Beer was traditionally considered a working man’s beverage. Names like Pabst, Stroh’s and Miller were found on tap in working-class pubs and in copious piles in grocery stores. Beer was tasteless alcoholic pablum and “the more the better” was the mantra of giant breweries, and it still is.
Things began to change a few years ago. Around the country small breweries began to sprout. They produced a carefully crafted product which has come to be known as craft beer. In many ways these little breweries resembled the fine small wineries that for hundreds of years have touted exclusivity as one of their virtues.
Although big brands still dominate beer sales globally, some 250 craft breweries opened in 2011, making the nearly 2,000 in operation the most since the 1880s.
That’s heady stuff, pun intended, although many, in truth, eschew the froth…
Why the increase in popularity? Well, first a little context. The terms “craft beer” and “microbrew” are widely thought to be the same thing, but that’s not so. The latter breweries produce less than 15,000 barrels of suds annually, while craft potables can be made be made by breweries much larger (but still tiny compared to major mainstream breweries).
The American Beverage Association dictates that a craft brewery must be “small,” “independent” and “traditional.” Annual production cannot exceed two million barrels, a barrel being 31 gallons. No more than 25 percent of a craft brewery can be owned by a big brewery like one of the Big Three: Anheuser-Busch, Miller or Coors.
Bigger breweries like those often use what the ABA calls adjuncts such as corn or rice to lighten the body and flavor of beer, and heighten mass appeal, whereas craft beers are more like wine with their complexities and distinct tastes. More and more, today’s beer drinkers are learning the intricacies of taste and ingredients in the same way that oenophiles know their grapes and terra.
So there are many reasons why the craft beer is industry is growing so robustly. For one thing, some speculate, the buy local movement makes such beers more attractive. And, palates are increasingly discerning, more nuanced. Well-educated consumers have come to expect choices and local flavors in all consumables, beer included.
There are thousands of craft beer labels including popular stuff like Brooklyn Sorachi Ace (New York), Stone Vertical Epic (California), Victory Summer Love (Pennsylvania) and Allagash Coolship (Maine). We also have plenty of Michigan brands like Huma Lupa Licious, Diabolical IPA and Purple Gang Pilsner (could anyone outside Michigan have a Purple Gang label? Methinks not).
Also, chefs are increasingly promoting beer pairings with food and cooking more with beer. Craft beer makes a great-tasting ingredient in many recipes, one which calls for a hefty dose of Sly Fox Brewing Company’s Route 113 IPA in a delicious wild striped bass ceviche. Another one spices up a grilled Romaine with stout-bacon vinaigrette. Still another adds an IPA to risotto.
Simply put, craft beers are heavy on the brew master’s passion, love of experimentation and personal influence. Craft brewing is all about pushing boundaries and respect for beer in all of its iterations. Not to say that bigger companies have no warmth of mind or feeling, but you get the idea. What’s great about craft brewing is its emphasis on maximum flavor, as opposed to brewing for the widest audience possible.
“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day.”