This Fourth of July weekend, take advantage of the rich diversity and art of American craft beers.
What is it about craft beer that appeals so much to the types of guys who read (and write) dad blogs? Is it the technology that we are all hooked to, that reaches into the craft beer world through sites like Untappd (think Foursquare for beer) and Ratebeer (which lets people review the beers they drink)? Is it the push for improvement, leading to bigger and better beer (like how we strive for excellence in ourselves and our lives)?
Craft beer represents all of these things in a bottle. Craft beer represents America. Craft beer represents a freedom of choice, independence from the big brands. America has become a land where no matter what you’re looking for, or at what price, you can find it at a growing number of retailers. In the same vein, we’re seeing craft microbreweries opening up in big cities and small towns all over America (according the The Brewers Association, there are 2,347 craft breweries in the US). Craft brewers currently provide an estimated 108,440 jobs in the U.S. Growth of the craft brewing industry in 2012 was 15% by volume and 17% by dollars. As of July 1, 2013, Alabama became the 50th state to legalize homebrewing. We are now able to create any beer we like, whether cloning our favorites or creating something new.
For those of you who don’t know what this “craft beer” thing is, let’s break it down. The American Brewers Association defines a “craft brewery” as “small, independent and traditional”, and gives a production size of less than 6,000,000 US beer barrels (700,000,000 L) a year and cannot be more than 24% owned by another alcoholic beverage company that is not itself a craft brewery. Craft beer in the US started following the brewery gap created by Prohibition. In the late ‘70s, highly effective marketing campaigns of the big, consolidated breweries had changed America’s beer preference to light-adjunct lager (think Budweiser, Miller, and Coors). By the end of the decade the beer industry had consolidated to only 44 brewing companies.
The homebrewing hobby began to thrive because the only way a person in the United States could experience the beer traditions and styles they loved from other countries was to make the beer themselves. These homebrewing roots gave birth to what we now call the “Craft Brewing” industry. In 1976 what some call the true renaissance of American craft brewing emerged with the founding of The New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, California by homebrew enthusiast Jack McAuliffe.
The 1980s marked the decade of the microbrewing pioneers, in a time when industry experts flat out refused to recognize their existence as anything serious. Through extraordinarily difficult market conditions, the microbreweries and brewpubs of the 1980s struggled to establish the foundation for what was to become the proliferation of craft beer in America. As the 1990s came, craft brewing started to pick up momentum in growth, with annual growth of 58% in 1995. This growth has slowed, but new craft breweries open every day, and more than 400 new craft breweries opened their doors in 2012, according to the Brewer’s Association.
Despite craft beer only holding 6.5% of the market share, there are craft beers that are household names. Most notable is Samuel Adams (and the Boston Beer Company), founded by Boston’s Jim Koch in 1984. On store shelves in lots of places, you also see Sierra Nevada, founded in 1979 by Ken Grossman. You have Dogfish Head (named after a city in Maine), which got its start in 1995 by Sam Calagione and produces mainly “extreme” beers that often have quirky flavors and are highly alcoholic. Then you have the local guys. I live in Maine, on the border of New Hampshire. As of May 2013, there were fifteen breweries operating in New Hampshire, and twelve more in planning. In Maine, as of 2010, there are a total of 31 breweries.
One thing all of these breweries have in common is that strive for excellence. They never say “This beer is good enough, let’s only make this in the largest quantity possible!” They say, “This is good, but I tried something in this style that I liked once, let’s try that!” Dogfish Head is known for their unique “Ancient Ales” series, in which beer recipes were created, based upon the chemical analysis of residue found on pottery and drinking vessels from various archaeological sites. This isn’t something you see the Budweiser, Miller and Coors breweries do. They are happy making low quality beer that’s good enough for those that don’t know better. Craft beer isn’t having that, and is always looking for the next cool idea. In that vein, canned craft beer is becoming the new thing. While big brands have canned their beer for years, their cans do nothing for the beer. The new Samuel Adams can has features to enhance the flavor of the beer and create a smoother, more comfortable drinking experience (like a wider lid that provides more air flow resulting in a slightly smoother taste). Those cans are now sold on Jet Blue flights around the US.
All of this happens in spite of multi-million dollar ad campaigns and famous names. This is the fighting spirit the represents what we need to remember about this holiday. By choosing to support the little guy, the craft brewer, we are choosing America. We are choosing the fighting spirit of our ancestors. Craft beer sales in 2012 was 6.5% by volume and 10.2% by dollars of all beer sold in the US. Craft beer is growing, and the big brewers are scared of the power of craft beer drinkers. The big brewers are starting to create “craft-ish” beers (see Coors Batch 19, etc). They recognize that they are losing market share to people who care about the beer they drink.
This is why, this Fourth of July, as you browse the beer aisle for something to drink with the meat you’re grilling, choose craft beer. Choose independent beer this weekend and choose independence. Choose freedom.