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Your Beermonger: Craft Beer’s Increasingly Blurry Borders

By ARLnow.com

Friday - 11/1/2013, 12:00pm  ET

Your Beermonger logo

Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Nick Anderson, beermonger at Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway).

We all have moments in our lives where a heretofore unrecognized pattern suddenly reveals itself; a blurry vision becoming clear, or a tiny voice screaming at the back of your head stepping forward and calmly explaining itself. A number of news items recently appearing on various beer-centric websites knocked something loose in my head, and when I managed to put it back in place I had to stop and ask myself, “what exactly is happening here?”

What’s happening are deals like the recently announced partnership between Brooklyn Brewery and Carlsberg to open New Carnegie in Stockholm, Sweden early next year; Duvel-Moortgat’s purchase of Boulevard Brewing Company; and the announcement of America’s first officially-sanctioned Trappist brewery — Spencer Brewing Company based out of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass.

For an industry whose devotees cling tenaciously to identities — be they brand, local, style, etc. — this sudden embrace of the values of globalization presents as many opportunities to alienate craft beer drinkers, and in turn the general public, as it does to offer great new beers.

The biggest concern with a world of “beer without borders” is the cheapening of what makes certain names and styles special. This is a phenomenon that we’ve seen grow in the wine industry over the past ten years or so: you can go to your nearest specialty supermarket and buy a bottle labeled Barolo or Barbaresco, for less than $15, that is made to the letter of the law, but in a factory winery rather than an estate or cooperative.

There’s nothing “wrong” with that wine, and it may fulfill the legal requirements necessary to label it as being from a particular place, but it ignores the meticulous attention to detail, the craft, of the family-owned and operated vineyards and wineries that made these regions great in the first place.

It’s a classic debate: if Stone Brewing ever goes through with its desire to open a facility in Europe, does that not make them just another international corporation, turning out the same product in multiple countries like the makers of the “fizzy yellow beer” Stone CEO Greg Koch has railed against over the years? What does “Trappist” mean if you can just build a brewery onto any existing monastery of the Catholic Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance and bring in a local craft brewer to get the suds flowing?

Despite the rant at the end of that last paragraph, I’m not as apprehensive as most of my fellow beer geeks about these developments. American craft brewers are simply responding to growing overseas demand for their beers. Brooklyn’s expansion into Sweden is no accident; its export business is growing by 25 percent annually, and Sweden is Brooklyn’s top foreign market (Scottish craft brewer BrewDog opened its first non-U.K. bar in Stockholm earlier this year). Brooklyn CEO Steve Hindy said the brewery is “the biggest exporter of craft beer, bigger than Sam Adams or Sierra Nevada.”

The New Carnegie project will produce new recipes developed in collaboration with the crew at the original Carnegie brewery, produces of the excellent Carnegie Staark Porter. Brooklyn Brewery beers will continue to be brewed in the U.S. only. New Carnegie’s beers should eventually make their way here to America as well, and I always welcome good new beers.

As far as the American Trappist brewery goes, I’m surprised it’s taken this long for one to emerge. There has been more than one effort to get the Trappist Order’s seal of approval for beer over the past few years, and with the growing influence of Duvel-Moortgat in the U.S. and projects like the Ovila line of beers made by California’s Abbey of New Clairvaux, it was only a matter of time before there was an American Trappist brewery.

Also, with the addition of Austria’s Stift Engelzell as the eighth Trappist brewery last year, we may just be seeing the beginnings of an expansion of the Order’s influence in the beer business. I’m excited by the apparent involvement of Dann Paquette from the outstanding Pretty Things Beer in Spencer Brewing Company. Everything I’ve been fortunate enough to try from Pretty Things has been great, so my hopes are high for the Spencer Brewing beers.

It’s easy to get worked up about companies “selling out”, or becoming “fake” because they’re expanding and opening new facilities. As long as these breweries produce good beers that don’t purport to be anything they’re not, I don’t see the problem. If Stone ever gets to open its European brewery, it’s going to make some of the best and most arrogant beer in the world, just like it does now in San Diego.

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