The Craft Beer Revolution

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The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

So said Gil Scott-Heron in his 1970 poem of the same name. At the time, what has come to be known as “The Craft Beer Revolution” had not yet begun, and would not be started for more than a decade. Although the hop-head led Craft Beer Revolution might not have the same political goals as Scott-Heron’s vision, it shares in this: it is a grassroots effort, not dictated by big business, but begun—and sustained—from the ground up by people who have dedicated their lives to brewing, promoting, and yes, of course, drinking great beer.

The so-called Craft Beer Revolution began in the United States, arguably with the resurrection of Anchor Steam Brewery by Fritz Maytag in the 1960’s. However, it wasn’t until twenty or thirty years later that things really took off, as breweries like Sierra Nevada, Redhook, Brooklyn Brewery, Summit, and many, many more were founding in the 1980’s. Since then, craft beer has been on the rise, with the number of breweries sky-rocketing in the 21st Century. So, just what happened?

As with many, perhaps even most revolutions, things had gotten pretty bad before the revolution got off the ground. While breweries in countries like Belgium and Germany can trace their roots back hundreds of years, several generations, the passing of prohibition in the United States in 1920 broke the bloodlines (or tap lines, or hop vines) of many American breweries. In fact, only recently, nearly a century after prohibition, has the number of different American breweries recovered to pre-prohibition levels. In 1915, there were more than 1,200 breweries operating in the United States of America. Although prohibition was repealed with the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933, the damage to America’s brewing tradition, and its beer culture, had been done. In 1965, as Fritz Maytag fought to keep beer flowing at Anchor in San Francisco, there were fewer than 200 breweries in all the United States. Although at that point, the population in the US had nearly doubled from what it was when prohibition had been passed, there were 1,000 fewer breweries.

Beer Comes Back

Eschewing the money-saving tactics of their macro-brewing compatriots such as Coors or Anheuser-Busch—who often added the cheaper, heavily-subsidized American corn to their beers, and continue to do so to this day—many of the new ‘micro-brewers’ insisted on abiding by the old Reinheitsgebot or German Beer Purity Law, which demands the use of only three ingredients to make beer: water, barley, and hops. As the 1980’s turned into the 1990’s, many of these breweries, such as Brooklyn Brewery in New York or Summit Brewery in St. Paul, began to see success not only in their pints, but also in their pockets. Hop-forward IPA’s may require more ingredients, and even more time in their brewing process than a Coors Light, but when put in front of consumers, they were beginning to conquer market share, one palate at a time.

If the Craft Beer Revolution gained momentum during the 1990’s, in the 2000’s, it reached escape velocity. In 1990, craft breweries in the United States were producing just under one million barrels of beer annually. In 2000, that number was up to nearly five billion; and in 2010, craft breweries were churning out 10 million barrels of beer each year. According to the Brewers Association, in the United States, the craft beer market generated $19.6 billion of revenue in 2014. Not only is that a lot of dough (or, rather, a lot of wort), that represents more than a 25% increase over 2012, just two years prior. At the current rate of growth, craft beer sales within the United States have a good chance of eclipsing $25 billion in 2015. Compared to Exxon Mobil, that’s chump change, but if you’re in the market for a fine beer rather than a barrel of crude, well friends, your marketplace is growing by the day.

No, It Will Still Not Be Televised

Despite the major growth of American craft beer, the profits of micro-breweries still pale in comparison to their macro brewing counterparts. The 21 million barrels of craft beer sold in the USA in 2014 only represent a small fraction, 11%, of the overall market share. And macro breweries such as MillerCoors or InBev’s Budweiser? They account for a staggering 145 million barrels. Further—and extending our initial metaphor—although more than $1 billion is spent on beer advertising annually, craft breweries only account for a small fraction of that, with many profoundly successful craft breweries buying zero television advertising time at all.

And, it turns out, most craft beer drinkers are just fine with that. The majority of craft beer consumers cite either the word of mouth influence of friends, or their time spent online as more influential to which six-pack they pick up at the store, or which pint they have poured at their local pub. But that doesn’t stop the macro-breweries from striking back with television ads; in the 2015 Super Bowl, Budweiser ran a controversial ad which can only be described as anti-craft beer. What’s more, they paid a whopping $9 million to do so.

The ad doesn’t discount the fact that Budweiser, whatever you might think of their product, does brew a remarkably uniform beer, with all but inerrant precision. What it does represent, is this: the millions of dollars of market share that have been snagged by craft breweries have gotten the big breweries attention. But the bottom line here is this: the craft beer revolution is happening in home brewers’ basements, in bars adding extra tap lines and giving room for new craft beers, in retail shops offering beers that didn’t even exist five or ten years ago; the craft beer revolution will not be televised, and, at least at this point, it seems that it will not be stopped.

The revolution in craft brewing may have arguably started in the United States, but it is not unique to the USA. Although the UK may have old stalwart breweries, ones unaffected by American prohibition, such a Samuel Smith, they also now have new breweries like Brew Dog; nothing may rival La Trappe for fantastic and historical beers brewed in Holland, but Brouwerij ‘t IJ is serving up great new beers, as well. For example, in an interview with The Guardian, English brewer Jamie Hancock recalled being ‘converted’ to a new way of thinking about beer by the American craft beer Magic Hat #9, recalling that tasting it “was like: ‘Bloody hell, this is a totally new thing.”

Still, even though the Craft Beer Revolution is not unique to the United States, with the American legacy of prohibition and its repeal, the US craft beer scene has arguably the most to fight for. In 1873, there were more than 4,000 breweries in the United States. Today, at nearly 3,500 breweries, according to the Brewers Association, America has nearly returned to its pre-prohibition numbers. With the Craft Beer Revolution going strong, the Yanks look to be back at their brewing heyday in the near future. Since the 21st Amendment repealed prohibition in 1933, it has been a long, long road to get back here, but American breweries look to be on the cusp of retaining their former glory. And the icing on the cake—or perhaps the bottle conditioning—is that among the new, great craft breweries is a brewery founded in San Francisco in 2000, titled: 21st Amendment.

Friends, the revolution, indeed, the beer Renaissance, is upon us. As Jamie Hancock said in his Guardian interview, today, for those of us who enjoy a fine beer, “It’s the best time in our lifetime.”

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