US: From Pilgrims to Pale Ale
Beer has occupied a central position in American culture from the start. This was true even before the craft-brewing revolution, which dramatically increased the beer choices available to consumers.
Beer predated the arrival of Europeans to the New World. Columbus noted on one of his expeditions to Central America that the inhabitants drank a fermented corn beverage, while the Aztecs of Mexico produced a beer-like fermented drink made from agave pulp and corn, the ancestor of modern pulque.
Of more direct relevance to the beer-drinking history of the Americas is the fact that the Pilgrims on the Mayflower were well provisioned with beer when they set off toward the New World. In fact, their landing choice of Plymouth Rock was dictated by an onboard crisis - the beer supply was running low, and they might be forced to drink just water.
Beer has always been a staple of American life, albeit with an ill-conceived pause during National Prohibition. One might argue that many things, including beer, suffered in the headlong dash for the ever more processed and stable foods that defined the post-World War II world of prosperous America. By the mid-1970s, if an ale or lager with flavor was your choice of beer, outside regional holdouts such as Anchor Steam Beer in San Francisco, the Yuengling ales and porters in Pennsylvania and the Augsburger line of lager beers from the Huber Brewery in Wisconsin, there was not much in the way of alternatives to an imported European brew.
This situation began to change in the late 1970s, when the tiny New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma, California began brewing a line of English style ales, stouts and porters. Other pioneer craft breweries as Sierra Nevada Brewing in Chico, California and Pyramid Ales in Washington State soon followed.
What we now call craft breweries were originally referred to as boutique breweries, after the new generation of small, local “boutique” wineries that started opening in the 1960s. Their beers were promoted as “all malt” beers, made only from barley malt, hops, water and yeast, to distinguish them from the mass-produced national brands, most of which contained high percentages of barley malt substitutes called “adjuncts” (corn, corn syrup and wheat primarily), which provided fermentable material but resulted in blander brews.
The rapid growth of craft brewing spread from California and the Pacific Northwest, where interest in high-quality foodstuffs has always been closer to the cultural mainstream. The American beer renaissance originally focused around the production of ales. This can likely be explained by a number of factors. The first and succeeding generations of home brewers who "went commercial" were inspired by the ales of England, which had been relatively easy to reproduce at home. Home-brewed ales do not require the additional cooling and storage vessels needed for high-quality lager beer production. In a market well-supplied with pale lager, it was a much surer marketing prospect to introduce an amber-colored, hoppy ale rather than a pale-hued lager, even if brewed to exacting German-style purity laws.
In more recent years craft lager brewers have begun to catch up, with such breweries as the Capital Brewery in Wisconsin, Bayern Brewing in Montana and Trumer Brauerei Berkeley in California in the forefront. Nowadays, virtually every existing style of beer, along with a few new ones, are being produced in American craft breweries.
Craft Beers in Today’s Beer Market
On a national basis, craft-brewed beers are well on their way to becoming a national staple. According to 2012 figures compiled by the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colorado, craft-brewed beers grew 15%, totaling over 13 million barrels, and amounted to 6.5% of the total volume of beer sold in the United States. Sales totaled $10.2 billion out of a U.S. total beer market of $99 billion. In some regions, such as the Pacific Northwest, the craft beer market share is now over 20%. Some brewing industry analysts are now predicting that the craft beer share of the national beer market will grow to 20% by 2020. By the end of 2013 the total number of craft breweries (including brewpubs) in the United States was over 2,500.
In a world where beer distribution is a tough business that has broken the heart of many a start-up brewer, the brewpub can still offer the rewards of good profitability. Brewpubs, of course, do not have to distribute their beer beyond their premises. In this commercial setting, brewing can be immensely profitable in the right location, and virtually all major cities now boast a number of thriving brewpubs.
Typically, you can expect a standard range of amber ales, English-style brown ales, pale ales, stoutsand/or porters. Because of space restrictions, brewpubs generally tend to focus on brewing ales, rather than lagers.
All such beers may or may not be named after the brewer, his mood at the time of brewing, his dog, or his first-born child - the naming of beers being possibly the greatest exertion of creativity in a brewer’s working life. The savvy beer hunter should always keep an eye out for cask-conditioned, hand-pumped ales at brewpubs. A brewpub that has made the effort to set up this style of English beer-dispensing system, not as exotically rare as it once was in the United States, is demonstrating a serious approach to ale dispensing that should show itself in the beer that is being brewed.
Brewpub brewmasters typically have a lively special event and seasonal schedule that can traverse the entire spectrum of beer styles. Expect to find imperial stouts and barley wines in winter, kölsch and wheat ales in summer, a mandatory Oktoberfest in September, and possibly a maibock in springtime.
The only limitation is one’s imagination, which is generally not lacking in this vibrant and growing industry.