Looking Back Post #8: European Brewery of the Year

(This is the sixth and final post detailing what I found to be the breweries of the year for 2011 in various regions. Note that there is no science to the choices I have made, just my own highly subjective reasoning as detailed in each post. You can find my pick of the Brewery of the Year for Ontario here, Brewery of the Year for Canada here, U.S. Brewery of the Year here,  Latin American Brewery of the Year here and Australasian Brewery of the Year here.)

I had some tough decisions to make before arriving at my choice of European Brewery of the Year for 2011. First was, should I separate out the U.K. for its own Brewery of the Year award, as I did Ontario from Canada and Canada and the U.S. from North America? In my head, I made a good argument for so doing, since my experiences in Britain last year left me quite impressed and very optimistic about the future of brewing there. But then I stared down the prospect of also separating out the Benelux, Scandinavia and Germany-Austria, just for starters, and the whole thing grew rather daunting. So Europe alone it remains.

Next up, I had to decide whether to make my focus experimentation and innovation, of the type at which the Italians and the Danes, in particular, excel, or stick to the kind of solid, ultra-reliable brewing seen across Germany and amongst the old school breweries of Belgium. And should I reward persistence within undeveloped beer nations, taking me back to Italy and parts of Scandinavia, even a bit in France, or reliability and character within developed nations?

Ultimately, I swept all those questions aside and asked myself this: “What European brewery has had the most focused, forceful and practical presence both within their home market and beyond?”

My answer, and my choice of European Brewery of the Year, is Brouwerij de Molen of the Netherlands.

Yes, their beers are multitudinous, often fleeting and frequently next to impossible to find, but my experience has been that there are enough of them that something is usually available at the better beer shops in the Netherlands, and sometimes elsewhere, and even if it’s not precisely what you’re looking for, it’s usually pretty damn good anyway. And besides, how many European breweries have the tenacity and sheer brewing prowess to list on their website the beers they produce by national inspiration, ie: “Belgian-Style,” German-Style,” etc.?

But as good as the above reasons are, they are not why de Molen is receiving this particular nod. No, the reasoning behind this pick is rather the way in which De Molen has brought forward Dutch brewing, encouraging other breweries to shed their conservative ways and embrace the diversity of beer, and then introducing that emerging face of Dutch beer to the world via tireless travels to beer fests all over Europe. For that leadership, De Molen, I salute you, and recognize you as my choice for European Brewery of the Year.

16 Replies to “Looking Back Post #8: European Brewery of the Year”

  1. I can’t really complain about your choice, as I agree they produce some excellent beers. However, there are some other excellent small breweries here that are not necessarily appealing to the “beer geek” (the way de Molen does): perhaps the best is de Schans. But, in the last year or so, Emelisse has made some very nice beers (as well as some designed to appeal to the beer geek.

    Personally, I find it sad when breweries build their business model on beer geeks. In the US, where the trend started, microbreweries seem to have only about 4 percent market share and the beer geek share of that is probably much smaller. There is also something I have heard referred to as “palate drift”: as beers get more extreme, enjoyment of beers that once seemed good, disappears because the flavours now seem dull in comparison with the latest extreme beers. As one can imagine, this can be a never-ending process.

  2. The USA is far from being a homogeneous market when it comes to beer, Mike. Yes, the nationwide average for “micro” or “craft” beer is around 5% In the Pacific Northwest, particularly the cities of Portland, OR, and Seattle, WA, the market share is higher; statewide, craft beer is at around 11% in OR and WA, and in Portland and Seattle, market shares are more than double that. When it comes to draught and on-premises consumption, craft beer is as much as 30% in the major metro areas.

    Craft beer is also the only segment of the market enjoying growth in the USA, and that is true, in general, for much of the modern western world (North America and western Europe). And 30 years ago, craft beer’s share of the market was imperceptibly small, not even 1%. May the trend continue!

    And yes, the phenomenon of “big” beers hogging the limelight and glory, and drawing attention from the “session” brews, is a somewhat unfortunate side-effect of the craft-brewing phenomenon. Still, I’m happy to have a range of good session beers on offer in my neck of the woods.

  3. Don, in my view, beer is like a pair of shoes: one size does NOT fit all. I, for example, like well-balanced, moderate beers. Beer geeks do not.

    The world of beer (where have I heard that before?), it seems to me, is more divided today than at any other time I’ve seen. On the one hand, there are the geeks who swear by extreme beers, OTOH, you’ve got the vast majority who either prefer some variation of industrial product or are perfectly content with the middle-range of beers (those that sit between industrial and extreme).

    If you have any evidence that the industrial beer crowd is moving over to extreme beers, I’d be very interested in seeing that. However, while I haven’t seen the opposite, I have seen at least one beer geek who seems to have given up on extreme beers.

    I don’t use the phrase “craft beer” because that’s a decision I prefer to make myself. And, having said that, there are any number of beers I would say were well-crafted, yet would violate some other “rule” in the definition established by the US Brewers Association.

    Having said that, I challenge you on your statement: “Craft beer is also the only segment of the market enjoying growth in the USA, and that is true, in general, for much of the modern western world (North America and western Europe).”

    If, for no other reason, outside the US and other English-speaking countries, the phrase is not used.

  4. A couple of things, Mike. First, you seem to think that brewing is an either/or situation today, with which I would have to disagree. Some of the biggest proponents of so-called “extreme” beers — a term I prefer not to use, BTW — are also makers of balanced, quite quaffable ordinary ales and lagers. The big brews are there to draw attention to the little ones, a strategy Boston Beer pioneered and which has worked very well for a large number of breweries.

    Further, beer drinkers need not be either/or. It is perfectly reasonable to enjoy the occasional monster ale while also delighting in a kolsch or pilsner, and even among the kind of fans who would line up on Dark Lord Day that’s the norm rather than the exception. Wine drinkers who appreciate burly zins as well as soft roses and rieslings, whisky drinkers who can appreciate a Lowland malt as much as an Ardbeg, gin drinkers who like a Sipsmith or Botanist as much as a Plymouth, etc. You get the point.

    And yes, Don is right, the only beer sales growth occurring these days in the western world is in the micro or craft or artisanal or whatever name you wish to give to characterful, small- or regional-sized brewery products. That includes the Champion Beer of Britain of 2009 — a mild with a distinct note of American hop in its flavour profile — a high-strength and barrel-aged Imperial stout from California, and the beer that caught my attention at last year’s GBBF and contributed to my choice of De Molen as my European Brewery of the Year, a 4.5%, Brett-accented best bitter.

    1. Gentlemen, if I gave the impression that I believe the world of beer is divided into two opposing camps, I apologise, because I think it is more complex than that. Nevertheless, I do stand by the statement that beer is now very divided among the various interests.

      While I don’t claim to have a lot of knowledge about American beers, I am very familiar with the actual practice (and enjoyment) of drinking beer in the Benelux and Germany.

      I do know the European versions of the Brewers Association and I do not know a single one that divides the annual sales by the size or quality of the breweries. Therefore, I find it odd that you (plural) think otherwise.

      While I do agree, Stephen, that there is crossover in what is drunk between the various camps, I believe that the crossovers are a separate group.

      Most people, I believe, stick with their preferred drink, but another group is more flexible and will drink either type. My brother-in-law, a Belgian, is a good example of this. He drinks mostly industrial beer (he does live in France, which is kind of an excuse), but when the occasion presents itself, he’ll drink a quality beer. I had lunch with him and his father, a retired civil servant, at In ‘t Spinnekopke in Brussels many years ago, and, as I recall, we all had a geuze or lambik.

      As I’m sure you all know, one of the largest non-industrial breweries in Belgium is Moortgat. How many extreme or “American-style” beers do they make? What about in Germany?

      While I agree that there are examples all over Europe of breweries making geek beer or beer for the American market, if you think that this is changing how people drink in Europe, I think you are mistaken.

      1. I don’t think I’m mistaken about how people drink in Europe, because Europe is even less homogeneous in styles and trends than the USA. Apropos, for instance, from a publication with which Stephen is quite familiar:

        And then there’s Italy:

        If there isn’t an official Brewers-Association-like breakout of these segments, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and these brewers are bound to affect how people drink in their home territories. Given that these are newer specialty-beer trends, that won’t be noticed by many of us for several years to come. What we’re seeing now in the USA is the product of 30+ years of development, and it’s still on-going.

        Even in Germany, easily the most hidebound of the great brewing countries, there are subtle changes going on. The likes of Cologne’s Braustelle, Munich’s CREW AleWerkstatt, and Truchtlaching’s Camba Bavaria may not be big players on anyone’s radar, but then, neither were the first of the American new-breed revivalist brewers three decades ago. Big (“extreme!”) beer? Look no farther than Germany’s Schorschbräu, merrily doing the crazy-strongest-beer-in-the-world tango with Scotland’s Brewdog.

        And in Belgium: Alvinne. For starters.

        Are any of these making immediate changes to the overall patterns in their respective markets. No. But then, that depends on too many other factors, doesn’t it? After all, pale Pilsner-style lager didn’t take off overnight either … right?

    1. Mike, I drink the world over on a regular basis and base my views on my experiences plus a considerable amount of research into various markets. You have a hate on for the term “craft.” Fair enough. I have a definition forthcoming in my and Tim Webb’s World Atlas of Beer with which I’m quite happy. I’ll leave that issue until then. (And as an aside, how, pray, are the family-brewery organizations in Belgium and the U.K. any more arbitrary in their standards than an association that bases admittance on brewery size?)

      The way people drink beer in Europe IS changing, just not so much in Germany and the Benelux. Italy, France and the Scandinavian states are good examples, as is, in a very small way, Spain. Small breweries throughout these nations could not exist were it otherwise.

      So-called “extreme” beers are big in the States and, to a lesser degree, Canada, I’ll grant, but even where they are at the absolute height of their popularity, their sales pale beside those of craft, sorry, “microbrewery” beers of conventional style and strength. You seem to believe otherwise, but I’ll tell you without doubt that you’re mistaken in this regard.

      As aficionados, we — bloggers, advocates, raters, commentators — run the risk of viewing the market with myopia rather than seeing the greater reality. Most beer drinkers outside of the Benelux, perhaps even within, still view an 8.5% strong golden ale as something bizarre and, dare I say it?, extreme. Which, you must admit, when beside a Jupiler, it still very much is.

      1. Stephen, I think you are going a little too far. Hate is an emotion. I don’t feel any emotion about the term “craft beer.” Intellectually, however, I think it is inappropriate. I thought that homosexuals choosing to be called gay was also inappropriate – after all, how many homosexuals do you know who are gay (in the original sense of the word)? By the same token, how many “craft beers” are made with craft? Certainly, in at least the latter case, there are neutral terms that could have been used.

        Although I am not as smitten by Michael Jackson as beer geeks, I was very taken by his map of Europe: start in Ireland, head southeast to Britain, continue in the same direction through the Benelux and Germany until you reach Austria and the Czech Republic. That, he said, was the beer belt. To the west was wine and to the east was strong drink.

        Italy, France and Spain are wine countries. Yes, there are breweries there, but they are unlikely to change the culture of their countries. Scandinavia is part of the strong drink belt – vodka, aquavit, etc. There too, beer is unlikely to change local culture very much, although there are some fine breweries in Scandinavia.

        I have never said nor ever believed that extreme beers were anything more than their name suggested – both in terms of composition and market position. I find it strange that you think I believe otherwise when I have only written the same here.

        There is certainly a fascination with shiny new things, especially among the young. I see that in the electronics/gadget field a lot. I also see it in the beer industry and just as 3D HDTVs will soon be filling up attics and garages, I’m hopeful that bottles of double IPAs and pumpkin pie beers will be lying, unopened nearby.

  5. Don, unfortunately, your last post is missing a reply button (conspiracy?), so I’ll reply here.

    I think we’d probably both agree that the Internet has made possible the distribution of information on an unprecedented and massive scale. However, with so much information available, how do we choose which to read?

    Like you (I suspect), I am also interested in travel. What I see, generally, is a preference for someone of the same nationality as the information seeker.

    There are, as you know, a number of Americans who live in Europe and are interested in beer. As, I hope, you will agree, they are clearly sensitive to developments of interest to Americans. At least some also still miss the sorts of beer they drank when they lived in the US.

    To be clear: I do not believe this is unique to Americans. I don’t doubt that Belgians living in Germany, for example, miss many of the beers they could easily get at home.

    I think some of the “trends” you see in Europe are the result of that sort of thinking.

    1. No conspiracy, Mike. The ‘reply’ button disappears after two replies to the original comment.

      I take your point about expats, but find it very hard to believe that they exist in sufficient quantities as to influence the kind of trends Don mentions. Perhaps — and even this would be a stretch IMO — they have sufficient numbers in certain cities to support a single bar or restaurant, but to even influence a tiny speck of a trend? I doubt it very much.

      1. Thanks, Stephen, glad to hear there’s no conspiracy 😉

        About the expats: it’s not the number, it’s how they spread the information. Since Don put up the link to an article by Evan Rail (who, btw, I’ve met and is a very nice guy), he writes a blog, participates in other blogs, writes numerous articles that appear in various English-language publications, etc.

        There is another expat, who I won’t identify by name (no conspiracy, just no point), and who participates in a forum about the country where he lives. The forum is based in the US and most of the users are American or Brits. Since the forum is about the country where he lives, he has quite a bit of influence on people who come to the forum for advice.

        And finally, there are a substantial numbers of food bloggers here in Amsterdam and I wouldn’t be surprised if more were non-Dutch than Dutch. Here’s one example: http://vegetarianduck.blogspot.com/
        Here’s another: http://www.dutchgrub.com/

        On US-based food forums (such as Chowhound), the latter blogger is generally considered THE expert source on eating in Amsterdam.

        As I wrote above, Americans (and perhaps other nationalities as well) generally seem to value information higher if it comes from a fellow-American source. I’ve actually seen instances when, on a travel site, a local person will supply an answer to a question, then immediately below him or her, an American supplies the same information and the OP then thanks the American and ignores the foreigner who posted first!

        Sorry if I’ve gotten a bit off-topic.

  6. Whoops, it looks like I got even more off-topic than I thought. Stephen, regarding your point: yes, you are correct that it’s very unlikely that expats will influence what a brewery or brewpub makes. The point I was making is that it is the expats who bring them to your attention, which is, in many cases why these breweries come into being.

    In Belgium, de Struise was started with the American market in mind. Their early beers were almost impossible to find in the Benelux. The company originally consisted of two brothers-in-law who ran a holiday camp. Neither one knew anything about brewing. Through a friend, they found a third guy who was a wine salesman (they thought he knew something about brewing, which demonstrates how little they knew). Anyhow, they were remarkably successful with several beers that they had contract brewed, bottled and shipped off to the US.

    Alvinne, started by two brothers located not far from de Struise, watched these guys with no brewing experience whatever being lauded on the beer fan sites and, decided to join the fun. Alvinne, de Struise and to lesser degree, de Molen all have their eye on the US market and all produce product designed for that market. Unlike de Struise, Alvinne and de Molen have always distributed in the Benelux.

    I’m sure de Struise was not the first or only company set up to produce products primarily for the US market.

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