Well, okay, we have our exceptions. Maybe too many to name, in fact. But with all the talk that seems to dismantle the notion of variety and tradition in today’s German beer culture (coming coincidentally close to Oktoberfest), Eric Asimov at the New York Times has posted a ranked review of several Oktoberfest/Märzen-style beers. The top three are brewed in the United States.
Now some may argue that there is an inherent American bias afoot here, or that without tasting the beer closest to the source, one cannot definitively categorize “good, better, best” in such a manner. Some would even take issue with rating beer altogether, in any fasion. But, numerical and hierarchical aspects aside, could it be that Americans are improving beer styles from Europe for the better, or preserving the best qualities of seemingly outdated tradition in relation to our overseas counterparts?
As we’re told, the real Oktoberfest experience nowadays is more akin to drinking massive quantities of tasteless light lager than savoring the caramel malty goodness of a true Märzen (if you saw me this past weekend, I managed to combine both traditions). More than likely, you’re drinking the lighter Festbier if in Munich, not the russet-hued version we’re so familiar with in the States. Pick up that Hofbräu seasonal at your local beer store and you might be thoroughly disappointed. However, it’d be tough to go wrong with some American options.
Even Marston’s in the UK has commissioned Matt Brynildson of California’s Firestone Walker Brewery to brew an American-style pale ale (which, from what I gather, means nearly or as bitter as an IPA) for Wetherspoons’ upcoming International Beer Festival. It speaks to the impact American innovation has had as far as style and craft, not to mention the notariety certain American brewers are receiving overseas. But as the Zythophile points out, Firestone Walker is one of the few breweries, along with Marston’s, to preserve a long-abandoned system of fermentation: the union method.
Organizations such as CAMRA in the United Kingdom are hell-bent on preserving the tradition of cask or “real” ale in their pubs for better or for worse, as Boak and Bailey mention. Several American brewers, while not under such pressure, have been creating cask offerings for quite some time, which serve their regional markets quite well. Even my local haunt normally has two cask offerings on at any given time. Usually something from Victory Brewing in Pennsylvania and a local like Legend, waiting to be pulled and more often than not in top condition. That’s not to mention the specialty casks that come into the Richmond area from time to time. And in New England, for instance, the roots of English brewing tradition can be seen today in breweries like Shipyard and Geary’s, perhaps even hearkening back to colonial tastes for English ale before Independence.
Point is, all the aforementioned are vital to preserving what’s great about beer in the first place. Us Yanks, it seems, have developed a split personality: we’re still growing when it comes to our own beer culture and traditions, and we seem to be taking measures to hold onto those that are not even ours; yet that individualistic spirit that’s intrinsic to our national identity is evident in the limits we constantly attempt to push when it comes to brewing.
Do we do it better entirely across the board? Probably not, and that’s something that’s always up for debate on a case-by-case basis, be it brewer or consumer, on any product in particular. But have we proven our ability to tackle a range of styles with tradition in mind, and produce respectable results, despite our penchant for the excessive?