Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Effects of the Craft Beer Revolution: A Brief Essay

Part I: A Short History

*Please Note*- My primary audience on my blog are people with very little background in craft beer. So, if you are a well-educated craft beer drinker, this article will probably not provide any new information.

-1910: 1500+ breweries
-1920: 500 breweries
-1930: 0 (legal) breweries
-1940: 550 breweries
-1950: 475 breweries
-1960: 250 breweries
-1970: 100 breweries
-1980: 50 breweries
-1990: 275 breweries
-2000: 1000 breweries
-2009: 1500+ breweries

America’s beer culture has been in a major state of flux over the last 100 years- illustrated by the very interesting statistics above. I hope to explore the story of beer in America (since 1910), and the current “craft beer” movement in this brief article.

Let’s go back to the glory days of American beer (besides the time in which we are living, more on that later)- 1910. 1500+ breweries for roughly 92,000,000 Americans- that’s about one brewery for every 60,000 Americans (children included). Even with the current boom of craft beer today, America can only boast a brewery for every 206,000 persons.

Of course, by 1930, Prohibition was in full swing, and all the immigrants from Germany, England, Ireland, Belgium and all the other great beer countries must have been very upset. Even with the revocation of Prohibition in 1933, the brewing industry did not recover their previous number of breweries until 2009. So…

Is Prohibition solely to blame for the collapse of the brewing industry in America over much of the 20th century?

The answer to that question is not as simple as it seems on its face. In some ways, yes, but the 21st amendment and its resulting regulations and laws may carry much more blame, in the long run. Let me elaborate:

Before Prohibition, most breweries were small-scale operations that distributed the majority of their products from their own brewpubs; this is very similar to the European models that existed at the time. In this era, two brewers took advantage of refrigeration and the railroad system to distribute their products nationwide: Anheuser-Busch and Pabst. Still, in this period, these two brewers did not dominate the market- the preference was still toward the brewpub model, and drinking beer at the brewpub. The wider availability of refrigeration to normal citizens in later years had a great effect on taking drinking out of the pubs, and into the home.

By the time Prohibition had struck, AB and Pabst also had other national competition in the form of Schlitz and Blatz. These companies continued to make a product referred to as “near beer”- a malt beverage with under ½ a percent alcohol. While these products were not very successful (with many drinkers preferring the illegal “speakeasy” instead), they (and other products) kept these bigger breweries afloat throughout the era. Surely, these companies were rewarded for their “entrenchedness” during Prohibition, and had an advantage over any brewery trying to renew operations after such a long layoff.

To make a very long story short- the 21st amendment required “distributors” of alcohol, virtually destroying the small brewery-brewpub model in a matter of years. These big breweries with such large distribution inroads wielded their power to create a near monopoly on beer in America. See “A Concise History of America's Brewing Industry” by Martin Stack for more in depth information.

By 1980, the ten largest breweries in the nation controlled 94 percent of the market. Bottled and canned beer made up 88% of beer sales (this figure represented only 30% of the market in 1935- a direct consequence of the distribution laws). As the “Behind the Music” documentaries are fond of saying: the making of artisanal, high quality beer had hit “rock bottom.”

Still, most craft beer lovers now view the 1980s as the second birth of craft beer in the United States. Even before that time, craft brewers that exist today, such as Anchor (founded in 1969) and Sierra Nevada (1979) came into being. Yakima (founded in 1982- my birth year), Samuel Adams (1984) and many others followed.

The industry has grown so much in the United States that recent numbers show approximately 1600 craft breweries, and that only 43% of beer consumed in this country last year was from macro (large) breweries. 13% were American craft beers, 22% were imported (craft and macro) and 22% “other” (hard to know what this is, considering the statistics refer strictly to beer:

Part II: What does it All Mean (Basil)?

At present, America is the best craft beer country in the world. There- I said it. We get the best from virtually every other country, and our own beers are very highly regarded in international beer circles:

37 of those beers are brewed right here in the USA, and rated by websites that has members from around the world. We have come very far in a very short time, and we have much for which to be proud. Still, if you looked over at the “style” of these highly regarded beers (the different varieties of beer, determined by their ingredients, strength, appearance and other factors) they largely fall into one category: Imperial Stout- 30 out of the top 50 beers on fall into this single style of beer.

These beers are at the darkest end of the beer spectrum, and reach upwards of 20% alcohol in the most extreme cases. In other words, these beers are more akin to liquor in their alcohol content. Another beer style that is highly regarded is the Imperial IPA (also known as a Double IPA). These beers have a tremendously strong hop presence, and often times, not enough malt balance to match the copious hop content.

The popularity of these beer styles, I believe, is a direct result of the craft beer “revolution.” If in a revolution we desire the opposite traits in the “new order” of things, then Imperial Stout and Double IPA fits the bill, with their bold, assertive flavors. Still, there are hundreds, perhaps more, styles of beer, and their offshoots, that are not considered serious contenders for world’s best because their flavors are more nuanced, their alcohol content more subdued.

I view this as a tremendous problem, and I think it stems from the revolutionary mentality. Some more practical examples: Many of us, before heading off to college or the work world, have a strong desire to distance ourselves from our homes. We constantly complain that something at home would be “much different if I were in charge.” Perhaps that’s true, but with all of this, we throw out much of the good things about home as well, whatever those things may be. So, we stroll out the door, throwing the “baby out with the bathwater,” and not looking back until some years later- many times concluding that it wasn’t all that bad.

I tend to see craft beer in this way- just because a beer has an alcohol content similar to macro beer, or especially because it’s pale yellow color- these things do not automatically make a beer terrible or undrinkable to the craft beer palate. This mentality is the result of painting beers similar in appearance with the same brush as cheap macro lagers, and it is unfair. The same thing happens with “dark beer”- many who have had one dark beer and don’t like it decide that all dark beer taste like that beer, and they never try a dark beer again. That would be like me trying on one pair of pants, not liking the fit, and deciding that pants in general are a bad idea. It is completely irrational, and does not take into account the many varieties of pants available.

Ultimately, my suggestion to any new craft beer drinker is- drink with as little bias as possible. Try many different styles, no matter the color, and ask a friend educated in the world of craft beer to help you make a selection. Many craft beer enthusiasts held the same biases until they found a beer that broke all their pre-conceptions. Hopefully, with a little help, you can find a beer that will open your eyes to the enjoyment of great beer.


1 comment:

  1. Sheesh! There exists a "color bias" amongst otherwise knowledgeable beer drinkers: who knew??? In any case, you have given us a terrific primer on beer and shown that there is much history, economic, social and otherwise, which pertains and much to discover

    Thanks yet again, Ryan.