Someone unfamiliar with craft beer might ask, “Is there really a difference between beer from a craft brewery and beer from one of the ‘national’ brewers like Anheuser Busch, Coors, or Miller? What’s all the fuss about? Beer is beer, right?”
For beer drinkers who are aware of the diversity of styles from craft and foreign breweries, such questions sound absurd, but there are historical reasons why the US beer industry is dominated by taste-alike pale lager beers. Understanding how developments in the US brewing industry led to the homogenization of American beer helps define the reasons why today’s craft beers taste different from mass-marketed brands.
To provide the proper perspective, it’s helpful first to review the history of the brewing industry in the United States and remember that there were no national breweries before 1850. Before the Industrial Revolution created innovations in hygiene, refrigeration and packaging, brewers had difficulty extending the shelf life of their product long enough to ship it safely to distant markets. After 1850, the expansion of railroads also enabled brewers to transport their product to a wider area in a shorter time.
In the late 1800s, an innovative brewer in St. Louis transformed brewing from a local to a national business. Anheuser-Busch, which introduced Budweiser in 1876, was the first US brewer to pasteurize its beer and keep the product fresh during shipment in railcars cooled by ice. History confirms the 2001 A-B annual report, which describes Bud as “…a light-colored lager with a drinkability and taste that would appeal to the masses….”
The opening of national markets brought about the beginning of a century-long consolidation in the brewing industry. The number of US breweries peaked at 4,131 in the 1870s. As breweries were able to expand their markets, they began to grow larger in size and decrease in number until only about 1,500 breweries existed before the start of Prohibition in 1920. Unfortunately, only 353 reopened after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Further consolidation occurred after World War II as breweries used radio and television in expansive marketing campaigns that created nationally known brands.
For such brands to be accepted nationally, they had to appeal to a broad spectrum of tastes. The result was the extinction of local styles and the homogenization of the survivors into the pale lagers that today most often typify “American beer.” In effect, breweries recognized the same fundamental principle learned by presidential campaign managers—that the best way to appeal to the greatest number of people is by offending as few of them as possible.
By 1978, only 89 breweries producing fewer than 25 nationally distributed beers were operating in the United States. For some reason (perhaps it was the growing availability of import beers or the greater number of Americans traveling overseas and experiencing good beer), beer lovers began seeking out distinctive styles and demonstrating a willingness to pay a premium for them. During the 1980s, entrepreneurs—aided by new brewpub legislation and encouraged by the growth of small wineries in California—began opening craft breweries and brewpubs to meet consumer demand for specialty beers.
Today, the number of breweries has grown to about 1,400, or roughly the same number as before Prohibition. Although large breweries still dominate sales, the variety of beer styles has increased, and craft beers and imports now dominate premium beer sales.
Malt may be the most recognizable difference between craft beers and national brands. Early North American barley varieties differed considerably from European strains. The hot, dry summers on the central prairies of the United States and Canada produced barley that contained larger amounts of protein than European varieties grown in cooler, wetter climates. High protein barley provides high levels of enzymes that are well suited for use with enzyme-less adjuncts like the unmalted corn and rice common in North America. The use of local grains is consistent with other indigenous beers throughout the world that also make use of locally grown grains, such as wheat, rye, oats, sorghum or millet.
Unmalted rice and corn, which are still commonly found in modern-day American lagers, contribute a milder or lighter taste than malt and may explain why the majority of US beer drinkers to this day seem to prefer lighter bodied beers—simply because generation after generation grew up drinking them!
In contrast, craft brewers typically use 100 percent malt, including a variety of specialty malts that add color and flavor. Because many specialty malts are highly roasted, many craft beers have a deep color and malty profile that can include flavors of toasted bread, caramel, or even coffee.
Hops contribute bitterness to beer, and craft beers may have two or more times the hops than national beers. The bitter acids in hops counteract the sweetness of the malt, helping to balance the flavor of the final product. Because specialty breweries typically use 100 percent malt in their beers, craft beers can be expected to have more bitterness than national brands. Oils in hops also add a spicy or floral flavor and aroma that are typically absent in national brands but common in certain craft beer styles.
In addition to hops, craft brewers may use other flavoring agents like spices and fruits. For example, stouts may be flavored with coffee or chocolate. Wheat beers may contain cherries, strawberries or raspberries, and a Belgian-style wheat beer known as “wit” is brewed with a portion of unmalted wheat and flavored with coriander and bitter orange.
National brands use almost exclusively lager yeast, a yeast that ferments at a cold temperature of 45 to 55 degrees F. Lager yeasts were developed in Germany and surrounding countries and came into prominence in the mid-1800s when pure yeast cultures were first isolated and refrigeration became available to cool the fermenting beer. Before refrigeration, lager breweries needed caves where the beer could be stored and cooled with ice taken from local lakes in winter. The cool temperatures produced a clean, crisp taste that became quite popular. Lager beers largely replaced ales in many countries, including the British-style ales originally brewed in North America.
Ale yeast, on the other hand, ferments at higher temperatures—between 60 and 70 degrees F—and produces a fruity, aromatic beer. Due to the predominance of lager beers and the lesser refrigeration requirements of ales, many brewpubs and craft breweries have focused on reviving ale beer styles.
Although both yeast types are employed by craft brewers, depending on the individual beer style, ales have come to dominate the craft beer industry.
Brewers of national brands typically filter their beer to remove haze and pasteurize it to prevent microbiological spoiling.
Haze in beer was of little concern when drinking vessels where made of earthenware or metal. When glass mugs became economical, the appearance of the beer became an issue, and brewers learned that brilliantly clear beer was more appealing to consumers. Filtering became the norm to remove suspended yeast cells and protein particles.
Heat pasteurization that kills bacteria was the earliest commercial method to prevent beer spoilage. (Traditional methods employ high alcohol and bitterness levels to deter bacteria growth.) Later, sterile filtration was introduced to remove these organisms. (Budweiser is an example of the former process and Miller Genuine Draft of the latter.)
However, the heat required in pasteurization can alter the taste of beer, and tight filtration can remove medium-sized proteins that support stable beer foam and contribute a pleasant mouth feel. This is not to suggest that pasteurized or filtered beer is damaged beer, but heat and filtration nevertheless can change the beer’s character. For this reason, craft beer is almost never pasteurized and many styles may be unfiltered.
A traditional packaging technique sometimes found in the craft brewing industry is bottle conditioning, which entails adding a small amount of fresh yeast and sugar at bottle filling. A secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide that naturally carbonates the beer. Another benefit is that yeast consumes oxygen and creates a natural defense against the staling effects of any oxygen picked up during filling. Yeast in the bottle extends the beer’s shelf life, but not indefinitely. The yeast will eventually die from starvation, at which point it can contribute its own off-flavors.
A fellow student once asked our German instructor how the small breweries around Munich could make such good beer even though they were using outdated brewing methods. The answer was simple: These beers are consumed within sight of the brewery’s chimney! In other words, the beer was only sold in the immediate area and, therefore, consumed too quickly for shortcomings in processing to negatively affect the taste. We learned a good lesson in support of local beer—the importance of freshness.
While the term “craft” may be perceived as synonymous with “quality,” a better descriptor might be “full flavored.” The major differences between craft and national beers relate to recipe. To be fair, the national breweries have chosen to produce mild-tasting beers because that is the recipe that is preferred by the majority of beer drinkers. The national breweries’ success is tied to their ability to economically and consistently reproduce the brewer’s branded flavor and to protect the flavor’s stability over an expansive market area.
The quality of craft beer is enhanced by a limited market area if this leads to rapid consumption of the beer. As craft breweries expand sales and distribute beyond “the sight of their chimneys,” their attention to quality also grows in importance. Consequently, the term “quality” in the craft beer industry must describe more than robust flavor; it must also include the technological skill perfected by the large brewers to produce consistent and stable products.
So, What’s the Answer?
Beer in its many forms is probably the oldest and most widespread alcoholic beverage in the world. Beer has provided nutrition and a safe source of drinking water for thousands of years and is today one of the most natural and unadulterated beverages available to consumers. The large numbers of imports and craft beers for sale in the United States provide consumers with perhaps the most diverse selection of styles in the world.
So, are craft beers really different? I would answer, “yes,” because craft beers represent many styles and brewing techniques not offered by the large national breweries. However, the differences between the two segments of the beer industry have a lot to do with differences in taste preferences and each brewery’s decision about which consumer group to serve. Whether it’s a “national” or “craft” brewery, the goal should be the same: Provide the consumer with a high quality, natural product regardless of the difference in recipe or the consumer market served.
Steve Holle is a member of the Association of Brewers, Master Brewers Association of the Americas, Beer Judge Certification Program, and associate member of the Institute and Guild of Brewing–London. He is a contributor to various beer periodicals and the author of A Handbook of Basic Brewing Calculations.