Craft Beer’s Transition to the Mainstream

Craft beer once existed as an alternative beer; it lived on the fringe and resided in the land of niche. There was beer, and then there was craft beer. However, there are signs within the realm of popular culture that demonstrate craft beer has slowly transitioned from different to orthodox.

Dedicated beer drinkers, of course, know the difference between macro and craft, and take the matter seriously. But, within mainstream culture — those who don’t partake daily in Untappd postings or stand in line for special releases — the term beer exists as the all encompassing expression that could mean Founders, PBR, Miller, or Rogue.

Twenty-one-year-old Park Ridge, Illinois native, Michelle, fresh out of the sorority house, happened to sit next to this writer during a recent visit to a Chicago bar. Her banter with the bartender reminded one of a five-star chef talking to his or her fishmonger — this girl knew what she wanted and she was picky about her beer. So, I asked:

  • What got you into craft beer?  “I don’t know. Wait. [Pointing to her beer] Is this craft? I always forget what is craft and what isn’t. I just know what I like.”
  • Do you ever drink Budweiser or Miller? “I guess. I mean if I’m at someone’s house or something, but that type of beer is so boring. I like a little more flavor.”

Her boyfriend interjected while chuckling, “Yeah, trust me. She likes craft. She doesn’t get into all the labels or posting pics and stuff, but she won’t drink s–t beer unless we are at a ballgame or someone’s house.”  

Craft beer has infiltrated of mainstream much in the same fashion that gamers and comic book lovers transformed nerdiness into cool. So, it seems appropriate that the nexus between nerdiness and craft beer love could be seen on a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory. The four nerdy male characters went to a sports bar and ordered four beers – two Sierra Nevadas and two Ballast Points. In the epitome of nonchalance, the beer simply existed as a prop. It just happened that the beer happened to be craft beer. They didn’t talk about drinking craft beer, they just said, casually, they were drinking beer.

Photo: Mathew Powers - Screenshot of "The Big Bang Theory" on CBS
Photo: Mathew Powers – Screenshot of “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS

It provoked this writer to wonder, when did craft beer become just plain old beer?

Using television as a window into America’s beer consumption past, one can notice a few beer drinking trends.  For instance, Archie Bunker, in All in the Family,  often uttered words to his wife, “Edith, get me a beer, will ya?” Symbolic of the 1970s, Edith handed Archie with a can of beer that resembled the typical beer of the day – a pale, yellow, macro-pilsner. That’s what beer meant.

Archie Bunker's beer - via CBS & the Smithsonian.
Archie Bunker’s beer – via CBS & the Smithsonian.

By the 1980s, Cheers — a show set in a neighborhood bar —  existed as one of the era’s most popular shows. The show largely portrayed beer drinkers as average Joes (even the beer drinking female, Carla, was a sports-loving, rough, tough, tomboy). Yet again, each brew poured resembled the beer that people of that era associated with beer – American macro.

Cheers, NBC
Cheers, NBC

In the 1990s, Friends arrived on the television scene, and this is where the craft beer’s influence on popular culture is well noticed. In an early episode, the characters played poker while indulging in beer that’s clearly Miller Lite and Michelob. Over time, six-packs of beer atop Joey and Chandler’s fridge transitioned from Miller to Boddingtons, Dos Equis, and Newcastle — not craft, but a clear sign of a changing beer culture. By the end of the show, Sierra Nevada often crept into scenes. Craft beer had found its way into pop-culture.  

Friends, NBC
Friends, NBC

A new American beer identity arrived with the dawn of a new millennium. Shows like Parks n’ Rec almost exclusively showcased beer brewed by Upland Brewing Company.

Parks and Recreation, NBC
Parks and Recreation, NBC

While many others, such as My Name is Earl and New Girl drank the fictitious Heisler Beer and Jekyll Island, which replicated the ideas of All in the Family and Cheers by existing as a generic label, but the labels were adorned with designs, artwork, and cool script. In other words, generic beer labels pointed to the beer people knew and in today’s mainstream world, the terms beer and craft beer are intertwined. 

Courtesy of ISS.
Courtesy of ISS.

Beer_Heisler_sixpack1_thumb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But, it’s not just TV shows. For example, multi-award-winning chef Tony Mantuano’s Bar Toma in Chicago has an extensive beer menu. It doesn’t have a beer and craft beer menu. It doesn’t have a listing for domestic and craft. It has a beer menu, where Left Hand Brewing and Tallgrass are sandwiched between Michelob and Heineken. It’s where Revolution, Goose Island, Stella Artois, 3 Sheep, Founders, and Great Lakes Brewing all reside in the same place.

If you know the difference, you are on the fringe. The rest of the world sees craft beer as part of everyday beer life. It’s not new. It’s not revolutionary. It’s been around for thirty years. Craft beer, macro beer, and all things in between are now part of the mainstream, they are all….beer.
Matt is Writer for @chilledmagazine | Writer for @Chicagonow | Beer Nerd Contribution for @Sommbeer

Make sure to check out Matt’s blog A Pint of Chicago as well!

Mathew Powers

Mathew Powers

Forever part of the Sommbeer family, Matt's journey from beer geek to beer writer has included regular contributions to Chilled Magazine, Thrillist.com, and his blog, "A Pint of Chicago," for the Chicago Tribune Media Group. He's also published non-beer-related items on various magazines, "webzines," and Ebooks. But, Sommbeer was, is, and always will be his home.
Mathew Powers