Not everything was new; some beers and breweries revered the older styles of Europe, and they were new to most of us. There was a guy spreading a yeast and brick-covered brewkettles up and down the seaboard: Alan Pugsley and the Ringwood beers. Pugsley built dozens of the breweries and got them started, then settled down right about this time, the mid-1990s, in Portland, ME, to run one of his own: Shipyard.
Oddly, Ringwood beer’s been intensely unpopular—with everyone but the people drinking it. “If you took the brewing magazine articles that are negative, we should be out of business,” says Pugsley. Yet Shipyard continues to thrive and grow on sales of their American-tweaked English ales, along with other Ringwood breweries like Geary’s and Magic Hat.
The other side of the fermenter was also represented by traditionalists. Led by ill-fated pioneers Ambier and Vernon Valley, lager microbrewers took hold in the West—Gordon-Biersch, Thomas Kemper and Sudwerks, and the East—Stoudt’s, Penn, Victory and Baltimore. Critical acclaim came for their lagers, and most managed to slip in traditionally-brewed Bavarian wheat beers, too.
If you’re wondering about fruit beers…yes, this was also the time of the Great Rise of Raspberry. There were some delicious fruit beers, but the same scum who slapped a label on AnyLager also dumped raspberry flavoring into any light ale they could find. Some trendy young drinkers liked it, but when they leave something, it’s not just old, it’s bad. Macrobrewer marketers had a field day with sissy fruit beers and tagged “them frou-frou microbrews” with it, a stigma that tainted microbrewing just like the cheap flavoring tainted tap lines. Luckily, some of the good ones, intensely flavored with real fruit and not syrupy sweet, survived. You’ll also find a growing number of pumpkin beers: often a pain for brewers, but beloved by the autumnal drinker.
Just about the time everything was going south—or “pear-shaped,” if you’re British—another beer was being born. Brewers at Goose Island (Chicago) and Rock Bottom (Denver) stuck stout in a bourbon barrel, and the resulting sweet head-banger of a beer turned out to have promise. It would take another seven years till the promise would be realized, but now brewers are sticking all kinds of beer in all kinds of barrels—wine barrels, rum barrels, Scotch barrels, even applejack barrels—and people can’t seem to get enough of it. The flavors in the booze and in the wood work well with malty, sweeter beers, and people’s palates know that instinctively.
Not long after that, the inevitable advance from IPA occurred. Anderson Valley’s Hop Ottin IPA was a sharp slice of a precursor, a bitter John the Baptist, with its nose-opening hop attack. But it was Vinnie Cilurzo, then at the Blind Pig brewpub in California (before he opened his slavishly worshipped, small-output Russian River brewery), who turned IPA all the way up to 11. The double IPA, or imperial IPA, explored the upper ranges of hoppiness, backed up by a similar boost in malt framework and—inevitably—a boost in alcohol content. Like the barrel beers, double IPA took a while to catch on, but once it did, the race was on. Brutal Bitter begat Arrogant Bastard, which begat Double Bastard, who did pass on to Double Simcoe, until it seemed every brewery had doubled its bitter pleasure, and doubled its hoppy fun.
A groundswell of emulation was rolling out of Colorado. Not double IPA emulation, although there’s been some of that, but Belgian emulation. When Jeff Lebesch first started brewing up beers at New Belgium, he thought the Abbey, a dubbel-type, would be the big brand. He couldn’t see straight for love of the beer, but we, the people, soon set him right: it was the Belgian pale ale-like Fat Tire amber that opened up so many new friends to New Belgium’s beers. “Fat Tire is the light that brings people in so they try everything else. It’s what everything else orbits around,” says the brewery’s Bryan Simpson.
Between Fat Tire and the popular Belgian imports like Chimay, the lust for the sweet/spicy and complex Belgian profile drove brewers across the country—Allagash, Ommegang, Victory, Two Brothers, Lost Abbey—to explore this wide-open territory. Stoudt’s was one of the first, brewing a double and triple way back in the mid-1990s. Surprisingly, one of the earliest witbiers came from Coors, their Blue Moon Belgian White, which has to rank as one of the all-time slow-starting sleeper beers; it’s now closing in on Sam Adams as the biggest selling specialty beer after years of ho-hum sales. We’ll take the time to shed a tear for Celis White, but there are other wits, like the excellent Allagash, and Celis has actually returned to the market.
“Extreme beer” took center stage in 2005; at least in the national media. The real history of extreme beer goes back long before that, maybe even to the 1950s with the creation of the German EKU 28 Kulminator, a 13% lager. Samuel Adams Triple Bock raised the ante in 1994, a beer that’s really come into its own as part of the blend in the brewery’s super-strength Utopias bottlings. Beers like these, hopping rates over the double IPAs, and mad mixes of flavorings challenge the general notion of beer.
You can’t talk craft beer history without mentioning Sam Calagione and Dogfish Head. Dogfish Head beers have included the “continuously-hopped” trilogy of 60, 90 and 120 Minute IPA, a 40 ounce bottle of Liquor de Malt and a variety of beers with ingredients as diverse as figs, chicory, lavender, muscat grapes and saffron. You’d think it was just a freak show, but we’ve liked some of them so much that one-offs like Midas Touch, a beer re-created from King Midas’s tomb with help from an archeologist, have become regular offerings. We like weird stuff, and Dogfish Head supplied it.
History Happening Now
The latest chapter is bug beer: neo-lambics, sour ales and Brettanomyces bombs. “Sour is the new hoppy,” some have said, and we do seem to have found it so. Again, these beers stem from established Belgian and German beginnings—Rodenbach, lambics like Cantillon and St. Louis, Orval, Berliner Weisse—and at first American brewers like John Isenhour just tried to emulate them. New Belgium took the profits from Fat Tire and plowed them into a wood-aging program that produced the landmark La Folie and continues to produce new beers. They’ve been generous with assistance to other brewers as well.
Now brewers like Tomme Arthur at Lost Abbey and double IPA-man Vinnie Cilurzo are experimenting with combinations of wild yeasts and bacteria, with fruits and spices, and Rob Todd at Allagash and Rob Jeffries at Jolly Pumpkin are trail-blazing on “found” cultures in barrel-aged beers. We like them, we seek them out, and they continue to change and develop to challenge our tastes.
That’s the history. Our tastes have not so much changed, as expanded. Each of these styles still claims a solid segment of either the total craft beer market or the enthusiast market, but we buy more variety. And that’s the real history of craft beer. It’s not so much about “better” beer, as so many put it, as it is about a variety of beer. The major brewers didn’t make bad beer, and they still don’t. What they did do, and which is perhaps an even greater sin, is make one beer.
You can’t count them out. Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors all tried craft ventures in the mid-90s—Coors’ Blue Moon line survived and is booming—and A-B is back with a variety of craft-like offerings. The jury’s still out on this round, but it’s encouraging to see big brewers take variety seriously. The true history of craft beer is about a broad—and expanding—spectrum of beer. Here’s hoping that cooler keeps getting bigger.