RICHMOND, Va. — Helping to quench a growing thirst for American craft beer overseas, some of the United States' largest craft breweries are setting up shop in Europe, challenging the very beers that inspired them on their home turfs.
It's the latest phenomenon in the flourishing craft beer industry, which got its start emulating the European brews that defined many of the beer styles people drink today. The move also marks a continuing departure from the status quo of mass-market lagers or stouts, demonstrating a willingness of American breweries to explore — and innovate — old-world beer styles from Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom.
The U.S. craft beer scene is so fresh and dynamic, Europeans are becoming as excited about it as Americans are, says Mike Hinkley, co-founder of Green Flash Brewing Co. in San Diego. "Even though they're used to all these amazing European beers, now there's just more variety."
U.S. craft beer exports grew sixfold during the past five years, jumping from about 46,000 barrels in 2009 to more than 282,500 barrels in 2013, worth an estimated $73 million, according to the Brewers Association, the Colorado-based trade group for the majority of the 3,000 brewing companies in the United States. Of course, it's still a fraction of overall production; U.S. craft brewers produced a total of 15.6 million barrels last year.
Just last week, Green Flash became the first U.S. craft brewery to begin making and selling fresh beer in the European market under a deal with Brasserie St-Feuillien, a Belgian brewery founded in 1873. Under the watchful eye of Green Flash brewmaster Chuck Silva, the brewery is making and selling fresh West Coast IPA for distribution in the U.K., Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Italy.
Meanwhile, 500 miles away in Berlin, Stone Brewing Co. of Escondido, Calif., is taking a different approach to meet overseas demand, spending about $25 million to renovate a historic gas works building into a brewery, packaging and distribution center, restaurant and garden set to open late next year or in early 2016. Stone, one of the 10 biggest craft breweries in the United States, will make beer for its bistro and distribution throughout Germany and Europe.
"The idea that we're going to go across the pond as it were to brew our style of beers fresh in Europe is an exciting prospect for us," said Stone CEO and co-founder Greg Koch, who announced the overseas expansion plans last weekend. "When we started out at Stone 18 years ago, we were inspired by a lot of the European brewers … and now to see an inspiration bounce back around the world, that's amazing."
The thirst for American craft beer hasn't always been there.
When the Brewers Association first gave presentations overseas about the American craft beer scene about 10 years ago, people would laugh aloud. They'd even quote a Monty Python skit comparing American beer to water.
"They're not laughing anymore," said Bob Pease, chief operating officer for the U.S. beer trade group. "The word is out now that the highest-quality beer, the most diverse beer, is coming from American craft brewers."