On April 25, 1984, a Friday, the Portland Oregonian tucked two brief stories and a small photograph onto a page with ads for Atta Boy dog food and Diet 7-Up as well as an article about a rice-cooking competition.
“Beer Expert Writes Column,” ran the headline over the shorter of the two stories. It, along with the photo, introduced the Oregonian’s approximately 249,000 readers to Fred Eckhardt, a 57-year-old ex-Marine with a handlebar moustache and a well-known expertise in homebrewing. He was the “beer expert,” and the longer story was his first column. Not just Eckhardt’s first: the start of the first regular American newspaper coverage of what came to be called “craft beer.”
Throughout that late spring and summer 30 years ago, Eckhardt honed to a perfectly irascible pitch his mix of evangelization and criticism in covering the nascent efforts and offerings of the nation’s smaller-scale brewers, who were just beginning to open in larger numbers.
That inaugural column set the tone, beginning with the headline: “Most American Beers Lack One Thing: Taste.” Eckhardt explained: “When drinking San Francisco Steam Beer [Anchor Steam], or a well-made dark beer, you notice the taste. Most domestic brews taste alike and many of us are forced to look to imports for the kinds of taste we used to find in American beer.”
It was a common lament, one Eckhardt’s Oregonian column would have a profound effect in changing. In our epoch of blogs and social media (and the smartphone you might be reading this on), it’s almost impossible to imagine two realities of Eckhardt’s newspaper coverage.
One, nobody else was doing it and certainly not in what was then, as now, among the most respected midsize dailies in the United States. Two, most Americans got their news from newspapers, including TV producers, who often ripped (and ripped off) the morning’s headlines for the evening news.
The platform, then, carried Eckhardt’s opinions widely and made him for a time the most influential American beer writer—perhaps the most influential in the world, behind the Englishman Michael Jackson.
He was able through the Oregonian to not only spread the gospel of small-batch beers from independently owned breweries, but to cajole those same operations into widening their stylistic repertoires. Eckhardt’s 1969 A Treatise on Lager Beer had inspired many a homebrewer to up his or her game; the Oregonian column would do the same for commercial brewers.
Eckhardt would continue to write regularly for the Portland newspaper through the rest of the 1980s as well as go on to write about beer for myriad other publications (read his columns from All About Beer Magazine). Of course, by the time his workload expanded, it seemed everyone and their brother-in-law was a beer critic; some were even getting paid for it. For a time, though, it was a rather small club and one American stood at the vanguard.
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Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.