We all know how craft beer history goes. Beer was great until the 19th century, when mass production of lagers took over the world, and American brewers put corn and rice in their beer to make it cheaper. By 1950, everyone was hypnotized by marketing into drinking the fizzy yellow beer. It looked bad, but Fritz Maytag saved us. “Microbreweries” made beer like beer used to be. Brewpubs made the freshest beer in the world. Then craft breweries made beer better than it used to be: hoppier, stronger, more sour, whoopee, everyone’s drinking it!
It’s not a story of places and water and the discovery of new machines, like the history of European beer. These are New World stories: they’re about the beer, the brewer who made it and the people who liked it.
The End. See you. Good-bye, thanks for coming. There’s the exit.
…are they gone? Okay, you guys who stuck around to see the credits…you want to hear the real history of craft beer? Not a history of breweries and who bought who, and what city has the biggest bragging rights, but a history about the beer. That’s what beer culture is about, and when it comes down to you and the glass, do you really care what month the brewery opened?
Open up the cooler of any worthwhile beer bar, and you’ll see pale ale, IPA and its big brother Double, hefeweizen, porter and stout—The Dark Twins, some solid craft lagers, some barrel-aged beers, Belgian clones and maybe some of the nifty new sour ales. Each one has a history. It’s not a story of places and water and the discovery of new machines, like the history of European beer. These are New World stories: they’re about the beer, the brewer who made it and the people who liked it. Dig into that cooler and get the real history of the new beers.
From a Small Beginning
What people drank in the 1970s, when all this got started, was mostly something like Budweiser. People were drinking light lager beer from a regional or national brewery—remember, Coors was still a regional brewery at this time—with a few exceptions like Yuengling Porter and Genesee Bock. The mainstream has, if anything, gone lighter yet, as light beer grew to over half the general beer market, while temporary fads cycled through the beer-consciousness: dry beer, ice beer, low-carb beer and the slowly fading malternatives.
But a different, tiny flow branched off from the mainstream when Fritz Maytag bought into the Anchor Brewery in 1968. He wanted to make his beer more like what he thought beer should be, so he went to England to see how they did it. He didn’t like what he saw: added syrups and sugars, not all-malt. Maytag rejected that idea, and fired a shot across the bow of English brewing with Liberty Ale, an all-malt beer with an American hop: Cascade.
One man’s decision started a landslide of craft beer tastes. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale would take the same idea—a smartly hopped, drinkable pale ale—and make a widely-emulated craft brewing flagship out of it. According to the brewery’s long-time head of sales, the late Steve Harrison, “We just made an ale we liked, and we liked the aromatic qualities of the Cascade.”
Maytag didn’t just pioneer hoppy pale ales, either. He started—or re-started—the idea of holiday beers, special seasonal one-offs brewed for the winter holidays, with a beer called Our Special Ale. “I liked the idea of an ale brewed for a festival,” he says. “I called it a gift to our customers, not to make a profit. It has become profitable, but it wasn’t for years.” Other brewers followed the same path, and now a mad profusion of holiday styles—spiced ales, rye porters, barleywines, “winter warmers,” doublebocks—make a colorful display every December.
Up in Portland, Rob and Kurt Widmer found a new direction for wheat beer when someone made a request they couldn’t figure out how to meet. “Carl Simpson at the Dublin Inn asked us to do a third beer,” Rob recalls. The brewers only had two fermenters, and were making altbier and a wheat beer with the altbier yeast.
“We figured if we just didn’t filter the Weizen it would make a third beer,” Rob says. That simple, impulsive business decision was the source of the immensely successful American unfiltered wheat ale, still one of the most popular kinds of craft beer. The Widmers would sell it in draft for as long as they could—laying the foundations of the craft beer bar scene in Portland, along with Kemper’s lagers and Portland Brewing’s ales—then finally go to bottle in the face of burgeoning demand, a demand that spelled success for brewers like Pyramid and Redhook, too.
The other side of Portland’s craft beer scene was, and is, brewpubs. Brewpubs started out a lot like the Widmers: a couple fresh beers, this is what you get. Then they went through a “color beer” phase: golden ale, amber ale, and Something Dark, either a porter or a stout. There’s still some of that around. Brewpubs really hit their stride when places like BridgePort and the McMenamin’s pubs, and Big Time up in Seattle, stepped completely outside that model with IPAs, imperial stouts and barleywines. Brewpubs became and largely remain the experimental edge of American brewing, a brewing laboratory where beers can change on a weekly basis.
The Dark Side
Porter was taking hold on the other side of the mountains. “Porter” may sound like a traditional beer, but it was a shot-in-the-dark re-creation: porter had died out in England. Deschutes brewed up some in Bend, and growing demand sucked them into the Portland market. Black Butte Porter did okay, and no one else was making many dark beers. Brewery president Gary Fish took “a contrarian approach. The dark beer pie was a smaller one, but we could own almost all of it. It worked.” When brewers think about making a porter, Black Butte is often the success they think of.
If you like IPA, the India pale ale that some brewers tried to make “more authentic” by adding oak chips to simulate a long journey by sea (don’t hear much about that bone-headed trend any more, do you?), bow down to the memory of Bert Grant. Grant left an increasingly sissified Canadian brewing industry, hunkered down in the middle of hops country in Yakima, WA, and started throwing hops in his beer. We liked it, and brewers saw how easy it was to step up and vary the flavor of beer by simply adding a wad of hops. More wads followed, and IPA became a staple.
Meanwhile, Jim Koch in Boston, and Steve Hindy and Tom Potter down in Brooklyn, trying to decide what to build their new brewery business on, took a look at what beers were already the most popular in the world: why not brew a lager, but with more body and flavor? Once Koch developed a recipe for Samuel Adams Boston Lager, and Hindy and Potter got a recipe for Brooklyn Lager, they had to figure out how to brew it. Again, they had the same idea: get someone else to do it, someone who already had the equipment, the experience, the connections with suppliers: a contract brewer.
It was an idea and a practice that set off fifteen years of argument over whether “contract beers” were really microbrewed. “It was never a real issue to begin with,” Koch says. “Big brewers like A-B used it to damage the craft brewing industry and distract us from our common ground: brewing great beer.” In the end, that’s what the people decided. While geeks were waving their arms, and brewers were talking mean about each other, bottles of Sam Adams and Brooklyn flew off the shelves. You won’t hear geeks talk much about them, but the results are conclusive: people like craft-brewed lagers.
What people didn’t like was too many of them. Contract-brewing was valid, but it was also an easy way to make a quick grab at a “microbrew” market that was growing around 50 percent annually. Labels were slapped on regional breweries’ output willy-nilly: Hope, Nathan Hale, Trupert, Naked Beer, Red Bell, Red Ass, Bad Frog, Wall Street Lager, Three Stooges. There were the “gay beers,” Black Sheep and Pink Triangle; there were beers that were going to launch national brands, like Brewski and Wanker Light; there were beers with causes, like Rhino Chasers, which pledged to donate money to save the wild rhinoceros (not just a dumb idea, but the fake rhino horn tap handles were so heavy they broke beer spigots).
Behind these brands were marketing geeks, not beer geeks. None of them realized that there has to be a significant difference in the bottle; they thought people were really buying cute labels and quickly crafted minimal backstories. None of them are still around. People shudder when they think about the microbrewery ‘shakeout’ that occurred in the late 1990s. We should look on that time as one of beneficial hardship, of the classic Nitzschean type which did not kill us, making us stronger.