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When The Micros Got Macro

February 2024
3min read

WHY AMERICA OFFERS THE WORLD’S FINEST SELECTION OF BEERS

Even as bud’s pitch-dog Spuds MacKenzie was leading major beer makers in an ever more frenzied dance of fads and marketing gimmicks designed to sell ever blander drinks, a countertrend was developing —a sidebar to the yuppie food revolution of the 1980s. Some beer drinkers, tired of a steady diet of near-tasteless lagers and one or two imports with only slightly more emphatic flavor, were discovering an alternative.

A new crop of American micro- and specialty “craft” brews were aiming to redraw the beer map, traditionally divided between “domestics” and “imports,” as a choice between “mainstream” (bland) and “sophisticated” (not bland). Ultimately, the most commercially successful would be the Boston Beer Company, founded in 1985, and its Sam Adams Boston Lager brand, whose patriotic label with its faux-colonial design suggested a return to the honesty and integrity of traditional New England craftsmanship. It struck just the right note in the Reagan eighties, when patriotism was making a comeback and movements to preserve America’s cultural heritage were scoring noteworthy victories.

Much of it was, needless to say, hype—not so much anti-fad as an anti-fad fad. The Boston Beer Company did not actually brew its own beer but had it made according to a proprietary recipe at a large regional brewery in Pennsylvania. (This followed an arrangement made a few years before by the New Amsterdam Brewing Company, whose beer was produced at the large F. X. Matt brewery in Utica, New York, in what had once been traditional ale country. Matt now also brews for the Brooklyn, Dock Street, and Massachusetts Bay breweries.) As Boston Magazine wrote of Sam Adams soon after its appearance, “[Boston’s] beer is currently made and bottled in Pittsburgh, a perhaps forgivable eccentricity for a beer named after a man who never drank a lager and who was not a brewer at all.”

But drinkers didn’t really care about authenticity; they cared about flavor, and Sam Adams Boston Lager had it, as did specialty-brew competitors like Pete’s Wicked Ale. In this, the commercial craft brewers were building on, and cashing in on, a trend that had begun in the West in the late seventies: a new generation of flavorful American ales, carefully brewed in small batches with all malt and no additives, by a group of dedicated amateurs, many of whom had started as home-brew hobbyists. Inspiration may have come from Fritz Maytag, of the washing-machine-and-bluecheese family, who took over San Francisco’s old and ailing Anchor Steam and in 1975 created the first of the new breed, Liberty Ale, in commemoration of the bicentennial of Paul Revere’s ride. Huge in flavor, intensely aromatic, and bursting with the delectable bitterness of hops, it bore the same relation to subtle, understated European beers as California wine did to French. And like California wine, it went great with the spicy new American cuisine.

Maytag was followed by a few visionary small craftsmen who built the first brewpubs (breweries built to serve a bar on the premises) and microbreweries. (Micros are defined as breweries producing fewer than 15,000 barrels a year. For perspective, in 1997 total domestic beer production was 192 million barrels; Boston Brewing, the leader in the tiny category of craft or specialty beers, produced almost 1.4 million.) The first micro was established in 1976 at Sonoma, in California wine country, and it made a Scottish-inspired ale called New Albion. Boulder Brewing, set up in a goat shed in 1979 by a physicist who first brewed porter with homemade equipment, is the oldest still in business.

America’s first brewpub opened in an old opera house in Yakima, Washington, in 1982, and soon the Northwestern cities of Portland and Seattle, with their proximity to barley and hops fields and a climate that demanded something more substantial than a light thirst quencher, would have more breweries than any other American city. The most famous, and now one of the biggest, is probably Seattle’s Redhook Ale, started by a former Starbucks executive and a former winemaker in an old trolley barn.

Small craft brewing grew very rapidly in the 1980s, spreading eastward as it did. Although American microbreweries now offer a wider range of styles than any other country can boast, the movement has remained essentially ale-centric, for several reasons. For one, many were started by home brewers who could not afford, even if they had wanted it, the expensive cooling and storage equipment required for lagers. For another, many of the early entrepreneurs were inspired by Britain and the Campaign for Real Ale that began there in the early 1970s. Most of all, though, in America lager still meant Budweiser and Miller, and ale wasn’t lager.

By the early and middle 1990s micros and craft brews were the fastest-growing beer segments. The majors, plagued by declining sales for their flagship brands and a general feeling among consumers that “big” was “bad,” got into the act. Miller’s Red Dog, produced at something called the Plank Road Brewery, which happened to use the same production lines as Miller High Life and Miller Lite, was the first response. It was quickly followed by Anheuser-Busch’s Red Wolf and Coors’s Killian’s Red. (Originality in product naming is apparently something beaten out of you in business school.) There were suddenly so many new “craft” beers of unidentifiable origin and uncertain quality on the market that the category saw a shakeout in the late nineties. Many companies failed, and many consumers switched to imported brands with names they could recognize.

Things appear to have calmed down again, and the micro- and craft-beer segment seems to be settling in at a market share of about 3 percent, a small number that doesn’t suggest the truly astonishing variety of styles and flavors offered to consumers by the 1,600 or so brands now available in various parts of the country.

M.R.

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