From: Tourpes, Belgium
Chris Schonberger says: "If anyone in American know their Belgian beers, it's Don Feinberg. Before the majority of Americans had even heard of a farmhouse ale or a sour, he was driving around Belgium seeking out small, traditional breweries and bringing their beers back to America in suitcases. After establishing Vanberg & DeWulf in 1982, he went on—with the help of his wife, Wendy Littlefiled—to introduce the country to world-class beers like Duvel, Rodenbach Grand Cru, and Frank Boon’s lambics.
Given this history, I can forgive Don for answering with the slightly argumentative response, "Belgian beer," when asked about the most influential brews of all time. If he had left it at that, I might have pegged him a curmudgeon. But, in fact, his reasoning is both heartfelt and instructive, and worth sharing here:
"Belgian beer broke the ridiculous hold of Reinheitsgebot [the German purity law regulating how beer can be made] on the American imagination. It showed home brewers, craft brewers, and big brewers that it’s what’s in the bottle that counts, not some absurd adherence to an approved ingredient list or narrow stylistic guidelines. It showed the essential importance of fermentation, and the value of re-fermentation for stability (why pasteurize when you can re-ferment?). It showed that that sugar is an ingredient to be prized if you want drinkability with your higher alcohol; that hops are just one of the spices brewers should use; that sour is good, that strong is good, that aging in barrel or in bottle is good, that more than one fermentation is good, that fruit is good; that, in sum, there is no one great beer, there are only great beers and anyone with a palate and passion can go out and make one."
The man makes a good point. And so I'll let Don be the visionary and the teacher, and I'll be the list-obsessed Internet journalist and make a pick for him.
The beers that Vanberg & DeWulf brought across the pond from Belgium have been undeniably influential in inspiring the American craft beer movement, for all the reasons Don notes above. And for me, looking at its catalog, the one beer that stands out is Saison Dupont—the farmhouse ale whose effervesce, earthy hop character, and dry finish have set the rubric for so many that have come after.
Needless to say, there's a story there too: When the seminal beer writer Michael Jackson encouraged Don to go visit Marc Rosier (then the brewer at Brasserie Dupont), this beer was actually slated for extinction due to its lack of popularity. Don convinced the brewery to keep making it, brought it to America, and now the beer is considered among the world's best. (Interesting side note: It has also become popular back home in Belgium.)
As Wendy Littlefield points out, "An English journalist and and American importer made it possible for Saison Dupont to become the most imitated style of beer by craft brewers."