The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution
After I published my history of beer in America, the three questions readers asked me (over and over and over) were: “What’s your favorite beer?” “Why didn’t you spend more time on craft beer?” and “Are you going to write a history of craft beer?”
Thanks to Tom Acitelli, I can scratch number three off that list. He’s done the job and with verve, common sense and the requisite butt-in-the-chair hard work. (That last cannot be underestimated. Here’s an insider secret about books: Each one represents thousands upon thousands upon thousands of hours of work on the part of the author.)
Acitelli, a journalist, brought three valuable tools to his project: a reporter’s nose for story, a writer’s ear for pitch-perfect prose, and a historian’s mania for accuracy and context. As impressive, he hacked his own path through the terrain. Rather than rely on the work of other writers, Acitelli started from scratch. He interviewed dozens of people (in most cases drawing from them details that, thus far, no other historian of beer has extracted, presumably because the right questions had not been asked). He tracked down people no one else had thought to talk to. He scoured newspapers, trade papers, magazines and websites. (His documentation of that last is extraordinary: It’s easy to forget how much the visual and technical structure of our online world has changed in 15 years. He reminds us.) As a result, The Audacity of Hops is rich with small but telling details on which historians rely—details that, when stitched together, weave a tapestry that tells us humans who we are and how and why we do what we do, details that make, in other words, what we call “history.”
As important, however, Acitelli pitched his authorial tent outside the craft beer bubble. That outsider’s perch allowed him to fold craft beer’s history into a larger national (and even international) context, and his story is better for it. He recounts the impact of the short-lived but powerful media role played by “yuppies” in the 1980s. The big “shake-out” of the 1990s gets full treatment, but he lays it out against the backdrop of that decade’s startup/dot-com culture, which inhaled every last jot of investment dollars, leaving little for nondigital entrepreneurs and thus stalling craft brewing’s momentum. He details what it’s easy to overlook (because we’re so surrounded by it now): the way in which digital media (a byproduct of the ’90s tech boom) altered craft brewing’s course, pushing it beyond its early infrastructure of Boulder-driven conferences and festivals into a larger arena. The result is a rich, fully fleshed history of the people and ideas that drove (and still drive) the creation of the American craft brewing industry.
If there’s a flaw, it’s the one that haunts every writer who breaks new research ground: the urge (OK, more like a mania) to record and thus preserve every last bit of who-what-where. As a result, at times the book is a bit too inside-baseballish. Make no mistake: As a historian, I stand with Acitelli in erring on the side of excess. His careful work has preserved what might otherwise have been lost: names, dates, crucial connections between and among the founders and the succeeding generations who built the industry.
And, too, while Acitelli gives the dons of beer writing, Michael Jackson and Fred Eckhardt, their due, there are others who’ve slogged in the trenches nearly as long. I would have liked more about them and the way in which, over the years, they, too, helped invent beer writing and not only spread the craft beer gospel but shaped its content, too.
But those are quibbles. Acitelli’s book is a first-rate piece of front-line history, and this is the book that craft beer fans have been waiting for. If you run into Acitelli somewhere, buy the guy a beer. He deserves it. (Hey! There’s a project for collaborative- and theme-crazed craft brewers: Acitelli Ale, anyone? Audacity Amber? Hopped History?)