All About Beer Magazine - Volume 29, Issue 1
March 1, 2008 By

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!

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.

Revivalist Brewers

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.

Double Everything

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.