In any classic tale of a hero's journey, there's often a cliché moment where the student becomes the master. Through some amount of trial and hardship, the upstart realizes their potential and becomes a new leader in the process.
It's an ages-old scenario analyzed by academics and pop culture alike, told through books, TV shows, and movies, but it's also found at the core of entrepreneurship and capitalism. Industry and business are driven by new ideas and the innovation that comes with them, whether it's about making cars or beer.
Not long ago, it would’ve seemed foolish to declare such statements about America's place in the realm of beer globally, but here we are, with beer rating platforms and news outlets from the Daily Beast to GQ to CNN declaring assertively: the U.S. isn't just at the top of the class when it comes to beer—it's teaching it.
America's ascendance to educator isn't as figurative as an analogy may seem. It's now quite literal. From all over the world, brewers and brewery owners see the U.S. as a proving ground of sorts. Escaping centuries of tradition, foreign beer makers are using time in America to get ahead of the curve back home.
Melissa Cole, a London-based journalist and beer judge (and, full disclosure, recent GBH contributor), says that's because the inquisitive and adventurous approach seen as a core value of American brewing has been a catalyst for how brewers around the world think about the process, too.
“It has stopped a lot of obscure beer styles from disappearing completely and, in some cases, reinvigorated local or regional production of them, which is brilliant,” Cole says. “It's also made people wake up and ask more questions, to push the boundaries of received wisdom, to stop just saying, 'Because it's always been done like that,' but ask, ‘Why has it always been done like that?’ and, ‘Is that really the best way for it to be done?’”
“Being in the States set my expectation levels of beer so high,” Theo Freyne, owner and brewer at Cheltenham, England's Deya Brewing, tells GBH. Freyne interned at Odell Brewing Co. in 2014.
“Drinking Odell or Firestone Walker or Russian River, whatever I could get my hands on, those are brewers I'd consider a level above of what was going on in the UK. [They] changed my idea of what attention to detail and attention to quality can do for a beer.”
Attending college at University of Edinburgh to study history, Freyne's extracurricular hobby of homebrewing during his final year stole his attention, and he was an eager student. After spending just three weeks during his final year interning at Theakstons Brewing Co. in Yorkshire, washing casks and shadowing brewers through production was enough to convince him that his dream was to get into the beer industry.
He had read books by Sam Calagione and John Palmer. He drank Sierra Nevada and Oskar Blues whenever he found them. And when his girlfriend returned from a trip to the U.S. with Dogfish Head 60 Minute and 90 Minute IPAs and Cigar City Jai Alai IPA, he determined that a future path had to run through what he saw as the most progressive beer culture in the world.
His dad always extolled the virtues of cask ale, but “I just wanted to drink American beer,” Freyne says. His generational shift wasn’t just about a rebellious youngster thumbing his nose at established history as much as it was about new understandings and expectations for a drinker coming into his own.
It’s easy to understand why. A stereotypical, American “devil may care” attitude drew him in. And when compared to the history and rigidity of beer culture back home, Freyne saw a new breadth of processes and application for beer making and consumption. He looked at the U.S. and saw brewers with flexibility to mix art and science as they please, creating new expectations in the process. He calls the liquid outcome of this by a fitting moniker: “taking-a-risk” beers.
It’s all also been an important inspiration, personally and for his business. In the roughly three months he spent in the U.S. interning as a “guest brewer” at Odell, Freyne spent time doing a variety of tasks, including brewing and sensory analysis, helping him to learn about different and efficient ways of using hops and other ingredients that weren’t commonly taking place back home. In Yakima, Freyne joined a group overseeing hop pelletizing and rubbed freshly kilned Chinook and Citra, his first kind of up-close exposure to the American varieties that are changing the world’s expectations for hop-forward beer.
Exposure to marketing and customer interaction convinced him to focus on a taproom model, an invaluable business tool for American breweries. Deya embraced it immediately upon opening, and the brewery now sells 16-ounce cans and growlers to go.
“If I had done a year at Thornbridge or BrewDog, I think it would’ve made me a better brewer,” Freyne says, “But when I went to Odell and saw their scale and process, I realized this is how you get to that next level.”
Lessons in the States—from brewing processes to hop selection and trying beers from Vermont stalwarts like Alchemist and Hill Farmstead—proved to be more influential than internships and stints at other breweries in the UK. Those offered practical experience, but nothing like the mindshift offered Stateside. During a stop in Vermont, a tour of Hill Farmstead with founder Shaun Hill helped shift Freyne’s thinking on how to best create aromatics in his hoppy beers.
When Deya first started as a contract brewery in 2015 and Freyne was having a hard time selling a 5.2% ABV, hoppy, American Pale Ale, he had already seen the future of where tastes were headed. Now, he says, Deya is recognized as one of the trendsetters in hop-forward beers in the UK.
“As a young brewer, I grew up almost fetishizing American craft beer culture,” Freyne says. “But it was a big thing to influence where I am now.”
Considering who Bert van Hecke credits with helping him start his journey in the brewing industry, it only makes sense his career has shared a focus on beer in the U.S. and abroad. As a 22-year-old interning at Rodenbach, one of his home country’s most well-known breweries, he heard about a brewmaster who left to work in America for a business called New Belgium.
“I really wanted to to go the States because everyone kept talking about American beer, and if you only stay on one side of the hill, you don’t know how green it can be on the other side,” van Hecke says. “So I contacted Peter Bouckaert.”
That was in 2004, eight years after Bouckaert relocated to the U.S. to take the role of brewmaster for the American brewery. Van Hecke had been homebrewing since he was 17, which gave him experience to land internships at Rodenbach and Orval, leading him to New Belgium and the U.S. The connection via Bouckaert wound up changing van Hecke’s idea of what American beer—and beer in general—could be, and would influence his approach to beer across nine other brewery positions and projects, including the launch of his own, BOM Brewery, in Belgium.
“A lot of brewing schools wouldn’t accept that they were making good beer in the States,” he says. “But when I got there, I met new hops we didn’t have in Belgium and I saw new specialty malts. I was proud of Belgian brewing history, but I didn’t want to go for the trap of only using typical Belgian ingredients. I thought, ‘One day Americans will be making beer at least as great as the beers in Belgium.”
In Colorado, van Hecke helped with the optimization of New Belgium’s filtration system and assembled foeders for the brewery’s then-new Transatlantique Kriek project. All the while, he saw his exposure to American brewing processes and use of ingredients as ways to potentially influence his own work down the line.
After his time at New Belgium, van Hecke acted as a judge for the 2006 World Beer Cup in Seattle. He can’t remember his categories (he’s been a judge in six of the competitions since), but specifically recalls the vibe among brewers as particularly influential, as professionals openly shared information about their breweries, processes, and experiments.
In a completely fundamental way, van Hecke’s expectation of beer changed. He gained a taste for American hops, wanted to better understand malts, and learned to love yeast that let the two shine instead of adding its own estery flavor. It’s all had a direct impact on his own brewery.
“I became less afraid to use new types of ingredients which are not typical in Belgian brewing,” van Hecke says of his exposure to American brewing processes and recipes. “Three years ago, I brewed a blueberry raisin bread beer, and if I had never been to the States, I probably wouldn’t have done that. I was challenged by American beer, and that’s helped me sell to a whole new generation of people.”
Van Hecke singles out young drinkers specifically as a demographic his beers can attract because of their increasingly adventurous tastes and global experiences that stray from more traditional Belgian drinking habits. IPAs are “making the most noise” among enthusiasts, he notes, so his adoption of American ideas has only benefited him and his brewery.
“Sometimes when you travel, you’re shocked by what you find,” van Hecke says. “Every time I travel to the States, I get back to Belgium and feel the American drive to not stop, keep moving, and go for something exciting.”
Earlier this year, van Hecke oversaw the design and construction of the re-opened Celis Brewery in Austin, Texas, but the partnership presented a new opportunity. Van Hecke will produce Americanized versions of his already American-influenced beers at Celis, finding ways to potentially add more hop flavor to beers that will be served fresher to a new audience. In a fitting buck of tradition held in his home country, he’ll also can some of his beers brewed in the U.S.
“I think like a Belgian brewer, but I’m very influenced from what Americans have taught me,” he says.
As a child growing up in Jordan, Yazan Karadsheh visited uncles, aunts, and cousins in California during his school’s summer breaks. It wasn’t until he ended up at University of Colorado-Boulder for college—about 70 miles south of an older brother attending Colorado State University—that he had his first extended stay in the country.
In 2006 he was set to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering and accepted a job from Haliburton to oversee oilfield work in Wyoming. Fate would suggest a different long term goal.
“I remember going out with a friend to a Barnes and Noble and I’m bumming around the aisles before I sit down and there’s a World Atlas of Beer book on a nearby table,” Karadsheh says. “Every country had its own beer, except Jordan had a franchise brewery out of Amsterdam.”
The book stayed front of mind while he never mounted much passion for his job. After just two months he quit and went back to Colorado to work at Boulder’s What’s Brewin’ homebrew store and prepare to enter the master brewers program at University of California-Davis at the suggestion of a customer who knew the industry well—Charlie Papazian.
A five-month curriculum led to stints with C.B. & Potts Restaurant and Brewery and Upslope Brewing, where he created a Dunkelweizen recipe that would go on to win a bronze in the German-Style Wheat Ale category at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival. Within two years, Karadsheh had gone from electrical engineer to ambitions for his own brewery—in Jordan.
Starting a business is an objective sign of ambition for any entrepreneur, but to bring American brewing culture to a country where the majority of its population doesn’t consume alcohol due to religious beliefs is something else altogether. According to the latest data reported by the World Health Organization, around 93% of the population 15-years-old and up abstain from alcohol.
Still, with investment from his family, Karadsheh established Carakale Brewing in 2010 and opened in Fuhays, just outside the country’s capital of Amman, in 2013.
“I originally wanted to start our first brew as a Pale Ale, and thank god I didn’t,” he says. “I was going to open a book at the end chapter for people who didn’t understand the story. I had to warm up the local market before going all Willy Wonka on them.”
In the last three years, Karadsheh’s intentions haven’t changed: he wants to build a “craft” culture when it comes to beer. With his Blonde Ale as a flagship representing 70% of sales in Jordan, he’s making slow inroads.
An English-style Pale Ale is another 20% of sales with the rest coming from seasonals, limited releases, and one-offs that previously would have never had a place in Jordan. A Kristelweizen, an Imperial Red Ale with dates, a Baltic Porter with coffee and cardamom, and even an IPA made with Cascade hops from Yakima, Washington (along with homegrown Centennial, Citra, Simcoe, and Halletrau Blanc) have been on Carakale’s tap list. Last fall, in a collaboration with Arizona Wilderness Brewing, Carakale released a Gose-style ale with Jordanian Grapefruit, coriander, and salt harvested from the Dead Sea. All rather aspirational for the fact there still isn’t a true translation of “microbrewery” in Arabic. In Carakale’s first full year, Karadsheh sold just more than 400 barrels. By the end of 2017, he sold about 3,000 with a jump of about another 1,000 for 2018.
Carakale’s distribution relies heavily on its Blonde Ale and Pale Ale, shipped to about 600 locations in Jordan, which Karadsheh estimates is 95% of the places where alcohol is sold in the country. That’s helped push curious drinkers to the brewery’s taproom, where they can choose from six brands each Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night.
“Everything that deals with brewing, recipe formulation, and engineering was learned during my time in California and Colorado,” Karadsheh says. “That’s helped slowly push the boundaries of beer in Jordan.”
Built on a reputation for hoppy and hazy IPAs, Manchester’s Cloudwater Brewing Co. has accrued a following in the U.S., made possible by an odd, yet fitting, circle. Inspired by what he found in America, Cloudwater co-founder and managing director Paul Jones has used the style to attract a growing collection of beer-focused Anglophiles. He looks to America for what will set trends, and Americans look back, insatiable for what’s next. (Spoiler alert: it's usually more IPA.)
What’s helped to set Cloudwater apart at home is that UK natives are just as excited at the same prospect. Jones says his visits to the U.S. act as glimpses into the possible future of UK beer culture.
“I cannot think of a single opportunity in Europe for me to meet with CEOs, presidents, founders, head brewers, and other senior members of staff from breweries that are lighting up the scene like I can when I go to events and festivals in the States,” he says. “I visit the States and catch up with 10, 15, 20 people that are doing some really good shit, have really good conversations about managing a growing team, finances, you name it. These are the experiences that are invaluable to me.”
In 2018, he’s not only making trips on his own to the U.S. for events and collaborations, but plans to expand the number of Cloudwater staff who come with him as a way to increase exposure to the ideas, processes, and products that are shaping the way brewers are thinking about beer around the world.
Among the things that continually catch Jones’ eye is the rapidly-changing retail structure, shifting toward own-premise sales at taprooms. On the technical side, he’s used visits for the annual Craft Brewers Conference to learn about hop use and gain perspective from peers excelling at the creation of New England IPAs. The Veil, Other Half, Monkish, and Trillium have all acted as mentors.
“Offering us advice and insights into how they work has been really helpful,” Jones says.
It’s the perfect storybook narrative for the U.S., which is still in its relative youth compared to European countries when it comes to beer. America once looked outward for inspiration, but now the interested glances are coming right back. It's a reciprocation long coming, proving liquid expertise from the student-turned-master.
From around 2000 until a few years ago, Jones says UK beer enthusiasts built many new experiences around U.S.-made beer. It’s just recently that enough homegrown options became available to pull some of that attention back home.
“But it still can be a very American-looking audience,” Jones admits. “They look to the States for quality and buzz, and the States seem to carry incredible value in ideas, even as physically disconnected as we are. So, from the point of view of doing right by my customers, of course I’m going to look everywhere I think will offer a positive learning experience to progress our quality of beer.”
A small chuckle emerges as he finishes his thought.
“Looking to a beer Mecca is important.”