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(American) Beer Basics

I wrote this a while ago, but it still resonates two years later…  Some background and historical context for those just getting into craft beer.

My mother’s knowledge of beer, like the majority of our country-folk, has been very cleverly shaped by mega beer companies that account for over 80% of beer sales in the U.S.  The following is more or less how I explained why I drink craft beer and not “crap beer” to my Mom.  Of course, beer, music, and one’s taste in food are subjective experiences.  However, as a former history teacher I was trained to dig a little deeper to uncover the often hidden truths.

Americans celebrated the end of Prohibition with the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933.  Lovers of beer were enthralled, but the beer landscape slowly declined over the next several decades.  As a handful of macro-breweries began to dominate beer production in the U.S., smaller regional breweries, who kept alive a diversity of beer offerings, quickly met their demise.  Mega beer companies rose to dominance and popularized what most Americans know as beer, an inferior version of a Czech Pilsener.

Mainstream beer, such as Budweiser, takes pride in its European roots.  However, the “King of Beers” wouldn’t even have been able to pass the German Beer Purity Law, known as the Reinheitsgebot.  This law stated that only four ingredients can be used in the production of beer: water, malt, hops, and later yeast.  Budweiser and other mainstream beers use adjuncts, or cheaper ingredients to supplement barley.  The most popular adjuncts in beers such as Budweiser, Coors, and Miller are rice and corn.  Cost cutting equals maximized profits and subpar quality and taste.  Quality or taste hasn’t really mattered because the big beer companies spend millions and millions of dollars in advertising every year to convince the consumer that their beers taste great and are the standard of what beer should taste like – light, bland, and consumed extremely cold.

In 2012, we have mega beer companies unparalleled in the history of beer.  Budweiser was already a mammoth company before merging with InBev, a Belgian and Brazilian company.  Coors and Molson are now under the umbrella of SABMiller, a South African company.  These two giant beer companies now control more than 70% of the world’s market and over 80% of the beer sold in the U.S., as previously mentioned.  Head over to the blog Beer Head for an in depth breakdown of these two major companies and the over 450 beer brands they own worldwide.

I’ll write about the history of the craft beer movement in another post, but here it is in a few sentences.  Home brewers, tired of the very limited options at bars and at stores, decided to brew their own beer, even when it was illegal to do so in many states.  Many of the beers they conjured up were inspired by European beer styles, often with an American twist.  Some of these home brewers were able to start their own micro-breweries and began generating local interest in their unique offerings.  First there were only a handful of breweries: New Albion, Anchor Brewing Company, Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer Company, Commonwealth Brewing Company, and Northhampton Brewery.  In the late 80s and early 90s, the movement picked up steam and craft breweries began opening throughout the country. By 1996, there were more than 1,000 craft breweries operating in the U.S.

What united a majority of these small breweries was a dedication to quality ingredients, an experimental spirit, and a steadfast commitment to remaining independent.  Some of these “micro-breweries” did so well that they grew beyond the designation “micro.” Breweries such the Boston Beer Company can still be considered craft breweries, but they are now multi-million dollar enterprises, with distribution deals in all fifty states.  Other craft brewing companies, in their desire for increased production and revenue, are now partially owned by either SABMiller or InBev.  (I’ll also return to this at a later date.) The majority of craft brewers remain independent and are committed to protecting the hand-crafted nature of their brews…superb ingredients, better quality, and more variety.

Sam Calagione, the founder and president of Dogfish Head, explains it quite well in his book Brewing up a Business:  

“The other big reality is that people are choosing to support small, local companies.  They see there are international, sort of nameless, faceless, publicly traded, global breweries that dominate the commercial beer landscape –and there’s beer being made right in their hometown, literally.  There are over 1,600 breweries in the United States today, and the average American now lives within 10 miles of a local brewery.  These local brewers are in their community, doing festivals, doing beer dinners, doing tastings, and introducing themselves on a very human level and scale.  And people are choosing to support businesses that are of a human scale.  People are discouraged by the failures of global, publicly traded companies and are embracing the opportunity to support a small, local brewery –or any small, local business.”

Cheers,

BierWAX