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USA: The American revolution

What the heck is going on with craft beer in the USA and who is responsible? George Lenker gives us the low-down.

The leaders of the American Revolution are often referred to as the Founding Fathers of the United States, but several of them might also be called The Fermenting Fathers. And like the nation itself, the current story of brewing in America is one of independence, wild highs and lows, and of course, revolution.

A BRIEF HISTORY Although it’s comparatively a young nation, the US has a fairly rich brewing history, beginning with its first president George Washington.

Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were all brewers to one degree or another, Washington was such an advocate for beer that he demanded his troops still receive their ration of a quart of porter, even when the Continental Congress tried to cut them off due to the war’s cost. For his part, Madison proposed a national brewery for the fledgling country and even wanted establish a governmental position of Secretary of Beer.

Yet while these early proponents of brewing led to a flourishing beer culture that reached its peak in 1873, when more than 4,000 breweries dotted the still emerging country, there have plenty of times when America’s beer glass seemed half empty, not half full. This draught drought reached a nadir in 1919 when the US Congress passed an amendment to the Constitution commonly called Prohibition. The law effectively shut down the creation and sales of all alcoholic beverages, including beer.

This meant, of course, that anyone in the brewing business had to find other means of making money, and while the larger brewers switched making other products such as malt syrup and malted milk, most of the smaller operations were forced to shut down, never to recover. It took 14 years to reverse this tragic mistake in legislation, far too late for most brewers to get back in the game. While there were more than 1,500 breweries right before Prohibition, there were fewer than 500 a decade after its repeal – a number that would shrink further in years to come So from the 1930s through to the 1970s, the beer trade was dominated by Anheuser Busch, Miller and Pabst, as well as a few larger regional companies such as Coors, Schlitz and Schaefer and Ballantine. But even some of these second-tier breweries found it hard to survive and by the late 1970s, many had shut down.

Bud, the “King of Beers” was truly king of American brewing, with Miller a close second. Coors, a smaller brewery in Colorado, found its niche with the counter culture – this despite the fact that the Coors family was staunchly conservative politically. By the end of the 1970s, there were fewer than 50 breweries in the entire nation – less than one per state. And business analysts forecast that soon that number would fall to 10 or fewer.

But with the stroke of a pen legalising homebrewing in 1979, then- President Jimmy Carter opened the floodgates of what has become a second American Revolution – this one in craft brewing. Suddenly, people who had been secretly (or in some cases, not so secretly) making beer at home could do so openly and plenty of them decided to make a career out of it.

Not all of them made it, but there are now about 1,500 breweries in the country, up from 80 in 1980 – not anywhere near the 4000-plus of 1873, but quite a growth in 30 years.

THE PIONEERS One of these homebrewers who has not only survived but thrived is Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co., better known as Samuel Adams. Along with Sierra Nevada, New Albion and Anchor Brewing, Koch’s company is one of the most successful of the newer wave of craft breweries in the country.

Koch’s story has been wellchronicled, but the short version is this: after years as a successful manufacturing consultant, Koch wanted to start his own business – one that wouldn’t keep him travelling all the time so he could spend more time with his wife and young children.

Because he came from a brewing family, beer seemed a natural fit.

“I couldn’t get it out of my head,” he says. “I believe that you couldn’t get a great glass of beer in most of the United States in the early 1980s. If you were in the right bar in the right city you might find one, but not most places and I wanted to change that.” By 1985, Koch brought Samuel Adams Boston Lager into the world. The plan was to grow slowly and be brewing 8,000 barrels (about 9,400 hectolitres) within five years. Of course that plan had to be thrown out the window when the company reached that watermark after just five months. The beer also was voted the country’s best brew at the Great American Beer Festival just three months after it was introduced.

“I had thought it would never be big, but at least I can make a living,” says Koch. “Then it took off and ironically I spent a lot of the next 25 years on the road anyway.” Now, only the major industrial breweries of Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors and Pabst top Sam Adams in sales. One of the other pioneering craft breweries, (which actually preceded Sam Adams by a few years) Sierra Nevada also makes the Top 10 brewers list in the US. But that doesn’t mean any of the craft brewers are on the verge of joining the larger companies in terms of sales.

“We’re the biggest craft brewer in the country, but our sales are [less than] one per cent of all the beer sold in the country, so we’re still relatively small,” says Koch.

Relatively small, indeed: the larger brands, such as Budweiser, Miller and Pabst, still pull in 93 per cent of all beer sales in the country. Yet while craft brewers remain a small segment of the market, it is the section that is growing – even in these shaky economic times. The major brands have shown flat sales for several years, but the craft segment has surged.

If anything proves that the nation’s palate may be slowly but surely changing to more full-flavoured brews, it’s the fact that both Budweiser and Miller have launched their own versions of craft-style beers recently.

STYLES & STATISTICS While the number of breweries per capita in the US may seem small to citizens of historic beer countries such as Germany, Britain and Belgium, the sheer total number of places that brew in the US (1,527 as of last year) could easily fill a book – and has done so, several times.

What truly distinguishes the US from other brew-happy nations, however, has been its embrace of both higheralcohol “extreme” brews and the heavy-handed use of hops in so-called “double” or “Imperial” beers, especially IPAs. Craft brewers such as Stone, Rogue and Dogfish Head have all embraced this independent spirit, concocting recipes that push the outer edges of the definition of beer.

While Jim Koch actually started this whole pattern when he released his 18 per cent Triple Bock in 1994, others have basically built their reputation on extreme styles of brewing. Now Imperial Stouts and IPAs are among the favourites of many tipplers.

For Greg Koch (no relation to Jim), co-founder of Stone Brewing in Escondido, California, brewing newer styles of beers was not a marketing ploy, but simply the way he saw the world. His best seller is Stone IPA, followed by Arrogant Bastard Ale.

“We knew we wanted to make big character beers and we knew that most people wouldn’t like them,” he says.

“And I find it acceptable that many people won’t like them because the things I gravitate to and cherish most are never the popular ones and certainly never commercial ones.” Up the coast in Newport, Oregon, Rogue Brewing co-founder Brett Joyce has a similar independent vision. The brewery’s Dead Guy Ale leads the pack for Rogue.

“We do not pay any attention to our competition. We are not in the beer business, we are a revolution and consider ourselves to be in the change business,” he says. “John Maier, our brewmaster of 21 years, has the amazing ability to balance multiple hops and create beautiful beers.

Although his nickname is ‘More Hops,’ his genius is his ability to balance hops and malt across 30-plus different styles. We have never told John what to put in his beers, he decides which ingredients to use, how much to use, and then tells us what the beer cost.

We figure it’s our job to find a way to sell his world class creations.” Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Brewing in Rehoboth Beach Delaware, has fearlessly smashed through the walls between styles, blending various ones together, adding natural fruit flavours – and even wine – to some of his brews. Yet it is still Jim Koch at Samuel Adams who continues to stretch as far as anyone in extreme styles. Off and on for the past few years he has brewed Utopias, a strong ale that more closely resembles cognac and that clocks in at 25% ABV.

Yet the Samuel Adams beers hone more closely to balanced styles than crazier ones. The company’s flagship beer is still Boston Lager, a smooth, balanced brew that still has plenty of aspects to savour. This is because Koch’s philosophy of brewing is that, first and foremost, drinking a beer should be a pleasurable experience.

“There should be full flavours but those flavours should be complex and balanced,” he says.

There now seems to be a great debate among American brewers and beer drinkers about which path is best.

Some decry the highly hopped Imperial IPAs as over-the-top, and are trying to create lower-alcohol session beers.

Many other smaller breweries just opt to make balanced, traditional models, such as English-style bitters and porters, or Belgian ales.

Yet the thirst for “big” beers doesn’t seem to be diminishing either: Stone Brewing grew from 67,000 barrels in 2007 to 83,000 barrels last year. For better or worse, extreme brews still define the nation’s brewing profile to other parts of the world.

GEOGRAPHY As far as trying to cover the US beer map, well, good luck. The Northwest region of the country alone would take weeks, with Portland Oregon’s 28 breweries – the most in any US city – alone taking up a large portion of time.

California, the largest state, also has a daunting number of breweries and brewpubs – around 250 – including Stone, Sierra Nevada, Gordon Biersch, and Lagunitas Brewing. Moving slightly inland, Colorado, home to Coors, also contains some wellknown craft breweries such as Flying Dog Brewing.

The middle part of the country also features some notable names besides the larger companies such as Budweiser, Miller, and Pabst: Minnesota’s Summit Brewing, Bells of Michigan and Wisconsin’s New Glarus.

The south is dominated by Abitas of Louisiana and the East Coast features a host of popular craft names, including Brooklyn Brewing and Six Point of New York, Long Trail Brewing of Vermont, Shipyard of Maine and Victory brewing of Pennsylvania (as well as Samuel Adams and Dogfish Head), although clearly more than can be mentioned in one article.

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE In the end, the US brewing scene reflects the overall culture of such a massive nation: diverse, somewhat scattershot and innovative – but also sometimes bitterly divided in its opinions. But just as other independent movements, in film, music and cuisine, have grabbed a foothold and jostled larger corporations, craft beer in the US seems to be gaining strength, one palate at a time.

Stone’s Greg Koch says all these changes are part of a greater shift. “I believe that craft brewing is part of a much larger movement that is simply the right way to do things,” he says. “We now have artisinal cheeses, great coffee, indie music and we are paying more attention to what we eat and drink. It’s a paradigm shift and these forces work together in concert.”

Top 50
OVERALL BREWING COMPANIES BY BEER
SALES VOLUME (2007 sale. Source: The
Brewers Association)
1 Anheuser- Busch Inc., St. Louis, MO
2 Miller Brewing Co., Milwaukee, WI
3 Coors Brewing Co., Golden, CO
4 Pabst Brewing Co., Woodridge, IL
5 Boston Beer Co., Boston, MA
6 D.G. Yuengling and Son Inc.,
Pottsville, PA
7 Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, CA
8 New Belgium Brewing Co. Inc., Fort
Collins, CO
9 High Falls Brewing Co., NY
10 Spoetzl Brewery, Shiner, TX
11 Widmer Brothers Brewing Co.,
Portland, OR
12 Redhook Ale Brewery, Woodinville, WA
13 Pyramid Breweries Inc., Seattle, WA
14 Matt Brewing Co., Utica, NY
15 Minhas Craft Brewery, Monroe, WI
16 Deschutes Brewery, Inc., Bend, OR
17 Iron City Brewing Co., Pittsburgh, PA
18 Boulevard Brewing Co., Kansas City, MO
19 Full Sail Brewing Co., Hood River, OR
20 Harpoon Brewery, Boston, MA
21 Alaskan Brewing and Bottling Co.,
Juneau, AK
22 Magic Hat Brewing Co. & Performing
Arts Center, South Burlington, VT
23 Anchor Brewing Co., San Francisco, CA
24 Bell’s Brewery, Inc., Galesburg, MI
25 Goose Island Beer Co., Chicago, IL
26 August Schell Brewing Co. New Ulm, MN
27 Shipyard Brewing Co., Portland, ME
28 Summit Brewing Co., St. Paul, MN
29 Mendocino Brewing Co., Ukiah, CA
30 Abita Brewing Co., Abita Springs, LA
31 Gordon Biersch Brewing Co., San Jose, CA
32 Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn, NY
33 Stone Brewing Co., Escondido, CA
34 Rogue Ales / Oregon Brewing,
Newport, OR
35 Long Trail Brewing Co., Bridgewater
Corners, VT
36 New Glarus Brewing Co., New Glarus, WI
37 Kona Brewing Co., Kailua-Kona, HI
38 Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Milton, DE
39 Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Paso
Robles, CA
40 Great Lakes Brewing Co./Ohio,
Cleveland, OH
41 The Lagunitas Brewing Co., Petaluma, CA
42 Flying Dog Brewery, Denver, CO
43 Sweetwater Brewing Co., Atlanta, GA
44 Bridgeport Brewing Co., Portland, OR
45 Rock Bottom Brewery Restaurants,
Louisville, CO
46 Gluek Brewing Co., Cold Spring, MN
47 Straub Brewery, St. Mary’s, PA
48 Odell Brewing Co., Fort Collins, CO
49 BJ’s Restaurant & Brewery, Huntington
Beach, CA
50 Victory Brewing Co., Downingtown, PA