When the extreme-beer pioneer Sam Calagione and the Philadelphia sommelier Marnie Old debuted their book He Said Beer, She Said Wine, a debate in print on which of the two beverages pairs best with food, they trotted out a road show that presented a five-course meal, including meats, vegetables, cheeses and even chocolate desserts, next to a wine and a beer selection for each. The authors bantered tongue in cheek, defending the drink each championed. He'd say beer was invented first and has more ingredients, she'd say wine is more refined with a more diverse palate. Then the audience would taste and vote.
Neither the outcomes—which averaged to a near toss-up—nor the explicit points about beer and wine were as remarkable as something that went unsaid: their very demonstration would have been implausible 30 years ago. The reason? The spectrum of available American beers could never have competed with wine's ability to pair with food unless the five courses were limited to hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, pretzels and beer nuts.
Three decades ago, domestic beer was all but relegated to a narrow band of lagers from a small group of major manufacturers who were becoming fewer every year. In 1980, they numbered just 44, and the choice of flavors they offered generally ran the gamut from light to lighter. But by 2001, close to 1,500 small breweries had joined their ranks. Today they pump out a kaleidoscope of beers in styles that are big, bold, tasty and, most of all, different. Borrowing from traditional styles and creating a growing number of their own, craft brewers have presented the American hops enthusiast with everything from brown ales, India pale ales, flavored wheat ales, bitters, stouts and porters to bocks, doppelbocks, hefeweizens, fruit and herb beers and Belgian style, to name a few. In short, enough choices exist to engineer any imaginable food pairing.
And a market exists for almost any beer style that can be dreamt up. Hilton Ruiz, co-owner of New York City's New Beer Distributors, which specializes in micro- and craft brews, describes a customer base that is full of hobbyists in pursuit of the unusual: "They learn by word of mouth what new beers are coming out and are waiting when the trucks are going to unload." Since about 2000, craft beer has taken over from imports as the focus of his merchandise. After imitating Europeans, domestic brewers, Ruiz says, have become equivalent to and in some cases better than the masters. This may be borne out by the results of last year's World Beer Cup, which was dominated by American brands.
While beer meant for easy consumption still leads American sales, a small corps of ardent brew lovers—beer geeks if you will—have taken taste in new directions. Now the revolution that took off in the early 1980s has entered a new phase of extreme beers that makes it difficult to imagine what strange brews are to come. Rob Tod, owner of Allagash, a Maine brewery known for Belgian styles and interesting barrel aging, says, "Every time you turn around someone is redefining what beer is."
As brewers push the envelope of beer styles, that definition moves in several different directions. Calagione, who founded Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, of Delaware, has been locked in a friendly competition with craft-brew legend Jim Koch, of Boston Beer Co., maker of Samuel Adams, to see who can create the strongest-proof beer after Koch made Triple Bock at 17.5 percent alcohol in the early 1990s. Typical beers hover somewhere around 5 percent. With the 2007 release of Utopia, Koch placed the bar at 27 percent. Ruiz says about half his clientele are seduced by "the hard stuff. The others say, 'Give me something strong but good.'"
Another hard-fought front is in bitterness. The craft beer revolution has been traditionally measured by that quality, which hops bring to beer, but new methods of drizzling hops through the brewing process has cranked up IBUs (International Bitterness Units) to almost 10 times the bitterness of standard Budweiser or Miller (a little over 10 IBUs). Ken Grossman, cofounder of Sierra Nevada Brewing in 1980, recalls, "We were outlandish at 37 IBUs. Today we are in the middle of the pack."
Add to that the thrust toward different flavors, such as the Dogfish Head Theobroma, made with Aztec cocoa powder and cocoa nibs, honey, chilies and annatto seeds, and it's easy to see how the genre is quickly evolving into something Joe Sixpack would hardly term beer.
Ironically, some of the first craft brewers took pride in their return to traditional German methods, which legally stipulate the use of only barley and hops. (American brewers who added corn and rice adjuncts to the mix were seen as having adulterated beer.) Now Allagash and many others are looking to Belgium and its looser interpretation of beer that allows flavoring and uncultured yeast, while typically including white wheat. The lambic style is fermented spontaneously with yeast that floats freely in the air. As much of this is based on past brewing methods, who is to say it is not traditional? Even the Theobroma is based on the chemical analysis of fragments of pottery found in Honduras that once held the earliest known alcoholic chocolate drink.
But beers of diverse flavor aren't the latest thing in America. In 1620, the Pilgrims put in early at Plymouth Rock (their original destination was Virginia) partially because their ale supply was running low. Considered a healthy substitute for the often contaminated water, beer was an important part of the colonists' diet, and was brewed in the many strong styles they brought from Europe. By the nineteenth century, most towns had a brewery and cities had several in order to serve each neighborhood. Spoilage dictated brewery size and placement. Makers stayed close to their customers until Anheuser-Busch started pasteurizing beer in the early 1870s, and a decade later shipped it in refrigerated railcars. The first steps toward the lightening and the homogenization of the American beer palate were taken by such beer barons as Adolphus Busch and Captain Frederick Pabst, who correctly surmised that the style of beer called lager would cater to higher consumption (what beer nerds now call "session drinking" and Budweiser means when it touts "drinkability"). Storage innovations and the advent of bottled beer helped establish the first national markets.
Craft brew pioneer Ken Grossman began as a home brewer and no makes Sierra Nevada.
While local brewers competed with the big boys for some time, they took successive blows in the twentieth century. First came Prohibition during which many were wiped out. Then came television advertising, a boon to those who could afford it, but a decided disadvantage to those who couldn't get their message out. Bigger brewers began to buy out smaller ones and by 1980 the number of breweries in America had dropped from 1,568 in 1910 to 101, even while annual per capita consumption rose by some three gallons. Furthermore, the top five brewers were making three-quarters of the beer, up from 19 percent in 1947. Not only were the choices in robust beers disappearing, but new products began to move in even lighter directions. When Miller bought Meister Brau it acquired a formula for low-calorie beer, which it introduced in 1975 as Lite Beer from Miller. "Tastes great, less filling" was the mantra, and it wasn't long before the rest of Big Brewing followed suit.
Even as the trend toward lighter beer was accelerating, the seeds for the craft beer revolution had already been sewn a decade earlier. The advance guard of the movement came in 1965, when Fritz Maytag, a descendant of the founder of the appliance company of the same name, bought 51 percent of the failing Anchor Brewery in San Francisco. Something of a chemist, he set about reviving a style of beer made with lager yeast, but using, originally from necessity, the higher fermentation temperatures of ale. It was called steam beer, a name Maytag trademarked in 1981.
Maytag was soon being joined by other small beer innovators. In 1976, Jack McAuliffe, who had been enthused by home brewing in Scotland, created the first post-Prohibition microbrewery, New Albion Brewery, in Sonoma, California (now defunct). Then, in 1977, writer Michael Jackson published The World Guide to Beer. In it he categorized the many styles made around the world, captivating the fledging American beer-geek population, which was looking for different taste experiences. Jackson would go on to be a champion of craft brewing in his writing until his death in 2007.
The next watershed event of craft brewing came in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that made home brewing legal. Apparently, enthusiasts had been practicing underground, because the American Homebrewers Association (now Brewers Association) sprang up almost immediately thereafter.
"Honestly, no one had enforced [home brewing laws] anyway," says Koch, the Boston Beer founder. "But [making it legal] brought people into brewing. You didn't need an enormous amount of equipment, and you realized it was no more difficult than baking, if you could get the supplies."
As amateur proponents like Koch became bolder, they morphed into dealers of their wares, originally called microbrewers. Grossman of Sierra Nevada started as a home brewer, as did Matthew Reich, the creator of New Amsterdam, the first craft beer on the East Coast.
Grossman, who is located in Chico, California, remembers his early forays into brewing, visiting the home-brew supply stores that were popping up. "We made pilgrimages to New Albion and to see Fritz Maytag," he says, emphasizing that his efforts with his partner of the time, Paul Camusi, were going into scraping together money to set up an operation. "We didn't know anything about distribution or marketing."
More microbrewers followed and what had emerged as an odd ambition for a small handful in the early 1980s had become a full-fledged industry by the '90s, with small makers creating brew pubs to market their wares and beer-of-the-month clubs springing up like hops. Suddenly, real choice was on tap and Americans were willing to make it. Of course, some of the charm of craft brewing was not just that the beer tasted different, but that the operations were small, and the makers were quick to construct a David-and-Goliath scenario with the mass-produced beers on the side of the Philistines. How could the behemoths possibly make a great beer when in a matter of hours they produced the volume that the small craftsman labored a year to brew?
As they grew from home-brewing operations, craft brewers needed larger breweries, bottling lines and methods of distribution. These concerns and the necessity to create a consistent product caused growing pains that resulted in the demise of many small brewers. Even such storied brands as New Amsterdam, established in 1982, were not immune. Reich, who brought brewing back to New York's borough of Manhattan after a six-year absence, blames his brand's demise on that very dream: "I got caught up in the romance of building a brewery in Manhattan," an expense that would drain the company of cash.
For these smaller operators, the problem was not only finding capital to expand, but the equipment and raw product to do it with. The chains of supply for American brewing were set up for Big Beer, which used huge fermenting tanks and ordered grains by the freight-train load. Suppliers weren't much interested in catering to the small guy. Reich turned to Europe to buy the equipment for his brewery, which then needed to be shipped to America. Koch recalls that the variety of hops available was quite limited.
One of the most successful of the breed, Koch, avoided the pitfalls of setting up for production almost completely . . . and took a lot of heat for it. A Harvard graduate, who had a marketing background, he became a home brewer in his kitchen. Using a recipe rescued from his family's shuttered brewery in Cincinnati, he created the Samuel Adams brand in 1985, but contracted out production to the Pittsburgh Brewery, maker of Iron City Beer. Without the headaches of building a brewery or tending to production, Koch could put his energies into building his brand. He became something of a master of the hand sell, personally visiting bars and liquor stores to explain his newfangled pour, which quickly captured the public's imagination. "You couldn't get a distributor, so I went from bar to bar with cold beer in my briefcase. The whole idea of quality American beer was an oxymoron [that had to be explained to proprietors]."
Sierra Nevada brewery in Chico, California.
From some of his brethren in the cause of Small Beer came outrage, however. How could you make craft brew, if you were not the brewer? How could a mass producer make small-batch beer? How could you call yourself Boston Beer and name your product Sam Adams after a local revolutionary hero when the beer was made in Pennsylvania? Koch countered that if Julia Child could take her recipes and ingredients to a foreign kitchen and still create a dish she could call her own, why couldn't he do the brewing equivalent?
Koch's subsequent success (he now makes 1.9 million barrels a year) seems proof of his legitimacy among the craft-brew true believers. They weren't as forgiving, however, when Big Brewing made its first forays into the style. Considered heresy was Miller's apparent attempt in 1994 to fob off as premium craft its Red Dog with a label that didn't mention that Plank Road Brewery was really part of its own large Milwaukee plant.
That brewing capacity may be as important to the beer revolution as taste and style is reflected by definitions posted by Brewers Association on its Web site, one of which states that craft brewers produce fewer than two million barrels a year. Another states that microbrewery capacity is set at 15,000 barrels. To be sure, the definitions also stipulate a "traditional" component in which adjuncts can be used only to enhance, not lighten, flavor, but the implication seems to be that Big Brewing is incapable of playing with the little guys. Except that judging by recent laudable efforts from Anheuser-Busch with Budweiser American Ale and Michelob Shock Top, Belgian White, Dunkel Weisse and Honey Wheat, it can. Matthew Reich says, "A-B is finally getting its act together."
George Reisch, a Michelob brewmaster who had practiced home brewing before it was legal, says, "I make no apologies based on size. I brew to style and taste. Every brewer, no matter what size, will have small fermenters."
The irony of the nothing-good-can-come-from-large-brewing sentiment is that Joe Owades, one of the titans of the early days of Small Beer, came out of Big Beer. A consultant to many of the early microbrewers and the creator of some of their recipes (including New Amsterdam), he had spent his career working for Anheuser-Busch and Rheingold. While he was at the latter, Owades even created the first low-calorie beer, Gablinger's. (While it was originally a flop, his concept eventually got into the hands of Miller, which made it work.) But the fermentation chemist's true taste and interest lay in the stronger beers he remembered from his youth, so upon retirement he brought his talents to like-minded brewers, consulting for such brands as New Amsterdam and Saranac. Still, a resistance to the large brewers playing in the small pond is natural. "The big birds are trying to steal our mojo," says Koch. "It's a good marketing tactic, but the consumer is often disappointed."
Furthermore, mass producers are not typically geared up to follow the extreme market niches that craft beers can serve. That megabrewers' need to sell in large volume creates a culture that stifles experimentation that craft brewers enjoy, says Tod. "We don't start with the idea of what's going to sell or what's not going to sell," he says. "The last thing we want is a bunch of beers that taste the same."
At the same time, the traditional avenues of distribution aren't always conducive to Small Brewing. New Beer Distributors' Ruiz says his business has been partially built out of that very fact: "Our customers know that if anyone is going to carry the beers that no one else will take the risk to market, it will be us."
But how far will craft brewers take the beer palate?
Grossman protests that "our pale ale is the beer we make," with a focus on drinkability. "We still make the same beer and do the same things." Except that the company also puts out a number of stouts and porters as well as special releases, and now its first new year-round release in 29 years, something called Torpedo Extra IPA, which at 70 IBUs is bested only by its Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale. Grossman demurs that he hasn't elevated the bitterness units merely for the sake of doing it, but rather in the interest of taste. Then he begins to describe the hop torpedo that was devised to make the beer and belies his passion for the craft. "It infuses hop oil into the beer like an espresso machine. The oils go up into the steam and the beer goes through the hops at the end. It's a new way of dry hopping."
The possibilities and the market for innovation are almost unlimited, says Tod, who started with Belgian beer 15 years ago because of its very elements of experimentation. "Luckily the drinking public is very interested in this." He recounts creating Interlude, the first of an experimental series that is brewed with two strains of yeast and partially aged in wine casks. "We weren't even sure people would buy it. It drank like wine. But we've been blown away by the demand."
While the large part of Koch's sales comes from his mainstream lagers and ales, it is hard to imagine that he won't continue to create tiny oddball releases like his Utopia and Millennium (particularly since demand has them selling on a consignment basis) because innovation seems to be in his blood. "Leading is never easy, but what would have been easy is to sell out."