From the independent Italian homebrewing scene to South American tonka bean and mushroom brews, Canadian beer writer Stephen has seen it all, or at least 99 per cent of it.
He’s been called “one of his generation’s greatest beer writers”, travelling the world drinking beer and collecting knowledge about the industry globally, co-authoring Will Travel for Beer, a cross between a travel guide and tasting notes, as well as The World Atlas of Beer, The Pocket Beer Book/Best Beers, and the Beer & Food Companion.
Beaumont will be speaking at the IBA’s BrewCon this year about the influence of the United States in brewing industries across the world, in a Clash-inspired presentation dubbed “I’m so bored with the USA”.
He told Brews News that while ‘beer culture’ might be an ephemeral concept, it is possible for a highly individualistic brewing culture to develop in any country, – without it being a carbon copy of the successful and mature US brewing scene.
“[It’s] kind of like the old “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it” line people say about art.
“Principally, for me, it’s when the local small-scale brewers have the confidence to chart their own path, rather than following the example of some other country, and beer drinkers begin to respond to that initiative with enthusiasm and national pride.
“Along with brewer skill, consistency of quality and legislative allowances, it’s one of the bases upon which a strong craft beer scene is built.”
He identified Latin American countries such as Ecuador as some of the unexpected standouts in worldwide brewing, telling Matt Kirkegaard on Radio Brews News that one of the best beers he’d had was a tonka bean and mushroom imperial stout from the region.
Beaumont explained that creating a unique and country-specific beer culture was about getting past the American hegemony in craft beer, using non-traditional ingredients and moving away from trendy US styles, or developing styles unique to the region.
In Australia (which he called an ‘adolescent’ beer culture in that it was not as mature as the US and still has room to grow) he said it is now the perfect time to break out on our own and create a culture that is unique to the place where we live.
While there’s an obvious duopoly in the Australian beer market, it’s actually comparable, and in fact much improved compared to other countries across the world, Beaumont said.
“In most of Latin America the big multinationals own market share percentages in the high 90s!
“In Canada, precise market share numbers are hard to come by and vary from province to province – I hear that British Columbia is almost 30% craft now, for instance – but overall they’re not far from the Australian situation.”
While the big breweries still hold sway over a lot of the world’s beer markets, he predicted that this might not always be the case.
“If you look at the financial fortunes of the multinational brewers, they’re not exactly rosy right now.
“This is a result of acquisition mania – Anheuser-Busch InBev is carrying about $100 billion in debt right now, for instance – and the declining sales and value of their core brands.
“I don’t expect this to reverse any time soon, so there is still plenty of room for craft to continue to expand around the world,” he said.
Having a major brewer control a majority of the market doesn’t necessarily mean craft beer creativity will be stifled, but one thing that the major breweries in Australia and the rest of the world have become obsessed with as people drink less alcohol is ‘premiumisation’ as they attempt to reverse their fortunes.
Craft beer has traditionally been considered premium, said Beaumont, and it’s a bit of a cynical attempt by big conglomerates to monetise what craft brewers were already doing.
“I hate that word. ‘Premiumisation” is simply the corporate way of stating what craft brewers have always said: “Drink less, drink better.”
“It’s what most of the western world – and a decent amount of the east – is doing these days, and it’s why craft is growing and the legacy brands of the big breweries are failing,” he explained.
Creativity in the brewing industry
Having been all over the world drinking all types, flavours and styles of beer and immersing himself in local brewing culture has allowed Beaumont to experience the best, and some of the more objectionable trends in beer.
“I don’t know if it’s really the “worst” trend, but I worry about the infantilisation of beer, with so-called ‘milkshake’ IPAs tasting more like fruit smoothies than ales and pastry stouts evoking the idea of sugary, liquefied desserts.
“Beer is an adult beverage, and just like I’m against hyper-sweet alcoholic sodas, I worry about these beers drawing an audience from people still far too young to be responsible about their consumption of alcohol.
“The best trend is easy, and oddly overlaps my previous point, and it’s creativity. I love that brewers are out there pushing the envelope, developing whole new beer styles and reimagining existing ones. For every milkshake IPA trend, there’s a Brazilian Catharina sour, an Italian grape ale and a Mexican Imperial stout!”
This creativity is something that the industry in Australia has been grappling with, not just with beer styles, but even when it comes to advertising and packaging.
“While I’m reluctant to make this parallel, it’s sort of like the difference between art and obscenity – everyone has their own idea of where one stops and the other starts.
“I think it’s pretty universally understood now that the objectification of women needs to stop, period, not just on beer labels and in advertising, but throughout society.
“Yet what is objectification to some, a Vargas print, for example, is a celebration of beauty to others. So while some of the more egregious instances of sexism and exploitation are pretty obvious to all, others exist more on a thin line.
“The label for Cantillon Rosé de Gambrinus is a great example of one that’s on that line – in the 90s, when the US feds demanded that a dress be painted on the woman, the beer community as a whole thought the idea outrageous, yet now I see it held up as an example of what is bad in beer labelling.”
It is a fine line to walk and one that craft brewers should be wary of as the industry grows and becomes more mainstream, with all the requisite responsibilities and obligations that come with this growth.
The industry also has a responsibility to stay true to its roots, said Beaumont.
“The key for craft will be not to shoot itself in the foot by buying into flash-in-the-pan trends that don’t align with the core values of flavour and quality upon which the industry has traditionally been based.
“If craft breweries in the United States start producing alcoholic seltzers en masse, for instance, they risk eroding their reason for being and becoming just like the major brewery forces they have long opposed.
“What’s the beer consumer to think if and when that happens?”