Tuesday, May 8, 2012

(The Beer of) Small States in World Markets

In 1985, Cornell political scientist Peter Katzenstein wrote a book with an interesting argument. Katzenstein posited that small states, size referring to a measurement of a domestic economy, need open borders for trade due to small domestic markets and economies. One way to get open borders is to promote free trade. Of course, free trade also means that other countries, and their companies, will have access to the domestic markets of the smaller states, and odds are good, thanks to comparative advantage, that other states and their companies will be able to produce some goods and services more efficiently than the smaller states and their companies. To wit, a large company in a large country makes widgets more efficiently than a company in the smaller country. If these countries trade freely, the company in the smaller country may not survive. The larger company from the larger country will put it out of business. Katzenstein's central argument is that, given this, smaller states need robust social welfare safety nets, which commonly include robust unemployment benefits, health care, and free or low cost education, among others. Safety nets are needed because free trade under capitalism is inherently destabilizing. However, safety nets are expensive, which require not only high taxes, but also a grand bargain between labor, the state, and companies, with levels of economic cooperation and coordination that much of this audience (e.g., Americans) is not used to and suspicious of. This political and economic arrangement is called democratic corporatism, and if the above sounds somewhat familiar, it is because I have just described the oft-maligned social democracies of Europe; in particular, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the Scandinavian countries. And somehow, this brings us to craft beer.

If you have been following the rise of craft beer, you may have noticed an increasing international bent to tap and bottle lists, from breweries like Nogne O (Norway), Mikkeller (Denmark), De Molen (The Netherlands), and Baladin (Italy), among others. These breweries have created what Joe Stange terms a "postmodern, transnational craft beer scene," and they've done it in large part thanks to the principles that Katzenstein has written about. These, and other, breweries make beer for export markets, often collaborating with brewers from the US (Stillwater fits into this category as well), which is where the "trans-" suffix comes from. In order to get their beers noticed abroad, these brewers need to stand out, and by and large they have done so by making some unusual beers, with a healthy disrespect for traditional beer styles, or at least the styles dominant in the small domestic market.

For example, in 2009 Nogne O shipped 65% of its 8,000 barrels of beer to markets outside Norway, across twenty countries. In Washington, DC one can find a bottle of Nogne O for about $10. That same bottle will cost upwards of $20 in Norway, where it is made (source). Nogne O's founders explicitly looked to the US for guidance on craft beer trends, and looked down on what was available in Norway. It seems that Norwegians noticed good beer leaving their shores, because in 2011 only 25% of Nogne O's output was exported, a dramatic decrease (same source).

To make beer for export one must cater to the American beer geek, who, in turn, has rewarded these breweries. Danish brewery Mikkeller is perhaps most well-known for a coffee-infused stout, in which the coffee beans used first passed through the digestive system of a civet, a southeast Asian cat-like creature. In 2008, Ratebeer's predominantly American users ranked Belgium's de Struise, famed for a series of barrel-aged stouts, as the top brewery in the world.
The rejections of adjunct-addled domestic lagers and absences of strong craft brewing traditions have allowed for a robust culture of experimentation in many of these states. Knowing that one will not move a large amount of beer domestically has been a boon to brewers in countries like Italy, where Birra Del Borgo cannot sell many bottles of Dodici 25, a barleywine-style ale scented with orange peels, to a populace weened on wine and amaro.

Belgium, with a rich, perhaps the richest, tradition of brewing, and ethnic cleavages between French- and Dutch-speaking populations that have lead to something like ethnic democratic corporatism, albeit with limited success, is not exempt from this discussion, as newer breweries like de Struise and Alvinne make beer for the US market, perhaps at the expense of a sense of place, of terroir. "There are a couple brewers in Belgium who are making beer for Americans. We’re interested in Belgium, we’re interested in their traditions," [importer Don] Feinberg says. "There are certain flavors that are true to a type of culture, and if you don’t believe that, you’re one step away from making soda."
Great beers in any style can now be made in any place. But to the extent that they don’t come from their own soils and land and brewed with love for their own people, they can only offer flavor plus the facsimile of a cultural experience. And while there is a lot of talk about an emerging global culture, I don’t know what it tastes like. I want to have as real a relationship as I can with as real a culture. And I will continue to seek out and fight for the beers of Terroir that represent cultures I do know, understand and love (source). 
Yet as the Nogne O example above shows, we may be moving past this discussion of place. Norwegians who want good beer now have more Nogne O on the shelves. As Stan Hieronymus has pointed out, and apologies while I hunt for his exact words, with some time a De Molen saison may impart a sense of place on the person drinking it, creating a Dutch saison as opposed to copying a Belgian one.

The likely audience of this post, much like the beers discussed above, is American. Beer is being made for us. Good beer, at that. Be flattered, as the tastes of the American beer geek are exported as well. We live in interesting times.

Civet pic via Wikipedia.
Katzentstein's book cover from Google Books, linked above.

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