Drafting A Revolution
An Inside Look at the Pioneering Days of American Craft Beer
It Starts at Home
Still, for all the long hours, all the risk, all the evangelization by Jackson and Eckhardt, craft beer was a drop in the proverbial bucket of American brewing. Nothing illustrated its infinitesimal share of the marketplace than the rise of light beer.
Within a generation of the February 1975 rollout of Miller Lite, half the beer sold in America would be light. Even thinner than the bastardized pilsner that already accounted for around eight in 10 beers sold, light beer flew off the shelves behind advertising blitzes unattainable for the likes of Maytag and McAuliffe (Miller’s budget for Lite at the time was about $250 million in today’s money).
Not that either man would advertise. Craft beer remained very much word-of-mouth by the late 1970s. Though word was spreading.
Charlie Papazian and Charlie Matzen, two twenty-something buddies from the Boulder area in Colorado, started the ambitiously titled American Homebrewers Association in 1978, mailing copies of their new Zymurgy magazine to winemaking shops they culled from the Yellow Pages at the library.
It had to be winemaking shops because homebrewing was still illegal, a vestige of an oversight after Repeal in 1933. That changed, too, through word of mouth—particularly the words of members of the oldest homebrewing club in America, the Maltose Falcons out of Los Angeles, started in 1974. Club members, along with Lee Coe, who Fred Eckhardt once described as “a California homebrew curmudgeon,” and Nancy Crosby, the head of a trade group representing winemaking shops, lobbied U.S. Senator Alan Cranston to introduce legislation legalizing homebrewing.
Cranston did. On Aug. 25, 1978 the Senate passed a bill that allowed households to craft up to 200 gallons of tax-free homebrew annually. Less than two months later, President Jimmy Carter, said to be a teetotaler though he would take up winemaking after the White House, signed it into law. It took effect Feb. 1, 1979.
It was a propitious government pivot for the American craft beer movement. Another piece of legislation, enacted in 1976, was as well. Henry King, the long-time head of the United States Brewers Association, pushed through changes that chopped the federal excise tax on beer from $9 to $7 per barrel on the first 60,000—provided a brewery did not produce more than 2 million annually. (For that legislation’s imprimatur, Peter Stroh, at King’s behest, nudged fellow Michigander Gerald Ford.)
These legal changes set the stage by the end of the 1980s for tremendous growth in craft beer. So, too, did the exertions of Maytag, McAuliffe and a bare handful of other commercial craft brewers, including Tom de Bakker, a fireman who, with his wife Jan, started what should be considered America’s second new craft brewery, DeBakker Brewing, in 1979 in Novato, just north of San Francisco.
This tremendous growth was now organic and symbiotic. Here’s an example:
In 1978, Byron Burch, author of the influential homebrewing book Quality Brewing and co-owner of a homebrewing shop in San Rafael, hosted an earnest young man from Chico, Calif., at his Oakland home. The two had run into each other at a winemaking trade show in neighboring Berkeley. The young man talked excitedly of his plans for a craft brewery in Chico as he and his host drank Burch’s homebrew.
The young man had toured Anchor and New Albion. He homebrewed; he even ran a homebrew shop in a former fleabag hotel. He was convinced that commercial craft brewing could work, even in a world bathed in Lite and with traditional financial avenues, like commercial and investment banks, closed, for now, to the idea. He was up for the challenge, the grueling, wet work, the pitiless distribution to a largely indifferent marketplace; he had seen Maytag and McAuliffe do it.
The young man’s name was Ken Grossman; his idea was the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.
This story was adapted from the new book, The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution by Tom Acitelli. He can be reached via email and on Twitter.