Beer History/Culture: America’s Second Attempt at Craft Brewing

Featured Contributor Matt  @SportsNCraftBeer

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Who would have imagined that one day, a person could walk into a 7-11 and buy a Big Gulp and Pumpkin Ale at the same time? Americans are in the midst of a craft beer craze — the number of U.S. breweries rose from less than 100 to more than 3,000 since the 1980s, much of that in the last ten years. Despite dips in the sales of beer, overall, craft brew sales rose 15% during 2012 and 18% in 2013. In 2012, craft brewing contributed $33.9 billion to the U.S. economy, according to Brewer’s Association chief economist, Bart Watson.

This is not America’s first beer boom. Nearly 4,000 breweries existed prior to the 20th century. 19th century brewers largely carted their beer over chunky dirt roads to the nearest saloon – and there were plenty of them at the time. In fact, beer historian Andrew Sinclair noted, “By 1909, there was one saloon for every three hundred people in the [nation’s] cities.” The most successful breweries took advantage of the burgeoning mass-transportation and mass-marketing age, bought most of the saloons, and engaged in price gouging; they put hundreds of smaller breweries out of business.

After Prohibition, few brewers had the financial ability or the desire to brew again. The decline continued through the early ‘80s; only 88 breweries remained in 1984 and Busch, Miller, Heilmann, Stroh, Coors, and Pabst controlled 92% of the market.

Just as the number of breweries dwindled to its lowest point in America, an undercurrent of beer-rebellion festered. A recent study of early craft brewing by Examiner.com shows that growth of imported beer sales exceeded domestic growth by 265% during the 1970s. In 1978, Congress finally removed the law that outlawed home brewing. Not long thereafter, commercial craft brewing emerged and experienced almost immediate success. According to beeradvocate.com, in 1994, 84 breweries existed solely within California – nearly matching the total number of breweries found in the entire country only ten years prior.

The world of craft brewing harks back to a pre-industrial America, where tradesmen and farmers worked at home. BuckleDown Brewing in Lyons, Illinois, states on their website, “there’s something uniquely gratifying about working hard, working with your hands, and making something you are proud of.” In a Brewers Association web-article, “History of Craft Brewing,” they claim that craft brewers are “serving their local communities.” It is appropriate that in 2009, President Obama mitigated a local racial issue (in Boston) by holding a “beer summit” at the White House; the President both works and lives in the White House – very pre-industrial, indeed.

The story of Sierra Nevada, now America’s seventh largest brewery, epitomizes the craft brew story. Ken Grossman started brewing Sierra Nevada commercially in 1980 by brewing a few hundred barrels per week. By 2013, Sierra Nevada produced nearly 800,000 barrels per week and distributed their products nationwide. In 2013, they opened a second brewery in Asheville, North Carolina. Speaking of Asheville, New Belgium in Fort Collins, Colorado, will open a second brewery there in 2015, as well. Similar to Sierra Nevada, New Belgium rose from a tiny local brewery to one found nationally.

Is this a repeat of the early 20th century? Are the juggernauts of the craft brew world going to monopolize the industry? Although no one can predict the future – it appears that this current boom is entirely different from its predecessor. Not only are craft brew sales growing and capturing a larger portion of the overall beer sales, The Brewers Association statistics show the ratio of breweries opening to breweries failing at over 100:1. Keep in mind, much of this growth occurred during a strong economic recession. In addition, last time I checked, a new Prohibition seems hard to imagine – alcohol contributes nearly 400 billion dollars to the U.S economy, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Although national supermarket chains sell Sierra Nevada, they purchase 100% of their hops from local farms near their home in Chico, California and they supply their own electricity via 10,000 solar panels. To many, their self-sufficient attitudes towards local resources, as well as working strictly with local farms equates to an economic boost to the local economy, thus they are committed to their local community. Similarly, New Belgium Brewery devotes a large portion of their website towards their efforts in sustainability, clean water, and a host of “environmental metrics.” They also feature, at length, their philanthropy and “advocating for positive change in our communities,” including a commitment towards restoring the depleted Colorado River water supply. Other breweries do the same…

Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware: Beer & Benevolence is the philanthropic branch of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. We endeavor to creatively collaborate with nonprofit organizations to foster community, nourish artistic advancement and cultivate environmental stewardship.

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Church Street brewery in Itasca, IL: Our brewery was designed to be efficient and to care for the environment. We recycle cold water used to chill wort before it goes into the fermenter by pumping it back to our hot water tank, and our spent grain goes out to Robertson Farms in Kirkland to help feed 650 hungry cattle!

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Depot Street Brewing in Jonesborough, TN: We are making Bio-diesel out of used vegetable oil and using it in our delivery trucks….Spent grain is used for feeding local cattle…and a small amount used in making a delicious bread (Try some at Scratch Bakery in Johnson City)

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In the end, craft brewers, big and small, show dedication to their communities, natural resources, and the quality of the beer – that is their philosophy, and, truthfully, their business model. It is how craft breweries of all sizes coexist. Together, the collective craft brewing community battles against corporate brewers like Miller-Coors and Anheuser-Busch (still the biggest brewery in the U.S.). Only time will tell to see if they can win or not. Craft brewing now makes up for 10% of the total beer sales, up from under 5% only three years ago.

This is America’s second marriage to brewing mania and the passion is palpable. So, head to your nearest 7-11 and grab a six-pack. Better yet, feel free to head to the nearest brewpub, where everybody knows the brewer’s name. Cheers!

Matt’s Bio:

Writer, beer lover, and sports aficionado.

Chicago

Twitter Bio  @SportsChipsnDip

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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

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