Can American Beers Make It in Europe?


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There are few things more frustrating than being an American beer lover in Germany. Next time you're there, just try to convince a Beck's fan that there are in fact hundreds of American craft beers that will knock his Bremen brew on its hintern. Even an open-minded German beer drinker (and they're not easy to come by) will demand proof. And you'll have ... what? Even in Berlin, you'll be lucky to find a dusty, two-year-old bottle of Sam Adams sitting forlornly in a department store food section. Beck's it is, mein freund!

But Greg Koch, co-owner of Stone Brewing, wants to change that. Based in Escondido, California, Stone just closed its request for proposal (PDF) to construct a brewing facility in Europe. If it works out, in a few years Stone will be the first American craft brewery to make its product outside the United States.

"Most Americans don't even drink our beers," he says. "We don't make beer for everyone."

"We think there's the opportunity there to bring something different to the table," Koch told me in a recent interview. Different is right: Stone's biggest sellers—its pale ale, porter, and Arrogant Bastard, a strong ale—are far from the typical biergarten fare. Though the details are still confidential, Koch said he had received several serious responses, both for new construction and retrofitting an existing plant.

Stone currently exports a limited amount of its beer, but doing so doesn't make much sense. It creates a huge carbon footprint, exposes the beer to harmful heat and light, and, when all the shipping and taxes are added in, the beer is outside most European consumers' price ranges—assuming they're willing to try an American beer in the first place. "It changes it from something you could enjoy regularly to something you only drink on special occasions, and that's not the way to win skeptical potential customers," Koch says.

Koch makes a convincing case, but he openly admits that Stone has done almost no research on markets and consumer demographics; that, he says, is for the big commodity brewers. "Most Americans don't even drink our beers," he says. "We don't make beer for everyone."

It's a fair point, though he's being a bit coy. American-style craft beer is slowly gaining a foothold on the Continent. In only a few years Denmark's Mikkeller has become one of the craft world's hottest brewers, and Norway's Nøgne Ø is close behind. After decades of settling for the likes of Peroni, Italy is experiencing a veritable beer renaissance. All these brewers are taking their cues from the Americans, cooking up IPAs, porters, Flemish sours, and saisons.

So far, outside their local markets, these beers are doing better in the United States and the U.K. than anywhere in the rest of Europe. But that's likely to change as their distribution networks expand and consumers in Germany and elsewhere get to experience what real IPA tastes like. The way Koch sees it, why should the European craft brewers have all the fun?

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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