From the Field — 19 July 2012

As a lover of flavorful beer I’m certainly alive in the right place at the right time. I don’t mean that in a clichéd way. There is no better time for beer than 2012 in the United States. It certainly has not always been that way, however. A generation ago, American food and beer was a shadow of what it is now. Varieties of styles existed and were brewed, but beer generally meant… well, beer. It was a fizzy yellow commodity, a decidedly lowbrow means to an end. Oh, how far we’ve come with our beloved consumables, specifically beer, in such a short period of time.

It is obvious that Prohibition was a speed bump for the industry, but what did it mean for consumers and variety? During the tenure of the Volstead Act, 50% of brewers either got out of the industry altogether carrying on elsewhere or went out of business. Small brewers were at a particular disadvantage as they did not have the infrastructure to radically change gears. Those that persisted made a variety of products including malt syrup, near beer, medical alcohol and root beer. Larger, surviving brewers were at an advantage post-Prohibition because they were not forced to sell off their equipment at great losses for cash. With the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment, the US emerged from Prohibition and it had lost not only brewing capacity, but also great know-how. As any brewer will tell you, brewing is as much, if not more, of an art than a science.

Civilizations have long considered their fermented grain beverages food, so it should come as no surprise that beer has followed many of the same trends as food in recent history. Our post-Prohibition, post-war society became an innovation-based industrial giant. No longer did vegetables have to be eaten right away (flash freezing), bread go stale soon after baking (Wonder Bread) or meals have to be prepared before eating (TV dinners). Innovations in beer packaging, as well as home refrigeration, meant that beer no longer needed to be brewed locally. Smaller brewers did spring up, but because of high barriers to entry and economies of scale, with few exceptions, they were never able to gain more than a toe-hold’s worth of market share. There was a bland, sorry state of beer and food through the 1960s and into the 1970s. And then something wonderful happened: the 1970s.

During this decade a number of pivotal events occurred. In 1971, a revamped California brewery, what is now considered the first modern microbrewery, bottled the first batch of beer for which it is still famous today.Also in 1971, New Jersey native Alice Waters opened her iconic Chez Panisse, also in California, a restaurant which focused on the quality of ingredients from the very beginning. This approach is the hallmark of America’s finest restaurants to this day, as well as American craft beer. In fact, the current definition of a craft brewer is one whose output eschews flavor- and cost-cutting ingredients in favor of malted barley. Finally, in 1978 Congress passed revisions to Treasury Department and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms regulations which opened the door to Americans being able to legally brew beer at home. This opened the door to people tasting full flavored beer for the first time, and they liked what they tasted.

The 1980s bore a steady increase in startup breweries that weren’t hampered by direct competition with the bigger, established, more efficient brewers. While they were indeed selling the same product, beer, they weren’t selling the same commodity. This new segment of beer being produced here was both innovative as well as reflective of the great beer styles brewed around the world evolving out of necessity given their unique histories and geographies. Beers once brewed solely to survive a hot 19th century voyage to troops on distant shores (India Pale Ale, or IPA) or from the fall harvest to sustain low country field hands (Saison) were being brewed domestically for enjoyment. This is not at all different from what happened in food where cuisines full of heavily spiced meats to stave off (or even mask) spoilage or salted, preserved fish were being taken up by Americans. While the interest from the consuming public was there, it was largely confined to enthusiasts as well as some small geographic areas. It hardly made a dent in the bigger, blander brewers’ market share. That is, of course, until the 1990s.

The number of brewers in the United States continued to swell throughout the 1990s, however “micro-brews”, as they were rightfully or wrongfully collectively called, achieved somewhat of a fad status. Breweries and contracted labels came online hoping for a way to make quick inroads and fast cash. They quickly learned that this was largely impossible and the fad bubble burst putting many of these companies, and some legitimately good producers, out of business late in the decade. What good that came out of it, however, was that the American palate was primed and retailers, wholesalers, and restaurateurs were taking notice of these seemingly boutique products with big upside potential.

The strongest (and the luckiest) bucked the short contraction of craft and continued to supply the public with flavorful, well made beer. A new generation of brewers who started in their kitchens in the 80s and 90s moved took their passion to market and started brewing commercially. Brewery openings once again accelerated at a staggering pace starting soon after 2000. According to the Brewers Association, in 1980 there were 101 breweries operating in the United States. This grew to 286 in 1990. More recently, by 2011 there were 887 craft breweries and 1063 brewpubs in the US with a net increase of 213 in 2011 alone. Where is all of this beer going? Even in the face of a stagnant economy, craft beer, a more expensive product than is being brewed by the 49 non-craft brewers in the US, grew double digits in 2011 to a market share of 9.1%. In 2012 it is safe to say that craft beer has moved beyond a niche of loyal enthusiast and entered the mainstream.

Never before has there been such variety and quality beer. Restaurateurs, after embracing menu practices brought to the forefront at Chez Panisse in the 1970s, have applied similar logic to their beer lists. It is becoming increasingly difficult to visit a non-chain restaurant and not encounter at least one craft beer. Similarly, to further set themselves apart from their peers, savvy restaurant managers have adopted the food mantra of “local is better”. This isn’t empty rhetoric, either. Given the sheer numbers of brewers across the country, the odds of finding a better-than-average example of a particular style produced regionally, if not locally, are much better than they used to be even five years ago. Since beer is, after all, a perishable product, this is to the benefit of the seller and consumer to think, and drink, locally. It is believed by many knowledgeable of the industry that this is the future of craft beer.

A highly regarded beer industry veteran recently remarked that only in the United States could an entire consumer industry be reinvented in such a short period of time. He was talking about the food scene here in comparison to his native Europe, but this same statement applies by extension, and without any loss of truthfulness, to beer. With a mere 9% market share it is exciting to imagine what is in store for lovers of great beer. Once maligned because of the beers of only 50 years ago, American brewers are now leading the way brewing unquestionably the most diverse, inventive beer in the world.

Cheers!

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