At the former Marienpark gasworks, re-opened as Stone Brewing’s Berlin stronghold in 2016, a gentle buzz of contentment fills the room. It’s a Wednesday evening and the cavernous space is filling up with young people, old people, families, and workmates, sipping American-style craft beer, munching wings and burgers, and toe-tapping to beige Anglo-American pop, interrupted only by the klunk klunk klunk of a high-spirited game of duckpin bowling going on in the corner.
It’s much as Stone founder Greg Koch would have imagined it, except for one thing. On the wall, in huge letters, reads “Geboren in Schottland. In Deutschland Gebraut” — Born in Scotland. Brewed in Germany.
Yes, Stone’s Berlin base — envisaged as an audacious attempt to capture the German capital for America’s craft-beer revolution — has, since 2019, been owned by BrewDog.
California-founded Stone’s failure in Europe is symbolic of a wider issue. Craft beer has made a huge splash across the Atlantic, but American breweries, for the most part, have not prospered as they might have expected — and things don’t appear to be getting better. Extrapolating from Brewers Association (BA) figures published by the organization and in Forbes, the overall craft beer volume exported to Europe declined from 78,994 barrels in 2021 to 63,755 in 2022.
The reasons for this are complex, but they get to the heart of Europe’s beer market and the limitations of American craft breweries in a place where their economic power has rarely matched their cultural cachet.
The irony of BrewDog stepping into Stone’s shoes won’t be lost on anyone who has seen how the Scottish brewery has historically aped San Diego’s loudest beermakers, in the process pulling off the most audacious Transatlantic cultural heist since The Rolling Stones took Chuck Berry’s riffs and added a touch of South London swagger.
But it’s not just Stone whose lunch has been wolfed down by the voracious Scots. It’s all American craft breweries. For many Europeans, BrewDog is American craft beer. The brand brews the beers, runs the bars (from Aberdeen to Amsterdam, Brighton to Bologna), and defines the attitude — and when they don’t, others of similar mind, like Brussels Beer Project, fill the gap.
That’s not all. In the past decade, modern European brewing has absorbed key lessons from the U.S. — notably a passion for American hops, of which 7,652 metric tons were imported in 2021, an increase of 11 percent year-on-year. “When we started eight years ago, American breweries were very important,” says Constant de Germay of French distributor/importer Guru Beer. “They were the standard and we didn’t have any breweries of that level in France. Today, Europe has massively raised its level.”
These breweries have Europeanized American craft beer, rectifying perhaps the key flaw of Stone’s Berlin project, which refused to meet lager-loving Germany half way. “It was too strict,” says Thomas Tyrell, who was head brewer at Stone Berlin. “It was too focused on IPAs and other styles popular in America. The German market was not ready at that point.” (Tellingly, BrewDog Berlin offers a host of German lagers alongside IPAs and the rest).
When European craft beer was young, drinkers lusted after American products and were prepared to pay a premium to enjoy them. Now that European breweries have upped their game, they’re no longer so keen — and the imperious dollar makes American beer an even harder sell.
“Our customers want interesting, different, diverse beers. American beer plays a big part in that.”
Nigel Owen runs Mother Kelly’s, a group of craft beer bars and bottle shops in London. In the past he’s imported American craft beer, such as Barrier Brewing from New York, but no longer. Prices are too high. For a 30-liter keg of 4 to 5 percent ABV pale ale from a London brewery, he’d expect to pay between $120 and $145; an equivalent American beer would be closer to $180 or $195 — and, crucially, would be less fresh.
It’s not just the U.K., where Brexit has added an extra layer of economic gloom. At Malt Attacks, a bottle shop in Brussels, Belgium, owner Antoine Pierson no longer stocks much American beer, he says, because the price makes it very hard to sell.
Some brewers have found a route around this: brew in Europe. Stone tried and failed on its own terms, but others have climbed into bed with Europe’s brewing aristocracy, thereby forgoing their right to be called “craft.” Founders’ All Day IPA is stocked in Spanish supermarkets because Mahou San Miguel bought the Michigan brewery in 2019; and Brooklyn is a big deal in Britain, where it appears in TV ads and was official beer of the Glastonbury Festival this year, because Carlsberg owns the brand rights in Europe. (Carlsberg refused to comment for this article).
It’s a source of frustration for the Brewers Association. “The availability of imported craft beer is hindered by access to market,” says Lotte Peplow, the BA’s ambassador in Europe. “These dominant players can make it more difficult for smaller craft breweries, imported and domestic alike.”
Anyone who witnessed the interest around the Brewers Association stand at the London Craft Beer Festival this summer would agree that demand for American craft beer exists. European drinkers love to find something new from the U.S., according to Peplow. “One of the most common questions we get when interacting with beer drinkers outside the U.S. is, ‘I love this beer, where can I buy it?’” she says.
Arguably, American craft beer is slotting into a niche not dissimilar to that once occupied by Belgian beer in the U.S.: a treat — a special-occasion beer to sip, share, and stick on Instagram, but not something to be enjoyed all the time. Owen says bottles of Jester King sell well at Mother Kelly’s, albeit not especially quickly.
It’s the sort of beer that drinkers seek out at festivals rather than supermarkets (Sierra Nevada, available in the U.K. since the 1990s, is perhaps the one American craft brewery with enough brand recognition to buck this trend). “Our customers want interesting, different, diverse beers,” says Greg Wells, co-owner of We Are Beer, which runs the London Craft Beer Festival. “American beer plays a big part in that.”
From Mariendorf to Margherita
American craft brewers may face serious hurdles in Europe today, but over the past decade they’ve had a huge impact. Take Tyrell’s current project, Tyrell BrauKunstAtelier, which produces beers inspired by the collaborations he made while at Stone. “The creativity and the approach [at Stone] changed my perspective a lot,” he says.
Could things change? According to Peplow, 120 BA breweries are currently exporting, with many more keen to get involved. She hopes that an economic upturn, combined with the rise of ecommerce and “broader retailer acceptance” could help American craft breweries to bounce back in Europe.
Any economic upturn would help Stone, too, although the grandiose days of Greg Koch — “the Beer Jesus from America,” as tabloid newspaper Berliner Kurier mischievously dubbed him when he arrived in Berlin — are over since he sold to Sapporo in 2022.
At this year’s Berlin Beer Week, Stone beers featured in a tap takeover at a pizzeria, Salami Social Club — quite a comedown from what Koch envisaged, but he’s far from the only American brewer who has failed to take a bite out of Europe.