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The Year European Beer Lost Its Hold on America

A half-decade ago, European beer reigned supreme on top lists. Aaron Goldfarb on the moment that all ended, and why.

Chimay Belgian Beer

I still have the email from late 2008 in my archives: “A friend that now lives in Germany is coming back for the holidays, and told me he has an empty suitcase he is planning to fill with beer for me. He’s asked what I’d like… I told him Westy if he can somehow get it.”

He could. And in the summer of 2009, after months of planning, four dudes met in a midtown Manhattan hotel room to drink Beer Advocate’s then-No. 1 beer in the world, Westvleteren 12, aka “Westy,” alongside other highly regarded Belgian beers of the time, like Rochefort 10 and St. Bernardus Abt 12.

The notion seems comical these days. No one would beg a Europe-bound buddy to bring back Belgian beers—unless they were limited lambics like Cantillon—and a group of beer geeks would never meet in a Courtyard by Marriott to drink some quadrupels. But there was a time, just about a half-decade ago, when European beer still owned beer geek affections.

BeerAdvocate’s Top Beers on Planet Earth from August 28, 2010 lists four Belgians in its top 11, and 17 in its top 100. Only two of those were lambics; the rest were boozy tripels, quads and strong ales, including many beers that are now definitive shelf turds, like Chimay Grande Réserve and Westmalle Trappist Tripel. Additionally, that 2010 list includes four German beers, four English, two Danish and three Canadian.

Today, Westy 12 has plummeted to No. 19 on the Top Beers list, and there’s only three other non-lambic Belgian beers in the top 100. There are no German, English or Canadian beers. There is, however, a single Danish beer: Mikkeller Beer Geek Vanilla Shake (Bourbon Edition), a vanilla bean-infused coffee stout aged in bourbon barrels that is Americanized in both name and profile. It’s a perfect example of what happened as we entered the second decade of the new millennium—old-fashioned European beers very quickly became usurped by these sorts of extreme beers.

The ’90s and early aughts were about American beer locating flavor—any flavor—after decades of U.S. consumers subsisting on watery macro-swill. This often meant mimicking European styles, which you see in early industry successes like Boston Lager and Allagash White. But the evolving American beer palate began to push the limits of flavor as far as humanly possible, eschewing the simple four-ingredient beers that defined Reinheitsgebot Germany, CAMRA England and monk-brewing Belgium. At the same time, Europe was asleep at the wheel, refusing to buck its longstanding traditions and, in turn, hurting its standing in the American beer geek firmament. (Shockingly, in the if-you-can’t-beat-’em camp, 150-year-old Duvel just announced plans to release a bourbon barrel-aged variant, but it might be too little, too late.)

Why did this change happen in 2010, exactly? Though it’s difficult to point to one event specifically, a few keys things happened around this time. In May of 2010, Hill Farmstead opened in Greensboro Bend, Vermont, creating the model for producing small-batch, world-class beer that could only be acquired by traveling to far-flung lands (Hill Farmstead has a stunning 16 beers in today’s top 250). Just under a year later, in early 2011, The Alchemist (also located in Vermont) began canning Heady Topper, their state-of-the-art IPA; it soon became the new No. 1 beer in the world, dethroning the indomitable Westy. The most popular American beers went from new-world takes on old-world beers—put in European-style corked-and-caged bottles, no less—to pounder cans of hours-fresh IPA.

Finally, on December 12, 2012, Westvleteren 12 was released for the first time in America. People lined up at retailers in 21 states, but in many ways that release was already its death knell, the lines akin to visitors paying final respects to a dead dignitary lying in state.

I remember it well. I avoided the lines at Top Hops on the Lower East Side, as did most of my friends. And when I was eventually gifted a single bottle from that release, I didn’t call any one to meet up and drink the beer in quiet reverence. Instead, I spent the afternoon at a bar in Queens drinking a vertical of rare, adjunct-packed anniversary beers from Stone, a California brewery that had just begun filling up the top 100.

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