Thursday 24 July 2014

San Diego invades Europe

American craft brewers are waking up to European opportunities. Oh sure, they've been exporting here for years, but this week has seen not one but two super-hoppy San Diego brewers announce that they will actually brew in Europe.

Stone's site in Berlin
The biggest news was Stone Brewing, well known for the likes of Arrogant Bastard Ale. There's been rumours about Stone opening a European brewery for a few years now, with at least one redundant old English brewery fingered as a possible location, but the reality has turned out quite different: Stone is building a brewery and pub/beer garden in Berlin!

First to the draw however was Green Flash, which is already co-brewing its iconic West Coast IPA in 240-hl batches at St Feuillien in Belgium. It's claimed that this is not just a licence deal, like the one that saw Shepherd Neame brew imitation Sam Adams, but a 'production partnership', whatever that exactly means.

“We’ve been pursuing European distribution of West Coast IPA for some time, however the obvious challenges in delivering fresh IPA to the region have been a huge roadblock,” said GF co-founder Mike Hinkley. “After testing various export scenarios on a small scale, it became apparent that the quality of our IPA when transported to Europe was not ideal and cost-prohibitive for consumers. We were not satisfied with the customer experience and felt we had to come up with a better solution.”

St Feuillien is already noted for its hoppy beers and has done collaboration beers with Green Flash in the past, so the two teams already know each other well. GF's brewmaster Chuck Silva has spent a fair portion of the last year in Belgium, working on getting the flavour profile just right – the one difference between the US and Belgian versions is that the latter will be bottle-conditioned “to protect beer quality in areas of Europe where unrefrigerated conditions may be unavoidable.” I can see this version becoming a hot item with US beer aficionados....

Meanwhile, Stone's plans are considerably more ambitious, and involve an initial investment of $25 million, plus an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign to raise more. The company is leasing a massive 7000m2 of space in three refurbished buildings that were built in the 1900s as part of a gasworks – they had to be expensively decontaminated as part of the refurbishment process. Due to open in late 2015 or early 2016, the buildings will house a 70-barrel brewery, a shop, an event space and a farm-to-table restaurant – Stone is keen on the slow food movement.

There will also be an 'American-style beer garden', though quite how that differs from a German-style beer garden I don't know, especially when so much about US beer is derived from Germany. Many of the earliest American brewers were German immigrants, from Anheuser and Busch onwards, and while Stone is pretty eclectic, some US breweries still focus on German-derived beer styles rather than British or Belgian, say.

“Once open, we will bring Germany and the rest of Europe a taste of our craft beer vision, and look forward to sharing the unique beers that we have spent the last 18 years brewing,” declared Stone CEO and co-founder Greg Koch (another German surname, of course).

Yet while some of the US media has taken a nationalist 'young upstarts teaching the oldies how to do it' line, ignoring – or more likely, ignorant of – the fact that many German and other European brewers are already aboard the craft beer bandwagon, Koch was more modest.

“We have no attitude that we are coming to save anybody or conquer anybody,” he said in an interview. He acknowledged that there is already a craft beer movement challenging the German brewing giants, and added, “We are coming to add our shoulder, to help push that boulder up the hill.”

So why Berlin and Belgium? I can think of several reasons, an obvious one is they are in the Eurozone, which simplifies your exporting to the rest of the EU. Another is they both have strong beer heritages, which should make it easier to find both staff and customers, and of course they have good English language skills.

The last thing is that, unlike the UK where there is already a strong craft brewing industry (both new-wave and traditional), the beer revolution has only recently kicked off on the mainland. Sure, there's lots of micro and nano brewers, and many of the old brewers are trying to adjust and produce crafty sidelines, but the market is still growing, with plenty of opportunity.

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