The First Big Magazine piece on Microbrewing, 30 Years Later
At the start of 1987, William Least Heat-Moon was a writer best-known for a 1982 book called Blue Highways. Heat-Moon (he was part Osage) had lost his job and his wife on the same winter’s day, and so had set off on a road trip, using as a guide those blue lines on maps that designate non-Interstate highways, byways and back roads.
The book became a bestseller, and critics compared it favorably to John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
A few years later, Heat-Moon set off on another journey, one also of discovery but less about the wanderlust of a man in middle-age flux and more about an industry just really toddling forth.
“A Glass of Handmade,” Heat-Moon’s 6,978-word piece starting on page 75 of the Atlantic Monthly’s 130-page November 1987 edition, charted his and a friend’s road trip visiting nearly all of the nation’s smaller, more traditional breweries then, including brewpubs. The biggest exception was the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., its Chico, California, location too far-flung.
The piece was the first long-form consumer magazine story about what was then called microbrewing. At the time, the 130-year-old Atlantic was heading toward an all-time circulation peak of 468,000 subscribers and newsstand purchasers in 1990. Heat-Moon’s “A Glass of Handmade,” then, found a wide audience among the Atlantic’s generally affluent, educated readership.
As to the piece itself, it was understandably broad in scope given the dozens of microbreweries in operation.
But it was also intimate given Heat-Moon’s conversational writing style, and the fact that he and his friend—whom he called the Venerable Tashmoo because of his own Native American background—sought out to find not only the who, what, where and how of microbrewing, but the why (which turned out to have a lot to do with simply wanting to make a good-tasting beer for a local audience).
The pair started in Albany, New York, at the old Wm. S. Newman Brewing Co., one of the first microbreweries east of the Rocky Mountains.
“One September afternoon, The Venerable and I watched Bill Newman work; we gnawed grains of his various malted barleys; we helped him stir the mash; we tasted the sweet wort, the hopped wort, the green beer, and the finished ale fresh from the maturing tank. Young Newman (to be a microbrewer is to be under forty) wanted to give his city a choice of flavors, to fill a cranny that the industrial breweries left as they bought up regional companies.”
As intimate as Heat-Moon, his traveling companion, and their hosts might get with the grains, hops, et al, the writer made little attempt to romanticize the distance between microbrewing’s reality 30 years ago and its sustainability as a possible trend, never mind business model.
Indeed, Bill Newman would file for bankruptcy protection a couple of months before “A Glass of Handmade” even came out (Heat-Moon himself is still writing, and the Venerable Tashmoo died in 2007). Here’s the writer again, this time further along in the article and farther along into America:
“I told the bartender what I’d seen at lunch in a cafe downtown: a man—fifties, blue blazer, penny loafers, USA Today under his arm—ordered a Hale’s Pale American Ale, took a single sip, and handed it back to the bartender, who dumped it and then passed across a bottle of Heineken. The bartender said, ‘I don’t see many conversions of middle-aged people. The beer a man’s drinking when he’s thirty is the one he tends to believe in the rest of his life.’”
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution and the forthcoming Whiskey Business: How Small-Batch Distillers Are Transforming American Spirits. He is at work on a biography of Michael Jackson.