There will never quite be another imported European beer success story like that of Brasserie Cantillon in America. The Belgian-based brewery is built on the perfect formula to cause beer-geek madness this country: an old-world brewery that has mastered a semi-obscure style but has somewhat fallen out of favor in its own country, coupled with the type of rarity that fuels cultishness in the U.S. bottle-jockey scene. Today you couldn’t put that recipe together from scratch if you tried.
Or could you?
You may have missed the boat on Cantillon—hell, you may not have even heard of the brewery until this very piece—but that’s okay. There are still plenty of great European breweries that I believe could become just as revered in this country. Will any of the following breweries and their beers ever generate the need for a nationwide Zwanze Day, as Cantillon does each year? Maybe not. Will beer geeks soon wise up and start clearing the following breweries from shelves until their beers become nigh impossible to find anymore? Much more likely.
Remember, Cantillon was fairly easy to find on American store shelves as recently as 2009 or so, so don’t snooze on these breweries while they’re still easily accessible.
Location: Beersel, Belgium
Best beer: Framboos
Why it’s primed to break out: Yeah, yeah, yeah, the geeks in the audience already know about a Drie Fonteinen. They might even claim it’s actually better than Cantillon. So what? Your burgeoning beer fan who was still swilling Amstel Light at this time last year doesn’t yet know about this Beersal gueuze and lambic maker that has almost (almost!) achieved the same lofty status as Cantillon. I say almost as I still sometimes stumble upon bottles of its Oude Geuze and Oude Kriek on shelves, something that absolutely never occurs with Cantillon any more. Even better, my favorite Drie Fonteinen beer—the limited Schaerbeekse Kriek—still lingers on shelves or bar bottle lists due to its high price tag (~$45). I buy every damn dusty I see of that highly enjoyable cherry lambic.
Why it’s primed to break out: While Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen have been around since 1900 and 1887 respectively, Gueuzerie Tilquin opened in 2009. Another thing separating it from those Belgian big dogs is that Tilquin does not actually brew its beer, instead blending lambics from other brewers’ wort, a once-common technique in the country. Whatever the case, the skillfully-made releases are top-notch, like the Oude Gueuze Tilquin à L’Ancienne and Oude (Gueuze Tilquin), which are blends of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambics; Quetsche (a purple plum lambic); and the latest release, Mûre (a blackberry lambic). Best of all, Tilquin can still be found in American bottle shops. (Photo: Facebook/Gueuzerie Tilquin)
Why it’s primed to break out: I simply don’t understand why De Dolle isn’t bigger in America than it currently is. The brewery mixes classic Belgian styles with modern craft-beer twists. For the sake of the American beer geek, three facts are most critical: De Dolle makes beers that are super flavorful, even more boozy, and well suited to cellaring. Options include Arabier, an 8% Belgian pale ale; Oerbier, a 9% lactobacillus-inoculated Belgian strong ale that turns slightly tart as it ages; and my beloved Stille Nacht, a 12% monster of a Christmas seasonal (that I personally drink year-round). The brewery even makes occasional “Reserva” beers, decadent barrel-aged variants packaged in beautiful corked-and-caged bottles that would look perfect resting in the corner of the closet you call your beer cellar. Is the mere fact it doesn’t make a gueuze or lambic the reason so many Americans continue passing on these truly stellar offerings? (Photo: tripadvisor.com)
Location: Oostvleteren, Belgium
Best beer: Black Damnation
Why it’s primed to break out: De Struise makes beers perfectly designed for the American beer geek palate (and wallet): big, bold, barrel-aged offerings, loaded with cool ingredients, spun off into a turd-load of intriguing and limited variants. (And they’re pricey and often wax-dipped to boot.) I like their various quadruples named Pannepot, but the series of beers that really make hearts race and pockets hemorrhage is the Black Damnation series of imperial stouts. The brewery has made Black Damnation versions with coffee, blackberries, and peaches tossed in; ones aged in bourbon barrels, Scotch barrels, and even port casks. It’s made an ice-distilled Damnation that got up to 39% ABV, and a watered-down one that clocked in at a mere 2%—a truly beer geek-worthy series that, while acclaimed amongst Americans, just isn’t quite as acclaimed as you’d think. For now.
BFM (Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes)
Location: Saignelégier, Switzerland
Best beer: Abbaye De Saint Bon-Chien
Why it’s primed to break out: The Swiss make beer, you say? Psh, and you thought they only made watches, chocolates, and world-class tennis players who refuse to retire. Well, they’ve produced at least one phenomenal brewery—one that many Americans continually pass by in stores due its high price point. Located in the Canton of Jura, BFM makes an array of truly interesting and sophisticated beers, all offered in sexy swing-top bottles. You’ve probably regularly seen the funky XV (√225 Saison) and the tart stout Cuvée Alex Le Rouge. But the favorite of many other geeks in the know is Abbaye De Saint Bon-Chien, a sour beer unlike any other. Dark yet acidic, boozy but crazy complex, it’s an 11%-ABV monster of a bière de garde aged in wine barrels. It’s still fairly easy to find in America, the $40-a-whack bottles gathering dust and confusing customers (what with countless barrel-aged variants including champagne, Calvados, and an extraordinary moscatel offering). What I’d give for Saint Bon-Chien Day in America….
Location: Piozzo, Italy
Best beer: Xyauyù
Why it’s primed to break out: To be clear, I don’t think all of Birrificio Le Baladin’s beers merit blowing up in America. Sure, it makes many perfectly competent offerings like its Wayan (a saison) and a spiced beer called Nora. But it’s the series of uber-alcoholic (~14%), uber-priced (around $50 a 16.9-ounce bottle) barleywines, collectively called Xyauyù, that Americans should be going Supermarket Sweep on. Your damn Whole Foods has like ten dusty bottles of Xyauyù at the moment! Whether it’s the regular bottling; Xyauyù Kentucky (aged on tobacco, seriously); or my personal favorite Xyauyù (Islay Scotch barrels), these are truly gorgeous offerings. Aged in barrels for upwards of three years, barely carbonated, intentionally oxidized to add rich liqueur notes to the liquid, Xyauyù is simply one of a kind. It even comes in a circular tube more befitting of a high-end whiskey.
Location: Gussignies, France
Best beer: Cuvée Des Jonquilles
Why it’s primed to break out: Do I truly foresee Americans ever losing their shit over a French brewery? It’s unlikely, but if it’s going to happen, it should happen to this French brewery (which more or less aspires to be a Belgian one). Really though—it sits about a football field’s-length away from the Belgian border, and the owners are actually Belgian. No surprise, then, that Au Baron makes wonderful farmhouse ales within its cramped quarters, funky and complex offerings like Cuvée Des Jonquilles, one of my favorite beers in the entire world. I simply don’t understand why Americans don’t pound this beer hard. Unfortunately, Des Jonquilles is the only Au Baron beer this country gets. Fortunately, the bottles just sit on shelves and each one will rarely set you back more than $12. So why aren’t you grabbing them up?
Aaron Goldfarb (@aarongoldfarb) is the author of How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide, The Guide for a Single Man, and The Guide for a Single Woman.