Macro vs. Micro; Craft vs. Big Beer; Local vs. National; Independent vs. Investor owned… How can anyone find their way through this maze of us vs. them? How do we know which beers we can enjoy and which to avoid? And why should we avoid any?
To understand this terrain, we need to look back through beer history to see where we were and then we can follow the paths that were taken to get where we are today. Don’t worry it won’t be that long of a trip.
Before America was even discovered by European explorers, the beer landscape was much simpler. There was no beer in America and in Europe it was dominated by Ales, not Lagers. Lager beers were still in their infancy stage and wouldn’t explode until the mid 19th century.
When European settlers came to America in the 1600’s they brought with them the more common style of beer at the time, which were Ales, specifically Pale Ales and Porters. The first President of the United States, George Washington, brewed his own beer and was found of a Porter brewed with Molasses.
During the mid 1800’s and later, specifically after Lagers had begun spreading in Europe, they came with the German immigrants who came to the America’s. And while they were slowing spreading across the European landscape, they transformed a bit and blossomed in the Americas. The different barleys used, the addition of adjuncts like rice and corn, which was plentiful in America, and the lower hop levels made this lager a style all it’s own. And it began to spread pretty well, though traditional ales and lager styles were still in existence.
It wasn’t until the dark days of prohibition in the early 1920s, when all beer brewing ceased, that lager got it’s chance to take over the American landscape. During the three years that prohibition was enacted most breweries were unable to keep their businesses going. The only ones that did were the larger ones who could adapt their businesses into producing other products. These same breweries came back into service when prohibition ended and the dominance of Pale American Lager began.
For almost 100 years, the American Beer scene has been dominated by Pale Lagers. Whole generations of Americans lived and died not knowing that other beers had ever existed in America. And the large brewing companies not only specialized in brewing lagers, they also began specializing in marketing their products. So much so that other American industries started using their marketing tactics to push their products onto the public.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a law allowing homebrewing to expand, which opened the door for a whole new generation of entrepreneurs. Before then there were only 89 breweries in the US. Now, there are over 7,450 breweries in the U.S. The majority of that growth has been in the last ten years.
The growth of Craft or Independent Breweries has not been without consequences. While craft has been growing by leaps and bounds, and capturing more of the market. The larger Macro breweries that took over the American beer market have been losing ground. They have not only seen no growth but are losing customers. This had led to various clumsy attempts at creating their own craft styles beers which has generally failed. When that didn’t work they began investing in or buying out whole smaller craft breweries to try and recapture the market. That has had some small success with the craft drinking public who were unaware or didn’t care so much.
But those in the know have raised a voice ringing throughout the beer landscape. Craft brewing doesn’t work as well under the Macro Beer business structure. Craft brewing isn’t about profits maximizing profits with lower quality ingredients. It’s about maximizing quality with by experimenting with ingredients and processes and being agile enough to change with the customer demand. Macro cannot handle that.
Now that you have had the layout of the landscape explained to you, perhaps your navigation through the quagmire that is Craft Beer will be easier. Perhaps you are concerned about who makes your beer.
Or perhaps not… If you aren’t and you are more than satisfied with the fallacy of beer that has been pawned off on the American public for the last 90 plus years then I hope you enjoy what you are drinking.
If, however, you are like me, and your mind and your taste buds have been exposed to wonderful array of aromas and flavors that make up the products of Independent brewing, then please join me in support your locals brewers. Stop by the local tap room/ tasting room, walk past the cheap section of the beer aisle in your local store and continue to support the newest American entrepreneurs in their efforts to give us back what we lost.