Does America have the world’s finest beer?
My quick answer: Yes.
Anywhere you travel in the world, people like beer. From the stouts and ales of Europe, to the lighter lagers of the southern equatorial and Eastern countries, to the melting pot of brews that is America and Canada, everyone has something to say.
But, recently, America has been speaking the loudest.
In true do-it-yourself fashion, the American craft-beer scene has risen in prominence both in flavor and business in the world beer trade. While America may be the relatively new kid on the block with few (if any) craft beers predating The Boston Beer Company founded in 1984 by Jim Koch, it is a scene worthy of both recognition and support.
Following the failed “noble experiment” of prohibition in 1933, America was left with a beer industry largely dictated by the big companies with money willing to start making beer domestically. Decades later and with way too many distribution and state-regulations to count, Big beer (Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Miller) was the only beer you’d be likely to see at a pub.
This was the case until 1978, when the restrictions on home brewing were lifted. The following year, there were 44 independent brewing companies, today there are over 2,000.
Having been in Korea for the past two years, I do not have a hard time imagining what a world of three BIG beer companies selling “fizzy, yellow” water looks like. While the beer market here is not the most notable, it is notable when I go through the imported beers section of the supermarket and I see the likes of Samuel Adams and Rogue. For the flavor alone, a $6 imported Boston Lager is well-worth it.
But, the distinct character that comes with the various regional craft beers in America is not something enjoyed by the American palate alone. It is a rapidly growing and diversifying world export that other countries are beginning to take notice of. Just this past February, London had its first Craft Beer Rising Festival, featuring independent, craft brewers following the American model of business and brewing.
In an article for the Guardian, Jon Kelly writes, “British firms like Darkstar, Meantime and Marble have all manufactured drinks influenced more by California and Colorado than Cornwall or Coventry.”
The independent craft beer market in America continues to grow in popularity not only as a result of the unique regional flavors that come with each beer, but the business ethic behind them. A craft beer is defined as being made by an independent company producing less than 6 million barrels a year (Samuel Adams shipped only 2.5 million in 2011) and devoting a “decent portion” of it’s product to all malt beverages.
In the beginning, the craft beer ethic grew largely out of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s in California and the Pacific Northwest, but these days, regional beers have become a source of pride and local aesthetic all over the United States (a tour of regional brews would produce a myriad of awesome road-trips). And along with good brewing practices, the craft beer market has created a sustainable culture to produce and distribute it.
With locally made craft brew start-ups popping up all over the country, America is seeing a big sway in support of independently produced beer; in 2011, a year when beer sales dropped by 1.3%, craft beer saw a rate of 13% growth by volume.
Craft beer is an emerging market that coincides with the coming of age of the millennial generation and while it did not arise from our generation, it carries with it an approach to business and community that seems to resonate with many young people in America. Craft beer is more than just a hip six-pack to bring to a party.
This past January, the New York Times ran a piece on the “beer-for-charity” movement that is beginning to take hold all over the world. In Portland, Oregon, the Oregon Public House Pub is a bar that takes locally-produced craft beers and donates all proceeds to various local charities.
In a way, it completes a full circle with one community producing all parts of the craft beer that, in the case of Public House, gives back to the community. Like the idea of “pay-what-you-want,” paying for something and knowing what the money is going towards (keeping the business going and supporting a specific charity) plays on a trust in individual people, on a person to person level. It is part of a growing movement to make everything more local and to grow from the bottom up.
With that idea in mind, it is worth noting that while craft beers are presenting a growing trend, not all craft beers may be what they seem. As noted in Fortune magazine, Anheuser-Busch and Coors produce Shock Top and Blue Moon respectively, as well as own Terrapin Beer Company and Goose Island Brewing. While these are some great beers that seem to be “craft,” it is important to keep in mind that craft beer, apart from being exceptional in taste, is part of a larger business movement that represents a change of time.
To support a locally brewed craft beer is to support a new way of doing business.
The “big” beer industry has a place, but remember that spending a little extra to try a locally made craft brew is supporting a growing industry in America that is beginning to put American made beer on the international map.