The Pace of Change

by Stephen Beaumont

When I first began writing about beer almost three decades ago, the Canadian craft beer scene, what we still referred to then as ‘microbrewing,’ was for all of its revolutionary appeal a fairly straight-laced movement. Beer styles were largely limited to the European classics – pilsners and best bitters and pale ales, plus the occasional stout or porter – while properly strong beers were as rare as hen’s teeth, hoppy ales were only slightly more commonplace, and if you wanted something even vaguely Belgian in style, you’d better have been looking in Québec.

This, of course, has change considerable over the years since, but it took some time. Travelling south of the border as I did frequently back then, I was able to see all that was going on in the U.S. and return home quite envious of the variety and experimentalism our neighbours put on display in all but a couple of regions of the country, the mountain states outside of Colorado and the deep south being particularly slow developers. In contrast, for most English Canadian brewers, ‘conservatism’ was the watchword and ‘tried and true’ the mantra.

It took until the twenty-first century for IPAs to become more commonplace, and a few years after that for brewers to begin playing around with barrels and bugs, Brettanomyces not making much of an appearance until well into the second decade of the century. Speaking generously, it was about 20 years after the founding of Granville Island Brewing that Canadian brewers got serious about creative brewing.

Contrast that with some of the markets I’ve seen develop over the past fifteen years or less, dating back to the now-wildly successful Italian craft beer marketplace.

Although craft brewing came to the country in the 1990s with the opening of Birrificio Italiano and Baladin, as recently as a dozen years ago drinking beer in Italy was very much a hit-or-miss proposition, with mediocre or poor beers outnumbering the impressive ones by a considerable margin. By the time of the first edition of The World Atlas of Beer in 2012, however, I was touting the Italian scene as “one of the most innovative and intriguing” in the world.

That progress over the course of a mere six years was amazing enough, but little did I then know how that pace would soon appear positively laggardly.

I began watching the slow build of Brazil’s youthful craft beer culture in 2011, yet only scant years later was touting it as the market leader in South America and one of the most exciting young craft beer markets in the world. I then shifted my gaze northwest and arrived at a Mexican movement that was developing so quickly that a gap of two years between visits saw substantial improvements in all the major brewing regions, from the Baja California to the capital district and Guadalajara.

And early this spring I returned to Catalonia in Spain after last visiting three years prior. During that earlier visit, roughly one in every three or four beers sampled was fundamentally flawed in some way, while very few beers recommended by those ‘in the know’ could excite this beer taster. In 2018, on the other hand, brewery after brewery impressed and of some 140 beers sampled the number that seriously disappointed could be counted on the fingers of one hand, with a couple of digits left over!

Of course, comparing Canada of 1995 with Spain of 2018 is hardly fair, since knowledge and available resources are far more plentiful today than they were a quarter century ago. But that the pace of beer improvement around the world is increasing at such a remarkable rate is cause for celebration for any beer-savvy drinker, and especially so for those who enjoy travelling and would like access to a fine ale or lager or two when they do. 

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Short Sips with Stephen Beaumont

A corner dedicated to bringing you insight from industry author and beer connoisseur, Stephen Beaumont.

Twitter: @BeaumontDrinks