We’re heading into 30 years after the craft brewing revolution crystallized. It all really began in 1965, when Fritz Maytag bought the failing Anchor Brewery in San Francisco. His success with that brewery was an inspiration, but other forces were at work, too.
That same year in Scotland, Peter Maxwell Stuart, the Laird of Traquair at Traquair House in Innerleithen, restored his small brewery after over 200 years of neglect. (The estate was said to brew a strong ale when Mary Queen of Scots visited, and a special gate is still reserved to welcome the next Stuart to sit on the Scottish throne.) He offered a very small quantity of specially brewed barley wine-strength beer to the local populace.
Traquair House was, and still is, a small operation, brewing only six U.K.-barrels (260 U.S. gallons/984 liters) per month. But Jack McAuliffe, a U.S. Navy man stationed in Scotland, was so impressed that when he left the navy a few years later, he built his own small craft brewery, New Albion, in 1976 in Sonoma, CA. He brewed in 50-gallon batches and sold his first brew in 1977. His capacity was six U.S.-barrels per month (186 gallons). His small “micro” brewery achieved modest success and the beer was very good, but production proved inadequate and, in 1983, the tiny brewery finally closed. McAuliffe’s real contribution was to make others believe that small breweries could be a success (even if his wasn’t). His effort encouraged many others, especially among the nation’s burgeoning homebrewer population.
In 1979, homebrewing was legalized due to the great efforts of Lee Coe, a California homebrew curmudgeon, and Charlie Papazian, a homebrew fanatic from Boulder, CO. The great efforts of California Senator Alan Cranston were instrumental to passing this legislation in late 1978 and having it signed into law by President Jimmy Carter, who was, I’ve been told, a teetotaler.
By 1981, there were 12 such “micro” brewery starts, and already four had failed. Even so, those of us who were lamenting the virtual demise of good beer in this country began to be encouraged.
The Bad Old Days
I remember the beer days of my misbegotten youth. Good beer, as we know it today, was virtually nonexistent in America. I really had no idea at all as to what a great beverage beer could be. Other than my father’s homebrew, I had tasted very little of it, and was perfectly satisfied with most Northwest mega-beers of that era: Lucky Lager (Vancouver, WA), Rainier (Seattle), Heidelberg (Tacoma), Olympia (Tumwater, WA) or Blitz from Portland. They all tasted good, as far as I was concerned.
We called them “Western,” as opposed to “Eastern” beers such as Budweiser, Schlitz and Miller, which were supposed to be very strong and very good. They were also very expensive. In those days, Coors was the exotic brew of distinction in the Pacific Northwest, although you couldn’t get it. Oregon didn’t allow it (it wasn’t heat pasteurized) and the company didn’t send it to Washington, either.
For the most part, we didn’t worry; beer was beer was beer. It was just that and nothing more than that. One of my friends brought in a case of Coors from California, and we had a comparison tasting. Coors turned out to taste much like Olympia, which tasted like Rainier, which tasted like Lucky Lager, etc., etc.
Travel to British Columbia was most interesting. First of all, Canadian beer (labeled at 4.8 percent alcohol) was much stronger than American beer at 3.8 percent. We had no way of knowing that American beer’s alcohol content was then calculated as alcohol by weight (ABW), while that of Canada was listed as ABV—alcohol by volume. They were both, in fact, pretty much the same strength. Anyway, Canadian beer tasted stronger!
Their public houses were large, well lit and crowded. The beer was all draft beer, although none of it cask conditioned. The Canadians didn’t allow unattached women in their public houses, so one could enjoy drinking (i.e., get drunk) without having to deal with the opposite sex. They were to be dealt with under more private circumstances. My elderly 1937 Chevy Coupe had enough room in the front seat to dance (if the gear shift was in reverse position), or whatever else one might want to do! Today’s automobiles allow very little room for frolicking in the front seat.
It was in the early 1970s that I began writing about commercial beer. I was hard put to find anything worth describing. Whatever possessed me? Rainier Ale, the infamous “Green Death,” was, of course, different, and so were imported beers. Heinekens and Becks had more flavor. In those days, you could tell much about beer from the color of the bottle. Lagers were in brown bottles while ales and most imports were in green bottles.
We were all familiar with the scurrilous “3.2” beer. That was a leftover from the years following the repeal of Prohibition and the effects of the war effort (WWII), when most domestic beer was at 3.2 percent ABW (4% ABV). Regular beer, at that time, was limited to less than 4.5 percent ABW or it was required to be labeled “Malt Liquor.” Malt liquor was sold only in liquor stores in Washington, Oregon and many other states as well. These were also where one had to purchase Rainier Ale, which would have been a malt liquor if it did not call itself an “ale.” Bars were closed on Sunday, of course: you had to stock up on Saturday if you wanted to drink on Sunday.
America’s Oldest Craft Brewer
This year, we are celebrating a 30th for the nation’s oldest craft brewer: Sierra Nevada, which opened shop with their first sales in November of 1980. Boulder Beer Co. started its life as Boulder Brewery of Longmont, CO, in 1980. Redhook (Woodinville, WA) is looking at a ripe old 28 years. Let us not forget that it was Bert Grant who opened the nation’s first modern brew pub in Yakima (WA) and who introduced cask-conditioned ales back into the U.S., as well.
In 1983, things began to perk up, and we have Hales Ales—originally of Colville, WA, but now located in Seattle—celebrating maturity at age 27, along with Buffalo Bill’s, now back in Hayward, CA, whose first sales were September 9, 1983. Of course, there is Mendocino Brewing, originally of Hopland, but now in Ukiah, CA. Their first sale was August 4, 1984; it’s now 26 years old.
This year it’s also 26 for Portland’s BridgePort Brewing, Oregon’s oldest (first sale was November 14, 1984) and Hart Brewing of Kalama (WA), now Pyramid of Seattle and Berkeley. In British Columbia, 1984 brought Spinnakers Brewpub in Victoria and Granville Island Brewing in Vancouver—Canada’s two oldest.
While all of this was happening, the old-line brewers continued their march to dominate U.S. brewing. In 1972, for example, there were 73 breweries, and 133 brewing facilities in 31 states. Of these only 18 brewed less than 100,000 barrels. Most of them brewed beer of a similar nature—few could be considered outstanding or noteworthy.
Seasonal beers were almost extinct. Holiday beers were simply the brewery’s regular product in a festive six-pack carrier. The famous bock beers of yesterday had degenerated to the brewery’s regular product with added caramel color—similar to the scant offerings of “dark” beer produced in the same manner. Anchor Steam Beer and Ballantine’s Old India Pale Ale (brewed by Narragansett in Rhode Island) were the only two American beers worth searching out that year. I haven’t seen Ballantine IPA for some time now. Is it still around?
Industry insiders were predicting that by 1990 there would only be 40 brewers left in the U.S. By 1984, there were only 102 brewing plants in 28 states, but among them were 12 new craft brewers: things were beginning to change. Indeed, today, less than 20 of these old-line breweries remain online, but the Bud/Miller/Coors groups have vastly expanded their operations, even as they watered down their product ever more thoroughly.
The State of the Union is Good
In the last decade, things have really changed. Notably, this April Fritz Maytag sold his wonderful Anchor Brewing Co. to San Francisco’s Griffin Group’s Keith Greggor and Tony Foglio. Those two have good plans laid out for Anchor, probably expanding well above Fritz’s self-imposed limit of 120,000 barrels annually. Better yet maybe, we’ll get some of that Old Potrero Rye Whiskey up here in Oregon! But I’m drooling, aren’t I?
This year, the Great American Beer Festival expanded the style guidelines to 133 styles in 79 categories, serving some 2,200 different beers from 462 of the 1558 or so U.S. brewers. That made for a fantastic spectrum of added “imperial” styles: bigger, hoppier, stronger and stranger. Did I mention Belgian styles and the imperialization of that spectrum, Belgian IPAs? Of course! The Belgianization of American brewing has only just begun to come to fruition. Where can one hide? And why would you want to?
U.S. beer production stats are down by 2.2 percent, while import sales have gone down 9.8 percent. Craft beer sales, on the other hand, are up about 7 percent. This year has also seen nearly 40 new breweries added with only about 20 or so closings. Now ain’t that sumpthin’? Here in Oregon we were up in brewery numbers (74 companies, 102 brewing facilities, almost one-and-a-quarter million barrels, over 32 million gallons) in 2009. This is about 7.2 percent above the national average and 12.4 percent of all beer sold in the state that year. We are truly Beervana, as we call ourselves. Here in Portland, we have 32 breweries and brewpubs inside the city limits! Nowhere on the planet is there a city like ours. Asheville, NC, take note! Better yet, come and visit.
It appears that, in truth, the craft brewing revolution changed the way we all see beer; moreover it is changing the very nature of the product, although the blight of tasteless beer is still spreading across the world, as young drinkers switch to Bud/Miller/Coors to the detriment of the wonderful old world brewers of Britain, Belgium and Germany. But we don’t need to worry too much, because craft brewing is extending itself across the planet. Europe (Italy!), China, South Asia, even in Africa, and, oh yes, Mexico!