Micromania: America Froths at the Mouth

Back in the days when men were men and the sheep were scared, there was beer. These days, given the politically correct nature of the times and the comparative lack of shepherds, the men are sheep, the sheep aren’t scared, and there is still beer. Beer, it seems, is everlasting.

Around the turn of the millennium, beer played a pivotal role. Viking, those stalwart men of the North, never traveled without it. Before pillaging a village — an event that usually entailed large-scale murder, rape, arson, and general mayhem — the Vikings would load up on ale and go berserk. Fired up on many large tankards of primitive ale, these Nordic lads would become so inured to danger that they would remove their protective armor, going “berserk,” or in the literal translation from the original Scandinavian, “without shirt.” The obvious comparison to the American football fan notwithstanding, beer has been creating passionate responses throughout history.

Beer is pervasive. It is consumed by the young and the old, the rich and the poor, women and men. Beer transcends racial barriers, class and geographic location. The only thing more all-encompassing than beer on a global scale might be money. Interestingly enough, the word “cash” is derived from the Egyptian for beer — a common form of payment for labor in the time of the pharaohs.

Today, beer seems to be more pervasive than ever before — “microbeer,” to be specific. Pick up a newspaper, watch TV, or just look out the window, and you’ll witness the microbeer explosion; the new phenomenon taking America by storm.

But, is it really new? Hardly. Given the fact that beer has survived throughout the centuries, most of it brewed in quantities minute enough to quite easily earn it the moniker “micro.” Isn’t it likely that the “microbrewery explosion” is, in fact, as old as beer itself? In a sense, yes. But, before we delve into some of the terminology essential to understanding the whole specialty beer phenomenon, let’s get one thing straight between us: “micro” breweries aren’t exactly new. In fact, as recently as the 1950s, most towns in America had their own regional brewery. Back then, beer didn’t travel very far before being consumed in or around the city or town where it was brewed, and the sheer quantity of brands to choose from was comparatively large. If you lived in Chicago, you drank Old Style; if you were in Texas, you chugged Lone Star; in upstate New York, Genesee; Milwaukee, Blatz; Pittsburgh, Iron City; Baltimore, National Bohemian; and so on. These brands still exist today, but are slowly declining, as beer drinkers become inundated by new brands and selection grows exponentially.

To give an example: in 1903, Chicago had about 50 breweries; by the 1980s, it had none. The advent of refrigerated trucks, better distribution systems, and mass marketing created the perfect environment for corporate monoliths like Anheuser-Busch to infiltrate smaller markets and take them over. Local breweries were priced out of their respective markets and effectively dominated by major brands whose ability to step in and crank out thousands of hectoliters of identical beer earned a national market presence.

The watchword for the ’90s, however, is variety, and lots of it. Television, mass media, air travel, and the internet have made the planet and increasingly small and accessible place. Whereas, in the past, egg foo yung was considered exotic oriental cuisine, nowadays urban denizens may choose from a variety of Asian fare that might include Chinese, Szechwan, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Burmese, etc. The attraction is obviously regional. Craft beer, like every gourmet product — be it wine, food, or cigars — owes much of its appeal to its regional heritage. Just as Europe has long been renowned for its beer, America now boasts enough regional beer variety to keep a curious enthusiast on a life-long tasting experiment without sampling all the different beers available.

Like the worlds of cigars, food, or wine, the burgeoning phenomenon of specialty beer comes with its own language, and calls for a quick study in its terminology. The following provides a top-to-bottom look at the specialty beer industry:

SPECIALTY OR “CRAFT” BEER

While it is tempting to call anything with a cutesy name and a fancy label a “microbrew,” doing do is not entirely correct. In fact, the “mircobrewery” is somewhat taboo in the industry. In the official language, a microbrewery is one that limits its production to under 15,000 barrels annually (about 30,000 kegs). Under that definition, many beers usually referred to as microbrews, wouldn’t fit the criteria. They are, in fact, classified as “specialty” or “craft” beers. What differentiates these mass-produced brands from other mainstay beers is their focus on a natural, hand-crafted approach to brewing using traditional ingredients with no adjuncts or chemicals. The Germans coined the term, Reinheitsgebot, to describe this process. Most craft beer brewed in this volume has a national marketing presence, and sits alongside Budweiser on supermarket and deli shelves all over the country, and, in some cases, the world. All of the brands mentioned below are considered craft beer. What distinguishes them are the amounts in which they are brewed.

CONTRACT BREWERIES

While Samuel Adams is considered a specialty or “craft” brand, its maker, The Boston Beer Company, is actually a contract brewer. These brewers contract out the actual production of their beer, devoting the bulk of their time and financial resources to marketing. contract brewers account for a massive 35 to 40% of the U.S. specialty beer market. In 1994, Boston Beer cranked out 750,000 barrels, giving them a 27% share of this important segment of the market. Pete’s Brewing Company is another example of a contract brewer.

REGIONAL BREWERIES

Regional breweries produce between 15,000 and 500,000 barrels annually. The three largest regional breweries in the U.S. are: Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam, and Red Hook Ale. Representing roughly 30% of specialty beer volume, most of these brewers are based in the Pacific Northwest. Both Sierra Nevada and Anchor Steam are now distributed nationally, and Red Hook has recently signed a distribution deal with Anheuser-Busch to obtain national distribution. While these 3 breweries pose no competition for the major-league players such as Budweiser whose annual output reaches nearly 6 million barrels, (44% of the American beer market), they command a respectable following among craft beer devotees. Toronto’s own Upper Canada Brewing Company, the leading craft beer brewery north of the border, produces upwards of 160,000 barrels. Just having obtained national distribution in America, their tasty, new Rebellion Lager is making Americans think twice about ordering their next Molson.

MICROBREWERIES

While microbreweries produce “craft” beer, their production is limited to the aforementioned 15,000 barrel annual limit, thereby earning them the ubiquitous moniker. While microbrewery production production volume is considerably smaller than that of regional or contract brewers, it is sufficient to insure wide distribution, which is accomplished via the traditional three-tier system: Wholesaler to distributor to retailer to consumer. The first microbrewery in America was the New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, California which opened in 1976. Chico, California’s Sierra Nevada soon followed, as did Seattle native, Red Hook Brewery. The latter two became so successful that they have grown into regional brewers (as mentioned above). At the end of 1995, there were 280 microbreweries in the United States, 64 of which opened as recently as 1994. Brands in this category are numerous and include such deftly named concoctions as Goat’s Breath Bock, What the Gent on the Floor is Having Ale, Old Crustacean, and Dirty Faced Stout.

BREWPUBS

Minuscule breweries are at the forefront of the microbrew explosion. Drinking establishments that brew their own beer are popping up everywhere, often producing small batches of ale and lager to compliment the indigenous cuisine. Often traveling no further than a few feet from storage tank to glass, these micro-wonders are bringing beer drinkers closer to the source than ever before. In New York City, during the past year, no fewer than five new brewpubs have opened their doors, one of which, unfortunately, resides several feet from this magazine’s offices. In brewpubs such as New York City’s Thaiphoon, beer is brewed to match the cuisine (in this case, Thai, obviously), and quantity is dictated by the amount of beer actually being consumed on-site. A brewpub that sells more than 50% of their production volume to off-site accounts is re-classified as a microbrewery. At the end of 1995, there were 533,000 brewpubs in America. Conservative estimates have that number doubling in just under two years.

Homebrews

Homebrewing is the very heart and soul of microbrewing, and its honorable progenitor. Interestingly enough, the person who can be credited with really opening up the homebrewing market is none other than Billy Carter. As the brother of President Jimmy Carter, Billy engaged in a close-vested lobbying effort to legalize homebrewing. When the misty haze of beer-induced legislation finally cleared, America had a new law: “Any individual can brew for his own personal consumption up to 100 gallons of beer or wine by simple fermentation without licensing or taxation.” The somewhat unfortunate result of this historic amendment was, of course, Billy Beer. On the positive side, however, the homebrewing industry was born, and anyone with a five-gallon jug and a fistful of hops began brewing in earnest. Now homebrewing is an industry unto itself, with suppliers of brewing equipment, raw materials, (how else to you get hops?), and bottling equipment. The best way to find out about homebrewing is to roll up your sleeves and start brewing (see sidebar, p. 96).

BREW ON PREMISE

Homebrewing requires patience, lots of extra space, and an understanding roommate. If you lack one of the above and simply must brew your own beer, then “brew-on-premise” sites (B.O.P.s) are for you. B.O.P.s provide the equipment, raw materials and instructors to help you crank out any fermented beverage you can think of. At the Chicago B.O.P., state-of-the-art temperature controlled brewing tanks, fermentation tanks and bottling facilities make brewing your own almost as easy as drinking it. Owner Hal Radke guides novices and experts alike in the creation of anything form American lager to specialty stouts — plus the Chicago B.O.P. is totally cigar friendly! B.O.P.s are also a smart way for initiates to experience the homebrewing process without purchasing $100 worth of space-consuming equipment. For the homebrewing fan, a visit to the local B.O.P. makes for the ultimate night out — brewing beer, instead of drinking it.

MICRO BY MAIL

Unless you have lots of free time, hoards of money, and an enormous bulk of wanderlust, the only sensible way to get your hands on America’s vast collection of microbrews is to have someone else do it for you. Microbrew-by-mail clubs, such as the Great American Beer Club, scour the country in search of the best and most interesting brews and deliver them to your door on a monthly basis. These services range in price from about $15 to $20 a month, usually for about twelve 12-ounce bottles of three different microbrews. Information in the form of a newsletter is usually included, with facts about the month’s selections as well as historical beer lore and other related items. Expeditions, the newsletter of the Great American Beer Club, also features a monthly stock analysis of publicly traded brewing companies for those investment-savvy brewmasters. As of this writing, Pete’s Brewing Company, traded under the symbol WIKD on the Nasdaq, was trading at $18.25, down from its 52-week high of $27.75. Sounds like a tasty buy!

[This article was first published in Smoke Magazine, 1996]

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