It’s been a beery journey. The Beervana Podcast recently featured an interesting discussion called “Well How Did We Get Here?” Hosts Jeff Alworth (author of The Beer Bible and The Secrets of Master Brewers) and Oregon State University economics professor Patrick Emerson spend most of the episode talking about the history of the American craft beer movement from the 1980s until today. Their reminisces got me thinking about my own observations living through this period and more broadly about my own beery journey and how it has overlaid the evolution of craft beering.
Jeff and Patrick relate that their relationship with beer began in their late teens with mass-produced light lagers. When they were introduced to beers from craft breweries a couple of years later, it was a revelation that developed into lifelong passions and professional pursuits. They describe the first wave of American craft brewing from the ’80s into the early ’00s as a time when the novelty of craft brewing and the brewpub was enough to allow people to start a brewing business – the beer didn’t have to be particularly good and often wasn’t. They describe the second wave that followed as a phase of increasing professionalism by brewers and businesses and increasing demand by beer drinkers for “good” beer. The definition of “craft beer” became more complicated due to the growth of some of the original craft brewing enterprises (think Boston Brewing) and the acquisitions of craft breweries by big business. The variety of malts, hops, and yeasts increased greatly through the evolutionary period increasing the possibilities. Another marker has been the increasing distribution capabilities of small breweries well beyond their own taprooms.
As I listened, I found that the discussion tracked well in many ways with my own experience. However, my experience differed in significant ways. The first “regular beer” I remember is Schoenling Red Labels that were bought by the trunkload in nearby Ohio where the legal age was three years younger than in Indiana. No one called this, or any other beer I remember from those days, “craft” although it suited our purposes of those days just fine.
Following high school, I joined the army in the mid-1970s and my first “permanent” posting was a three-year stint in a Bavarian town called Kitzingen. All of a sudden I was exposed to a big variety of “good” beer. Much of it was great beer. Pretty much all of it was “craft” beer by most definitions I have ever seen for that term. It was being brewed in fairly small volumes by locally-owned breweries for local consumption. I also think of it as being artisanal with there being as much art involved as science and technology. Kitzingen is in a region called Franconia which has a very large concentration of craft breweries to this day. The town had two breweries at the time and my favorite became the Kitzinger Scheuernstuhl Brewery. They made an outstanding marzen which I had on a home delivery schedule to my apartment (I’d leave my empties on the doorstep).
After leaving the service in 1979, it was time for college and it was really tough returning to thin relatively thin, tasteless brews native to the USA. I found refuge in the imports of the day. Beers like Becks Dark, St.Pauli Girl Dark, and Bass Ale were frequent choices when I had a friend working at the beer store. When I had to pay full price, I avoided big brands and searched out cheap, obscure regional beers that offered what I thought was the best taste per cost equation. Those were the days of Braumeister (not Meisterbrau) in cases of returnable bottles.
Post-college, I took a job and started doing some business travel and I began noticing the existence of these things called “brewpubs.” in some of the cities I traveled to. The first craft beer I can remember trying was a Sam Adams Boston Lager in about 1984 on a trip to the Boston area. I remember being impressed that someone was making an American beer that had some flavor and body to it. It was pretty good I thought. I started making it a feature of my off-duty time on business trips to search out and sample whatever brewpubs I could find in whatever city I was visiting. Like Jeff and Patrick related in their podcast, though, it was the exception rather than the rule to find “good” beers at these early American craft beer places. Searching these places out was more about the novelty of it versus finding great American beers.
The Redhook Brewery in Seattle was the first American brewery I visited that I remember thinking was pretty sophisticated and had what I thought was an impressive beer – their ESB. Through those years, I lived in cities that did not have much going for them in terms of their being a good craft beer, but I did get to visit a bunch of interesting little places that had aspirations of brewing great beers.
In 1989 we moved to the Santa Fe, New Mexico area and I was pleased to find out there was a fairly new brewery near there – Santa Fe Brewing was one of the first craft breweries in New Mexico. Santa Fe Brewing did not have a brewpub or a taproom in those days, but did host visits to their brewery at a ranch in the Galisteo Basin – you would recognize the terrain from the many cowboy movies that have been filmed in the area. A visit to that small brewery was a unique experience. I can remember sitting on the porch and watching calf roping in the large roping enclosure out front while the owners served us grilled bratwursts and Santa Fe Pale Ales. Santa Fe Pale Ale was a thankfully good beer that has demonstrated sustained quality to this day, so it became a regular go-to for me since that time.
I totally related to Jeff and Patrick’s description of the second wave of craft brewing in America — it became much less about the novelty and it required consistently producing good or great beers to increase chances of a brewery’s survival. They mark the transition to this era in the early 00s. They feel like things have progressed to where the five best beers found in a locale these days and probably better than the five best beers found anywhere in the U.S. back in the 80s. I’d have to agree. To put it in my terms, I think it was great luck if 1 of 5 of the beers you’d find in an 80s era brewpub was something you would order a second time whereas nowadays the same ratio for craft beers is more like 3 in 5 or 7 in 10. For me, the ratio for craft beers when I travel in Franconia is more like 9 in 10, so there is still plenty of room for improvement.
That points out a big difference in the perspective I have compared to that related by Jeff and Patrick in their podcast discussion. The American craft beer revolution they described began with a pretty much blank slate. They had never encountered a craft beer or even a good beer before some American craft beers started to get their attention. For me, I felt like I had been immersed in both for several years and then had been missing them. It wasn’t a blank slate. The prospect of rediscovering interesting local beer in the form of the emerging craft brewing movement was intriguing and exciting.
I have observed and been annoyed at times at what I’ll call the “American Craft Beer Snob (ACBS)” who sees beer culture through what seems to me to be very narrow slits of perception. The extreme version of the ACBS seems to only value beer that pushes the limits of hop absorption, has high alcohol content, uses non-traditional ingredients, or is generally experimental. I don’t have any problem with people being interested in these kinds of things but for me, they are niche interests, not the main course. My personal experience led me to value the craft of using traditional brewing ingredients and methods to consistently produce balanced, flavorful, and beautiful beers. That does not mean I don’t enjoy and appreciate IPA’s, fruity beers, or experimental beer with an ACBS from time-to-time, but those aren’t my niche I guess. A brewery that really gets my attention and respect is one that has at least one flagship beer that is a clean, balanced, flavorful brew that they have consistently produced over a long period of time.
When a brewery like that contributes to “beer culture”, it makes it all the more exciting. Beer is somehow more rewarding to me when it seems part of a way of life versus just being today’s beverage of choice. Whenever I encounter disposable plastic cups and/or flat-screen televisions I feel like I’m in the wrong place. Just like the fact that breweries and beer in Franconia are much bigger than being about the beer, some breweries in the American craft beer movement aspire to this in their communities. This is always a memorable experience where it exists. Maybe this will become the foundation of the next great evolutionary step in American craft beer?