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Arrogant bastards in Berlin, and what it all means

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Inside one of three former gasworks buildings Stone will call home. / Stone Brewing

San Diego-based Stone is a company that knows how to get attention—in July it sent invitations to German journalists with confidentiality agreements, rousing curiosity for an event where the CEO used a forklift to drop a boulder on a pallet of beer— so forgive us for giving it more a bit ink. But sometimes the importance of a moment is lost amid the photos ops and rhetoric.

There is a reason for drinkers around the world to welcome Stone’s decision to open a plant in Berlin—and it has little to do with Stone, specifically, or even with Berlin.

To understand the significance, it helps to put yourself in the shoes of a beer enthusiast at a European bar, say, six or seven years ago. Maybe you’re a visiting American tourist or an expat, or maybe you are French. Maybe it’s summer and you’re hearing “I Kissed a Girl” for the 10th time today, and you are privately torn about whether to punch the radio or to sing along.

Also, you’re torn about what to drink. Oh there are interesting beers on the list, if you’ve done your homework to find the bar. But few, if any, would scratch a certain… hoppy itch.

Fast forward to now: In case you haven’t noticed, beers that can scratch that hoppy itch are multiplying and prospering.

That is old news in America. We’ve loved our hop-forward beers for a while now (and Stone has made its name on them). But watching the same trends developing overseas, in often unlikely places—colored by local interpretations and heading in new directions—puts things in a new light.

A couple of recent examples seen by my own eyes, and drunk by my own mouth:

  • At a major drinks show in Berlin, the all-German “Craft Beer Bar” was dominated by IPAs and IPA-like creations — including tradition-fusing, aromatically hopped lagers.
  • At the Brussels Beer Challenge competition, which judged 725 beers from 25 countries, the top award went to Thwaites Triple-C — an easy-drinking British blond ale that gets its big nose from U.S.-grown Centennial, Chinook and Citra hops.

There are more. This is the point: Exploding interest in beer variety, at home and abroad, has been largely fueled in the past half-decade by something rather specific: intense hop character.

They are not always IPAs, and they can light or strong, golden or black. (British writer Chris Hall has taken to calling them all “juicy bangers,” and that may yet stick.)

They do not always come from breweries that use the word “craft” (they often do). The hops are not always American (they often are).

What a good one does, the first time you smell it, is make your eyes light up. These are beers with the sort of hop aroma that unlocks whatever part of the brain likes to play with florid descriptors—even if we normally hate that sort of thing.

I’m not saying that these are the best beers out there. I’m saying that these are often the ones that usually stir up the enthusiasm. We talk about “craft beer”—whose definition, anyway?—gaining traction worldwide, but it may be more accurate to say that the world is increasingly infatuated with aromatic hops.

Now, here is the thing about that hop character: It is volatile. It doesn’t travel well. That IPA from overseas might be tasty, but compare it to a fresher one that hasn’t taken the long boat ride. There is an ocean of difference. Stone sees the opportunity in making fresh beer more locally for the large European market.

Stone has long used brash marketing to go with the brash flavors of its beers. Hence, the boulder-dropping stunt. Greg Koch, the one driving the forklift, dropped that rock on a variety of widely available beers—the usual sort of international light lager. Many of them were European.

Stone found an incredible site—attractive and historic turn-of-the-century red-brick buildings, ideal for brewery and restaurant backdrop — that just happened to be in Germany. Some local media said the crushed beer was German—it wasn’t, mostly—or characterized the move as an “American beer Jesus” taking on the Reinheitsgebot.

But this was never about Germany. This is about Europe, with its expanding thirst (read: market) for exactly the sort of thing that Stone likes to brew. More drinkers and brewers will taste the beers fresh and make up their own minds. There will be ripples, as there always are. These vectors of influence tend to ignore national boundaries, leading to new and interesting creations for all of us to try.

Many will find their way back across the Atlantic.

Thus the opening in Europe of an American-owned plant that specializes in “juicy bangers,” when it happens next year, is a signpost along our road to finding more beers of greater character in our nearest bars, pubs, cafés, restaurants, airports—wherever we happen to be.

 

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