In April 1995, Charlie Papazian, president of what would become the Brewers Association, asked a roomful of attendees at the annual Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) to raise their hands if they planned or wanted to open a brewery but had not yet done so. Most of his audience raised their hands. (My source on this anecdote, Greg Koch, was one of those people; he was about to launch the Stone Brewing Co. in San Diego County.)

As the brewing industry gathers for CBC in Portland, Oregon, this week, it’s an anecdote worth remembering. Now, as then, smaller-batch, independent brewing is exploding by almost any measure.

In 1995, the best measure was the sheer number of new smaller breweries. A dozen years before Papazian popped his question, there were 14 smaller breweries and brewpubs, including contract-brewing operations, in the entire United States, most of them clustered west of the Rocky Mountains (and most those clustered in Northern California).

By 1995, there were around 600 in nearly every state, including Hawaii and Alaska, with particularly sharp growth in the number of brewpubs. There was excited talk of more than 1,000 any year now; and bigger operations such as Anheuser-Busch, after decades of ignoring it, were beginning to worry about the smaller breweries’ output, despite its accounting for well under 10 percent of U.S. beer sales.

Flash forward to today and 600 smaller breweries seems paltry—there are now around 3,400, according to the Brewers Association. That share of the overall beer marketplace, too, has risen to around 11 percent. Perhaps most importantly, the growth this go-round appears much more assured than in the 1990s.

It was at CBC in 1996, in fact, in Boston that the wheels started to come off. Attendees, including brewers, went at each other, publicly and often nastily, over contentious issues, particularly contract brewing and alleged pay-to-play tasting competitions. Papazian found himself all but pleading for calm (“People are getting very emotional,” he explained to a reporter). Within a few years, a major shakeout struck the industry and around one-third of the smaller breweries in the U.S. closed, most of them abruptly.

That shakeout set the table for the more durable growth that followed. Small-batch beer from independent breweries is bigger than ever; and the sky looks like the limit. Indeed, were Papazian, still the BA’s president, to once again ask a roomful of CBC attendees to raise their hands if they planned or wanted to start a brewery, it’s a safe bet he might get the same results as 20 years ago this month.

Read more Acitelli on History posts.

Tom Acitelli is the author of  The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His new book, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, is available for pre-order. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.

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