On a shipping dock in the Vail Valley, Crazy Mountain Brewing loads cans of its Mountain Livin' Pale Ale onto containers bound for Sweden.

Ska Brewing in Durango gets Twitter messages in Japanese, thanks to a beer-importing business run by an American expatriate in Japan.

And from Italy to Australia, entrepreneurs starting breweries are looking not to Germany or England for inspiration, but to small, independent U.S. craft brewers.

The tables in the global beer garden have turned: An industry that took root in the U.S. three decades ago by emulating styles brewed in other countries has matured into a trend-setter in its own right, exporting its ideas and products all over the world.

"The word is out that the best beer being made in the world is being made by American craft brewers," said Bob Pease, chief operating officer for the Boulder-based Brewers Association, an industry trade group. "People from all over the world get that."

The American influence on the global craft beer business will be on display in Denver this week at the Craft Brewers Conference, an industry showcase staged annually by the Brewers Association.

Nearly 9,000 participants — about 14 percent of them from outside the U.S. — will attend seminars, tour local breweries and take part in a beer competition called the World Beer Cup.

While exports of U.S. craft beer are on the rise, several factors are limiting growth, including shipping and storage constraints that compromise beer quality and production limitations from U.S. breweries struggling to meet consumer demand at home.

U.S. craft beer export volume grew 49 percent in 2013, to 282,526 barrels and an estimated $73 million, due in part to new distribution agreements in Europe and Asia, according to the Brewers Association. One barrel of beer holds 31 gallons.

Exports are still a drop in the pint glass. To put the figures in perspective, all U.S. craft beer exports were roughly equivalent to one-third of Fort Collins-based New Belgium Brewing's production last year.

Eric Wallace, president of Left Hand Brewing in Longmont, said exporting craft beer is not about big numbers yet.

"It's not a money-making chase," said Wallace, chairman of the Brewers Association's Export Development Program committee. "It's, 'Can we do it well and make it viable?' "

Key to that, Wallace said, is ensuring U.S. craft beer on foreign shelves is up to par. Some markets lack cold shipping and storage that is critical to keeping beer fresh — and the top-selling American beers are hoppy styles that don't age well.

Wallace said Left Hand stopped shipping through the Netherlands last year because beer stayed on store shelves too long.

"It takes a bigger commitment than just shipping over beer and whatever happens, happens," he said. "It's going to take a lot of work."

The export development program — which began in 2004 and gets financing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — hopes to make progress through a new brochure that lays out best practices.

According to the market research firm IBISWorld, the sales share of exports in the craft beer market will grow from 1.2 percent to 3.8 percent in 2018.

At least seven Colorado craft breweries are exporting beer, and the numbers are small but growing: 9,363 barrels in 2013, up from 3,121 in 2012, according to the Brewers Association.

About 1 percent of Denver-based Great Divide Brewing production last year went to Sweden, a light lager nation that developed a thirst for fuller-flavored American craft beer, a spokesman said.

Ska Brewing ships to Sweden, the United Kingdom and Japan.

The state's largest independent craft brewery, New Belgium, says it sells a small volume in Sweden and recently branched into British Columbia and Alberta, where sales are strong.

But even with an East Coast brewery under construction in North Carolina, New Belgium will expand in the U.S. before looking overseas, said Rich Rush, the brewery's Pacific Northwest regional director. At the same time, craft breweries are multiplying overseas.

Bryan Jansing and Paul Vismara, bartenders at Falling Rock Tap House in Denver, just released a book about Italy's rich craft beer scene, and they are eyeing Spain next. There were fewer than 20 craft breweries in Italy a decade ago, and the latest estimate is 650.

"The Italians don't trust each other at all, and now there is a lot more collaboration and cooperation going on and it's a direct influence from America," Vismara said.

Ska Brewing owner Dave Thibodeau said he is unsure what the new wave of craft brewers globally might mean for American exports.

"Will we hold a special place over time, kind of like Belgian beers over here, once they have their own small breweries brewing incredible beer?" Thibodeau said. "Hopefully, we will still be held in high regard."

In Edwards, Crazy Mountain Brewing exported 800 barrels to Sweden, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Japan last year.

"Craft beer in the U.S. is turning into what French wine is to the wine world," co-owner Kevin Selvy said. "As that unfolds, we'd like to be as much a part of it as we can."

Eric Gorski: 303-954-1971, egorski@denverpost.com or twitter.com/egorski