What we're seeing is the emergence of an international style of brewing abetted by instant communications and relatively cheap exports. These breweries aren't of a place, they're of every place. Brewers can learn instantly whether a style, ingredient, or technique is popular and instantly replicate it. All of this is fine in one way, but it is a very different model from the slow, evolutionary model of style development that has resulted in offbeat curiosities like saison or mild ale or Bavarian weizens. Those styles evolved because of local conditions and circumstances, almost because they didn't have the information of other places or the resources to replicate beer styles from them.
The GACBB has a list of 19 regional board member breweries from around the world.  I started clicking though to their company websites to see what kind of beer they were making.  Their board members are located in Nairobi, UK, US, Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, Lima (Peru), Cape Town, Žatec (Czech), Beijing, Copenhagen, Holsbeke (Belgium), Ensenada (Mexico), Valencia, Ribeirão Preto (Brazil), Berlin, Seoul, and Port Stephens (Australia). 

Some of these breweries are in places with no extant beer culture, so seeing IPAs, pilsners, and porters made sense.  But those were the same kind of beers I found at the Czech and German breweries, too.  (The English and Belgian breweries--Stringers and De Vlier--are brewing local styles.)  The styles of beers, the names and branding--everything looks perfectly American.  These craft breweries might be from Capetown or Valencia, California. 

It sort of makes sense that Americans would guilelessly put a pilsner, dubbel, cask bitter, IPA, and Baltic porter on their menu.  We have Germans and Belgians and English immigrants and we happily regard the world as our cultural buffet.  In the process of appropriation, we tend to mangle things so that they become something American.  That's our culture. 

The problem here is not that breweries from Tel Aviv to Lima make a lineup that could be from any American brewpub, it's that the more an more these breweries share and collaborate, the more those styles become a fixed set of international styles, stateless, floating loosely above a country's culture and history.  Breweries become like airports.  It doesn't matter if you are in Tokyo or France--they all have the same faceless look and feel. 

Do we want a world where the beer in Žatec (birthplace of the hop that made pilsner famous) and the beer in Berlin are just like the ones we drink here in Portland?*

*No.  The answer is no.