Playing Catch-Up Ball
Of course, with regard to microbreweries, the West Coast did get the drop on us. New Albion began selling beer in 1977. The first brick-and-mortar micro in the East, the William S. Newman Brewing Co. in Albany, NY, didn’t open until 1981.
Most of the early East Coast pioneers broke into the business through contract-brewing: renting other people’s breweries to make their beer. Names that spring to mind include Jim Koch of Boston Beer Co.; Tom Potter and Steve Hindy of the Brooklyn Brewery; Tom Pastorius of Penn Brewery in Pittsburgh; and Gary Heurich of the Olde Heurich Brewing Co. in Washington, DC. Most of them would eventually open (or purchase) their own facilities. But they produced (and still produce) a lot of excellent beer at other’s people’s plants, and have helped to keep some fine, old regional breweries out of bankruptcy court.
Not long ago contract-brewing was almost a cuss word in some circles. There seemed to be a fear that by eliminating overhead, these contract brewers were going to flood the market with cheap beer and put the “real” microbrewers out of business. Critics also brought up quality-control issues. There was an attitude that anything produced at Pittsburgh Brewing Co. must of necessity taste like Iron City.
I’d like to think that we’ve put this issue behind us. But just for the record: contract brewing was not an option for the earliest West Coast brewers. West of the Rockies, regional breweries had ceased to exist or been absorbed by the large national companies. Eventually, Blitz-Weinhardt in Portland, OR and Seattle’s Rainier Brewery would be put to work brewing other people’s brands. But in the late 1970s/early 1980’s, these plants were humming along at full capacity, producing a plethora of local brands and Heileman staples like Mickey’s Malt Liquor. There was little profit in turning out dribs and drabs for some upstart brewery that might go out of business the next day.
Many of the early East Coast craft brewers specialized in lagers, which didn’t endear them to some ale-quaffing purists. But there is no reason to sneer at a clean, well-integrated lager. Despite its ubiquity, Samuel Adams Boston Lager is still a stand-out, with its delicate Hallertauer-hop spiciness. And the Mid-Atlantic region alone may have more first-class pilsners than any comparable area in Germany.
East Coast brewers paid their dues, just like their West Coast counterparts. Boston Beer’s Jim Koch started out making deliveries in the “Beermobile,” a Plymouth Reliant that held 20 cases. Carol Stoudt broke into the world of off-premise sales hand-filling champagne magnums with a circa 1900 bottler that belonged in an antique shop. Sam Calagione, when he opened his Dogfish Head brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, DE in 1995, brewed twice a day, six days a week, using a half-barrel system that was probably America’s smallest—and most labor-intensive—brewhouse. Sheer boredom drove him to experiment with wacky ingredients and combinations.
There was a high mortality rate among the earliest start-ups. Bill Newman’s business plan called for him to brew draft-only ale at his Albany brewery; the realities of the marketplace made him add a contract-brewed amber lager, then forced him out of business in 1987.
East Coast craft brewing seemed to reach a critical mass in the mid-1990s. For a while, every day brought news of a planned start-up. Many never got past the prospectus stage. A few found investors with deep pockets and overbuilt, assuming that double-digit growth would go on forever. Some paid a price, like Catamount Brewing Co. in Vermont, which wound up a subsidiary of the Harpoon Brewery in Massachusetts.