In his new book, The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution, author Tom Acitelli takes readers back to the early days of craft beer and beautifully explains the humble beginnings of pioneers like Anchor Brewing Co. and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. The result, as our reviewer put it, is “a first-rate piece of front-line history.”
An adaptation of the book appears in the July issue of All About Beer, which is now available on newsstands.
Acitelli answered questions by email about his motivation for writing and tracking down the historical figures of American craft beer.
All About Beer: When did you know you wanted to tell this story, and why did you feel it was important to tell?
Tom Acitelli: First, I had been a business reporter in North Carolina and then New York for several years, and had wrote at varying lengths about different industries and events, but nothing at book-length. I was hunting around for a project that would allow me to tell an interesting business story—if there was a larger social or political context in that story, all the better.
Second, my wife and I traveled for a vacation to Belgium in 2010, when I was already noodling with the idea of writing the history of American craft beer. We flew into Brussels; rented a car; and visited all six of the Trappist breweries in Belgium, even staying a couple of nights at Achel on the Dutch border (it was the only one of the monasteries that allowed women in its guest quarters). This led me to read up quite a bit on Belgian beer, including works by Tim Webb, Stan Hieronymus and Michael Jackson.
Finally, like everybody, I lived through the Great Recession. I was luckier than many, but the terrible economic news day in and day out got me to thinking: If I was going to tell a business story with a lot of history, I wanted it to be a triumphant one, one that would be affirming toward an American industry, particularly an American manufacturing industry, which craft beer basically is when you get down to it.
Shortly after I got back from Belgium, I realized I had it all in the American craft beer movement: an interesting business story (with a larger social context); a lot of American history; and a triumphant narrative full of tension and personality.
[The craft beer movement] is one of the great American business and social stories of the last 50 years.
AAB: Nothing better than a trip to Belgium to spark some beer inspiration. As for these personalities, I imagine it must have been great fun chatting with these pioneers about those early days of craft beer. Was that the case? And was it a struggle to track down some of those folks?
TA: It was indeed the case. As Paul Philippon, the founder of Duck Rabbit Brewery in eastern North Carolina, so aptly put it at a Great American Beer Festival luncheon I was at, the American craft beer movement is “asshole-free.” Everyone I reached, beginning with Steve Hindy at the Brooklyn Brewery way back when, was to a large degree happy to talk and, in some cases, to snail-mail me reams of information from their days in the movement, including correspondence, news clippings and photographs. I got bulging envelopes and packages from Matthew Reich, Tom de Bakker, Jack McAuliffe, Bill Owens, Daniel Bradford (All About Beer’s publisher) and others, and am very grateful for that. Tony Magee and Ken Grossman even shared early copies of their memoirs.
Now, reaching people! I was lucky in that regard, too. Writers who had tread this path before were very generous with their time and contacts as well as expertise. Just a couple of examples: Maureen Ogle, the author of Ambitious Brew, put me in touch with Jack McAuliffe and ran questions by Fritz Maytag for me; and Stan Hieronymus, author of For the Love of Hops, schooled me in hops.
I should give a shout-out, too, to every Internet pioneer, heralded and unknown. Digital record-keeping and archiving proved a tremendous help to this book. For instance, being able to quickly search the incorporation records of all 50 states from the ease of a home computer was a godsend. I don’t know how people wrote books before the digital age.
AAB: Even with the help of digital record-keeping, do you think it will be difficult to document the next 20-30 years of growth? Especially considering that there are now more than 2,300 craft breweries and the market doesn’t show signs of slowing down.
TA: On the one hand, no, it won’t be difficult, simply because of that digitization and, more importantly perhaps, the recognition that the craft beer movement is, indeed, a culinary phenomenon here to stay and not merely a passing fad (as it seemed at times in the 1980s and 1990s). People inside and outside the movement, in other words, are more likely to take specific note of what’s happening and when; that was not always the case.
On the other hand, yes, it will be difficult. The digitization, especially the Internet and the Web (two distinct things that have had distinct impacts on the craft beer movement, people forget), has afforded everybody an opinion. I don’t mean that in a snobby, elitist way; I think the more impassioned the opinion, the better—so long as there are facts to bolster it. The Web, especially, affords everyone a platform for whatever they want to say about themselves, their favorite things, their least favorite things, etc. Oftentimes, and usually unintentionally, these strongly held opinions are presented as fact—and are sometimes later taken as such. Plus, they then live forever online. It can, in short, become difficult to separate kernels of fact from bushels of opinion.
I think there are three ways to combat this. One, people could settle down a bit, and realize that their strongly held beliefs about craft beer are just that: strongly held beliefs worth debating. Two, brewers should be stone-cold direct when documenting their own histories (many are already); the “About Us” verticals on their websites, for instance, should have timelines or specific dates, really own their respective histories. And, third, there is such a robust media now covering craft beer in the U.S. that a little deference is in order to scrupulous reporting; there are places (like All About Beer) to find accurate information—seek them out.
Opinion, including criticism, has its place, yes; but that place should be second to facts—or at least that’s my opinion.
AAB: Cheers to that. Speaking of facts, what was the most surprising thing you uncovered during the process of writing the book?
TA: I was actually quite surprised by both the tenor and the growth of the industry in the 1990s.
By growth, I mean just that: The craft beer movement, in terms of numbers of brewing companies, grew by double-digit percentages annually in the 1990s; it was truly torrid growth, the likes of which few manufacturing industries ever see. I knew, obviously, that the movement had grown; but, if you look at the fitful growth of the 1970s and 1980s, you would never have expected what happened in the 1990s, especially given the recession of 1991-92.
By tenor, I mean the often hyper-competitive, sometimes downright nasty nature of the industry in the 1990s. Today, we see craft beer as this folksy phenomenon, of a rising tide lifting all boats and everyone in it together to raise consumer awareness. Not so in the 1990s: Craft brewers were often at each other’s throats over things like contract brewing, awards, beer quality and distribution. People would get maligned in the press, even booed at industry conclaves like the Craft Brewers Conference.
Eventually, however, it became clear to most craft brewers (or so my research leads me to believe) that the bigger multinational brewers were the true existential threat, not individual craft brewers, however large. Anheuser-Busch’s “100 percent share of mind” campaign, which pressured distributors to carry only A-B products, and the Dateline expose on contract brewing, in October 1996, basically ensured a solidarity among craft brewers that, for the most part, holds to this day.
AAB: I think most recent converts to craft beer would be surprised by those stories. Switching gears now, what’s your favorite style of beer? And did writing this book make you look any different at your favorite beers?
TA: I used to fancy myself a hophead, but now I much rather prefer the milder pale, red, session and brown ales out there. To be sure, I do like the occasional “extreme beer,” just not as much any longer. (I add quotation marks as I am very well aware—as I chronicle in the book—that some people fervently believe no such style category exists.)
This switch in preference came as a result, too, of a greater realization of the wonderful geographic diversity of American beer. … My favorite beers now come from the breweries nearest my home base of Greater Boston, including from those in and around Portland, Maine, and New York City.
It kind of irks me when people return from Belgium or Germany (or even tiny Luxembourg!) and rave about the geographic diversity of brewing in these countries. As if that’s not just as pronounced—or more so—in the United States! I would venture to say that there is more diversity of beer style in Massachusetts alone, for instance, than there is in all of Germany.
AAB: Sounds like you might have just come up with another book project. Or do you already have something else in mind?
TA: I am actually shopping a novel about four guys affected by the Great Recession who move to Upstate New York and open… you guessed it… a beer bar. And, nonfiction-wise, I just finished the first couple of chapters of a history of wine and beer criticism—and how that helped American beer and wine ascend to tops in the world stylistically. I can’t wait to interview Robert Parker. He’s sort of the Michael Jackson of wine critics.