Are imports really worth it?

Now that the US has a world class craft brewing scene is it really worth spending the extra money?

There's a saying that goes "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics". I reckon you could spend an enjoyable afternoon with some friends and a fridgeful of beer adding items to that brief list. Personally, I'd add recipe books because I find at least half of them to be complete and utter hooey and I firmly believe they should all be consigned to the fiction section of any bookshop or library.

This story caught my eye this morning. Assuming the reporting is accurate (always a dodgy assumption, and I haven't yet been able to track down a copy of the survey itself or the questions therein) there are some very odd conclusions drawn in that piece from the statistics compiled from the survey (my emphasis): "One in four beer drinkers say price matters when it comes to craft beer", "Truth be told, we were genuinely surprised so many people cared about beer price when buying craft brew" and "There’s a perception of craft beer drinkers that it’s always ‘Spare no expense. Find me the best.’ Yet, our survey found that to be simply not true". Huh? Simply not true? I honestly can't figure out how 25% of the people surveyed can be portrayed as the majority when 75% are saying they put other considerations first, but I think the fact that the survey was undertaken by a website whose raison d'etre is finding cheap beer deals is a bit of a giveaway. However, it did get my mind spinning off on a related tack after coming back from the shop earlier today.

I don't own a car (can drive, won't drive) so once a week I take the bus and a large backpack to a local supermarket to do my weekly food shopping. This place has a superb craft beer selection (and good prices on it too, just to keep in tune with the above-mentioned story) so I'll always come away with at least a six-pack and a couple of bombers or 750s. Roughly 60% of the beer section is domestic and 40% import. Being an import myself, I've noticed that I spend far more time in the domestic section than I do looking at beers from Germany, Belgium and the UK. Every now and again I get a hankering for some Hobgoblin, Fuller's ESB, Sam Smiths, maybe a German-brewed dunkel lager or doppelbock, and frequently a Saison Dupont, Lindeman's Cuvée René or a Trappist ale of one kind or another, but increasingly I'm finding that I can get American versions - often locally brewed - of most of the imported beer styles I like to drink, and usually at a much better price, which begs the old question 'Are you paying for the item or for the label' when you buy an imported beer?

There are some imported beers such as the aforementioned Saison Dupont, accredited Trappist ales (Chimay, Westmalle, Rochefort etc) and a handful of British beers I don't mind paying import prices for, often because they're simply the best there is and there's no US-brewed version that matches the quality, or because I have a sentimental attachment (when oh when is Marston's Pedigree going to land in Texas?), but there are others I've mostly stopped buying because I can get American-brewed versions of them for less than the import price, and in the case of some beers (to contradict what I said a few moments ago) there's a good chance they're going to be better, mostly because they're going to be fresher.

I'm very fond of a German or Czech pilsner, especially around this time of the year when most of us are looking for something crisp and refreshing. Time was I would have bought myself a six-pack of Pilsner Urquell, maybe some König or Warsteiner, but when I walk into a pub or bar in Austin my first request is almost always for a Live Oak Pilz, and now I have a second, excellent choice in Austin Beerworks Peal-Snap Pils, which I can also take home in cans (and we're all waiting for that glorious, happy day day when Live Oak builds its new brewery, installs a bottling/canning line and we can bring home their beers). On a seasonal basis I can also get Hans Pils from Real Ale. I've never been to Prague but I've heard it said many times that the Pilsner Urquell we get here is a pale shadow of the same beer when drunk in Bohemia. It has to be really - it's a style noted for its hops, and hop flavour fades quickly, not to mention the rigours of the voyage across half the European continent, the Atlantic and possibly the entire North American land mass.

Leaving aside all the high-falutin', esoteric, one-off, 'let's see what we can throw into a beer and not have it taste like pants' kind of brews that are on the shelves, it's pretty easy to find US-brewed versions of most of the basic European beer styles. They're pretty much all there, from Czech lagers to German altbiers to Irish dry stouts to Belgian farmhouse beers to French bières de garde to English porters to Scottish wee heavies. Given that a lot of them are very, very good, and that they're a lot fresher (and usually cheaper) than imported versions, is it really worth paying the extra for the import?

Certainly, when it comes to adding new beers to the menu at South Lamar, I'm turning to American craft beers over imports far more than in previous years, and price plays a big part in those decisions. Unless it's something really special, such as Chimay, Duvel, Theakston's Old Peculier or Ayinger Celebrator, I can almost always find a domestically-brewed beer of a certain style that's not going to make the customer's eyes water after I've added the kind of markup that restaurants have to apply to the price of the beer, but imports will never be completely banished from the beer page of our menu.

Fact is, craft beer can be an expensive hobby and price will always be a factor for some people. For sure I'll pay handsomely for a bottle of Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek or Cantillon Geuze if I could ever get my hands on a bottle, but if I could get a domestic version of either of those that came close to to the quality, I'd go for that one first. The wild yeasts of the Zenne Valley are unlikely to be duplicated even if captured and taken to another part of the world because yeast will adapt and change to its surroundings - it's one aspect of brewing that can be compared to the terroir of wine, but breweries such as Jester King have proven that it's perfectly possible to take local wild yeasts and use them in the same way, creating new world variants of old world beers, and one day I'll successfully persuade a local brewer to make a beer that's comparable to Rochefort 10 but a dollar or two per bottle cheaper, or perhaps even on draught. And wouldn't it be great to get some of that young unblended geuze that you can still find at a few places in Belgium?

In answer to my own question, yes, I think some imports really are worth it and a few always will be, but as long as the US craft beer scene keeps growing and improving they'll be much less of a draw than in the past, for me at least. Now I just need to persuade someone to brew a good English session bitter... or nothing but cask-conditioned beers... or... or...

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