07 April 2017

Changing tides

Session logo"Imports" is our designated topic for The Session this month, set by our taskmaster Christopher at I Think About Beer. He asks a very specific question of us non-American participants: "How are American beers (imported into YOUR country) viewed? What is their place in your market?" and I think now is a particularly interesting time to answer it.

When I started taking a serious interest in beer, the speciality and niche end of the market in Ireland consisted almost entirely of British and Belgian imports. You'd get a few central and eastern European lagers and wheat beers bundled in with them, but Britain and Belgium was where it was at, on the off licence shelves, in the pub fridges and the tiny handful of online outlets.

I reviewed my first American beer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, in my fifth ever post in 2005. It didn't revolutionise my outlook on beer. Neither did the second, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, over a year later. It wasn't really until 2007 and the point where I joined in with Dublin's nascent beer geek and homebrew community that the significance of American beer came to my consciousness, and that centred on one beer: Goose Island IPA.

Goose Island was, by all accounts, the last word in hoppiness. It was strictly not to be touched until the end of a session as it would obliterate the palate and render all subsequent beers tasteless. From then on American beers, and American hops, were the focus of the beer discourse. There were more Sierra Nevadas to be consumed, including their since-retired IPA; there was Brooklyn, Anchor and Rogue for the non-lovers of hops, and Harpoon, Flying Dog and Great Divide for the growing number of drinkers who looked first for the letters "IPA" on the label.

And then the deluge. Younger importers began putting the American selection front and centre in their ranges, and draught American beers started to arrive. This was also just as the independent Irish scene began its first serious growth spurt and I noted with amusement when one distributor who had built an empire on sturdy traditional Belgian and English ales took one token brewery from each of America and Ireland: by 2012 you looked silly without them.

Availability has waxed and waned over the years. Great Divide and Dogfish Head were both missed when they stopped being available, but life went on. Things seem to be on a bit of an upswing at the moment, largely led by Grand Cru Beers who push their Californian and Coloradan brands heavily. It was Grand Cru who took the decision to drop Goose Island IPA from their portfolio, citing a decline in quality and tanking brand equity as the reason. Happily they still carry Founder's All Day IPA which I consider to be a perfectly adequate replacement.

While there always seems to be new American beer to try, there's also less reason to. That hoppy kick which was once the sole preserve of US imports can now be found in abundance in Irish and British beer. I'm not sure why anyone who fixates on freshness would even bother with something that's travelled across the Atlantic, refrigerated containers notwithstanding.

Maybe the imported Americans don't generate the same buzz as they used to, but the hand-transported rarities still do. Even non-whaley commodities like Pliny the Elder get reverentially Instagrammed when someone brings one back. I'm making my own contribution to the buzz around American suitcase beer with this bottle of Captain Lawrence Frost Monster imperial stout which I acquired in New York last September and which spent the winter in my attic. It was quite elderly when I got to it, bottled in late 2015 according to the printing on the neck. No ABV is stated but research tells me it's a stonking 12%.

It smells... rich. There's a decadent chocolate truffle sweetness in an aroma that whispers words like "luxury", "sumptuous" and "calorific". While the chocolate continues in the flavour, there's also a big bitter green hop whack, strangely fresh for a beer that's been sitting, sequentially, on a shelf in lower Manhattan and a floor in west Dublin. The silky truffle and the twangy veg perform a duet all the way down, with the chocolate a little bit louder but still balanced nicely. The alcohol provides percussion: a strong hot back beat, keeping the whole performance grounded, never losing sight of the fact that Big Strong Stout is what this one is all about. It's a superb rendition, exactly what is demanded of a beast of a beer like this.

One of my grievances with modern beer hype is that so much gets left behind, and for no good reason. I had never heard of this beer before I bought it, yet it's absolutely world class. For anyone considering standing in line outside an American brewery in the hope of bagging something special to show off with back home, check the local liquor store first: there might be something there that'll save you an hour or two.


  1. Sounds like a similar story in reverse over here! (Plus I've added "stonking" to my vocab list. Cheers.