Featured image credit: Vega Direct
Years before there even was an America, there was an American brewery. The year was 1587, and corn was being brewed into ale. Twenty years later, beer would arrive from England to the colonies. The first documented female “Brewster”, Mary Lisle, took over her dad’s Edinburgh Brewhouse in 1734. She would run the establishment until 1751.
Over the many, many years of this nation’s history beer has changed and evolved along with the tastes of those who drink it. From the need for near beer during the Prohibition years to the release of the first beer in cans, that evolution has meant that new companies, both big and small, have sprung up across America. Some have flourished; others floundered and died.
In 1977 the first craft beer was created at the New Albion Brewery. Several years later, Colorado would introduce us all to the Great American Beer Fest, which is still in existence as the oldest and largest beer tasting and competitive festival. Homebrewing became legal in 1978, and in 1982 breweries were finally allowed to sell their own beers on their premises and sell food giving rise to the microbrewery pubs.
How Microbrews are Changing the Entire Face of American Beer
American brew has the stereotype of being bitter or stale. Many of them are weak or watered down, and some people have complained that the major US beer brands have allowed their quest for greater numbers to turn their beers into a churning river of similar tastes. Whether any of this is right or wrong, it is impacting those big brands right in the wallet. According to CNN Money, the 4 US brands (Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Lite and Budweiser) are faltering with shipments decreasing by nearly 4%. This, coupled with the fact that microbreweries and craft pubs are opening in huge numbers, is definitely affecting the sales of the 4 largest US brands. Even the number of craft beers itself is climbing at a fairly steady pace. There were nearly 4,000 microbreweries in the United States in 2017, an increase of 19% from the previous year. For that same time period, craft beers rose to 6266 up 15.5%, and brewpubs are up to 2252 up 10%. At the same time, the larger brewers are closing breweries and distribution centers.
The Continued Evolution of American Beers
From that first corn-based ale, American beers have evolved over and over to reflect the demands of the consumers as well as other factors like politics and the climate. During the earliest years of Prohibition, brewers knew they needed to adapt or face bankruptcy, so “near beer” came to the rescue. In 1921 alone, more than 300 million gallons of this not-quite-alcoholic beer was brewed.
The first of the canned beers came along in 1935. Innovations to beer can sizes and openings were noted in ’54 and ’63. It wasn’t until 1969 that the cans would start outselling bottled beer. Brewers would continue making innovations to their cans, including special lining to prevent changes to the taste of the beer and other designs that made the beer as cold as possible. Good ideas in their times –but not good enough to prevent the onslaught of microbrews and the huge selection of craft beers that were starting to flood the market.
Every brewer takes a traditional recipe and then makes it his own in some way. He may adjust one or more of the ingredients. He may change the amount of carbonation or part of the brewing process. At some point, the brewer may have fudged with a recipe to the point that he has created an entirely new beer. It would be nearly impossible to list every type of craft beer because they are constantly evolving. The basic and traditional standards including ales, wheat beers, stouts, porters are getting new and interesting entries alongside the more traditional flavors. Specialty beers which can evolve based on the area of the country and the season are also popular. Hybrid beers are also incredibly popular, and sell very well in many regions.
When Brewers Meet up with Wine Makers
By estimate, the average American lives within ten miles of a brewery. Those same people may live that near to a vineyard as well. Non-traditional winemaking states are gaining in popularity and whether by design or by demand, some of those vineyards are also introducing microbrews or vice versa. Tours and tastings can help bring in more people while expanding the palates of everyone involved. Some of the craft brews are starting to adopt some of the traditional flavors and appearance of wine specifically to lure in some of the die-hard wine drinkers. There is even a hard cider/rose wine hybrid on the market now.
Festivals and Other Events
American festivals celebrating music, seasons, and local peculiarities happen in every region and in virtually every season. Most of those festivals have at least one beer tent with more and more of them welcoming microbreweries as a way of encouraging local business people. Some of these events are centered on the beer itself and can be a single day to many days in length. There might be a brewing competition, and all of the local microbreweries will vie for the title. They get great publicity, and everyone has a good time and some good beer.
Beer has long played a role in other events, including obstacle course races. Each of these races partner with a brewery, usually a local craft beer company if possible which is an incredible boost to that small brewer. Some of these races bring in thousands per race day, many from across the country so the publicity alone can be an astounding boost.
Some of these microbreweries end up with such a following that they ship their craft beers to other states. Some get a fan following based on their name, their logo, or their advertising materials even before that first beer is tasted. Larger bars might start selling the craft beers right alongside the big named guys, and as long as the micros are selling, they get to stay. You might even find your favorite microbrew’s wares in the local market or even in a grocery store.
Rather than diluting the market in any way, these new crafters keep the older ones on their toes. Everyone has to keep their product lines as fresh and interesting as possible, or they will fail just like the big guys are doing. The major brewers, some of them in business for hundreds of years, competed with one another and focused on things like better bottle styles or flashier TV ads to the point of neglecting the most important thing: the beer. Eventually, the little guys saw the opportunity and took it. Thousands of craft beers and microbreweries means that your perfect beer is out there. You get to taste and savor the different styles and techniques, and you get to find the exact beer you have wanted.
As in nearly every business, consumers drive the demand. As long as the IPAs, the dark ales, the pale India ales, and the specialty beers sell, the microbreweries will brew them, even the Pumpkin beer that crops up every fall and makes people fight like Mad Hatters over whether it is good, bad, or an abomination. There must be people who drink it because come October, it will be there.