The Globalization of Beer Styles


This planet brews beer.

In the not-too-distant past, some types of beer were only available in a given country, region or town. Even today, most homebrewers are aware of the association between many beer styles and a place. The styles Vienna lager, Munich helles and Dortmunder export even include their place of origin in their name. We know the mineral content of the water from some locations influenced the character of the beers produced there, from the dry stouts of Ireland to the IPAs from Burton-on-Trent. We know that laws affected the beers brewed in many regions, from the taxes that kept English brewers brewing mostly low-alcohol session ales to the Reinheitsgebot that prevented German brewers from using wheat or brewing an ale (unless it was a wheat ale).

We know how unusual circumstances led to some interesting beers styles, from the lambics that could be only produced with the microflora in the air of the Senne Valley of Belgium to the lightly salty gose brewed from the brackish waters near Leipzig, Germany. To this day, some regions protect regional styles of beer with appellations. For example, you can’t label a beer in Germany a Kölsch unless it was brewed in Cologne.

Time, technology and commerce changed much of this. Improved shipping, the advent of the railroad and better roads led to breweries being able to source ingredients from progressively more distant locations. And these same improvements in moving products allowed some breweries to grow larger, supplying beers to whole countries and beyond. Likewise, once water chemistry was better understood, brewers could treat their water and brew any kind of beer they desired. Plus, being able to culture yeast and other microorganisms means that any beer can hypothetically be made in any brewery in the world — and, in fact, many are.

These days, beer styles can arise and spread so quickly that most beer drinkers have no idea where they originated, as happened when brewers from the Pacific Northwest  tried to claim black IPA — or Cascadian Dark ale, as they called it — for their own. Likewise, I’m sure someone knows who made the first bourbon barrel stout, but it isn’t common knowledge.

It is hard to imagine a local or regional beer style existing today. If any given type of beer tasted good, other breweries would simply copy it — as happened with American-style pale ale, American IPA, double IPA, bourbon-barrel stouts, black IPAs and any other recently originating beer style. A brewer (or city/region) could attempt to stop others from labeling the beer in a way they didn’t like (ala’ Fritz Maytag and “steam beer”), but they couldn’t stop the beer itself from brewed.

One possible exception to this could occur if more breweries started releasing “estate” beers — beers brewed from ingredients grown on the brewery’s farm(s). Hop varieties grown in different locations exhibit different characteristics. For an example, compare German Hallertau hops and US-grown Hallertau. Or US Cascade hops vs. Cascade grown in New Zealand. So it’s possible that a brewery could brew an impossible-to-copy beer because they grow the ingredients and the terroir (to borrow a term from wine) was distinct. But for now, any new beer that caught on locally could be reproduced globally in short order.

So, the romance of having regional beers is gone, but the practical benefits of being able to “drink your way around the world,” in any decent beer bar around the world more than makes up for it.

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