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Craft Course: Your American Craft Beer Primer

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Welcome to Craft Course, our new column on the art of craft beer. Every week Christian DeBenedetti will take a look at interesting beer styles, brewmasters and their breweries, and more from high to low, East to West, and around the world.

[Photos: Christian DeBenedetti]

Ah, sweet, delicious beer: it's the U.S.'s—and the world's!—most popular alcoholic drink. From straw-gold pilseners to thick roasty black stouts, there are over 100 distinct brewing styles in the world and counting. With its array of food-friendly flavors and pleasing, moderate buzz, no drink satisfies in quite the same way.

What Exactly Is Craft Beer?

The late British beer writer Michael Jackson once said, "You wouldn't walk into a restaurant and order 'a plate of food', so why would you do the same with your beer?" In other words, if we are what we eat, then shouldn't we drink the best stuff that humans and nature can conspire to make? Would you rather eat Spam, or a good steak? So it is with beer, but the difference is—unlike wines, whiskeys, and other alcohols—the best beers in the world are rarely all that expensive. Beer is always going to be the drink of the people.

And the people have spoken! The U.S. now has about 1600 breweries; some 60% of Americans now live within ten miles of a brewery, most of them "craft." According to the Brewers Association, a craft brewer is "Small -- Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels," and "Independent -- Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer." In other words, when it comes to beer, craft is the opposite of industrial.

True, there are now national brands that hold to craft standards (thank you Sierra Nevada!) and mass market beers, which some call domestics, macrobrew, supermarket-, or mass-market beers, that pretend to be craft. Coors' Blue Moon comes to mind; committed craft beer geeks shun it, but it's arguably opening up some minds to the wider flavor possibilities beyond conventional suds. The Brewers' Association also use the expansive term "traditional," meaning that craft beer ought to be made with time-honored, artisanal methods and ingredients, never cheap adjuncts like rice or corn.

Craft beer is about flavor, richness, complexity. The range of flavors in beers actually surpasses wine, because of the nuances good brewers can beckon from the literally hundreds of malts, hop varieties, yeast strains, and even water sources. What it doesn't necessarily mean is "dark" or "syrupy" or "heavy" — some of the top craft breweries in the U.S. make excellent pale pilsner and light lagers (the same styles American megabrewers purport to make according to "tradition," but which in fact have long been weak imitations of the real thing invented in Bavaria and Bohemia 168 years ago). One taste of Victory Prima Pils or Stoudt's Pils, both beers from Pennsylvania, just to name two, ought to convince you.

Where It Is, And Why Now?

From Kona to Cooperstown, craft beer is suddenly everywhere. In the United States today, new era brewers are cranking out over 10,000 labels as a vanguard of beer bars, beer shops, and good grocery stores take up the call.

Why now? Part of it is surely the United States of Arugula factor; Americans have come to expect nothing less than virtue from our edibles. Just as we increasingly sip carefully sourced coffee from Whole Foods or Stumptown, drink pinot from small Oregon wineries, and buy organic microgreens from farmers markets—when was the last time you bought Wonder Bread?—more and more Americans have discovered fresh, hand-made beer. Slow Beer, anyone? (It's no joke, actually. The annual Slow Food convention in Torino, Italy, Salone Del Gusto, is now regularly drawing American craft brewers to show off their creations.)

This new industry has cut a swath, to be sure. And it's a big pie: an estimated 90 million Americans consider themselves beer drinkers, driving a $28.4 billion market (compared to wine's $9.9B), of which craft beer comprises 6% of sales and steadily rising, according to the latest industry statistics. There are at now scores of supermarkets around the country whose beer case areas boast over 800 brands. Big domestic brands are flat or falling; tiny upstarts are surging into the fray. There are naysayers who question if cities like Portland, Oregon need or can sustain all their breweries, but have you ever heard anyone complaining there are too many wineries in, say, Napa, CA, with hundreds in one valley alone?

Written in the National DNA

You might say all this was written in our national DNA. Long before National Prohibition, early Americans (including several Founding Fathers) were brewers, and there were thousands of small, regional breweries in the U.S. we would have called "craft." Around 1900, Brooklyn alone had 45, 11 on a single street, in Williamsburg. Style-wise, most of the New World firms were run by German immigrants making pale-colored golden lagers and pilsners (the variety of beer that swept to worldwide prominence after its advent in 1842, along with railways, mechanical refrigeration, and advances in yeast propagation and pasteurization). "The Great Experiment" ended the fun, shuttering them one and all; and the concept of local American brewery, once thriving, died immediately. Here's a short video on the debacle.

The End of Prohibition

When it was thankfully over, in 1933, hundreds of breweries sprang into operation, but few lasted very long. The nation was perilously broke and headed for another world war, which would lead to rationing of ingredients, manpower, equipment. Only the most aggressive, consolidated companies were able to survive; up until the late 1970s, there were only a few dozen regional independent breweries in operation, nearly all of them making the sort of more-cheaply-made-than-ever-before light yellow lagers we still occasionally like to drink while mowing the lawn, or, say, shooting pool. There were some good beers, many fondly recalled and nostalgically advertised, but they were nothing like the beers of the Old World.

The 1970s, Onward

Suddenly, though, everything changed. In 1978 the Carter Administration legalized homebrewing; though some states defied the bill, those that adopted it became home to avid, almost obsessive communities of home brewers chomping at the bit to go pro. Around the same time, ambitious business owners were working to disentangle Probibition-era laws (allowing breweries to make and sell beer at the same address, for example) which would pave the way for what we think of as the modern microbrewery. The first—though short-lived—project, took root in the heart of California wine country in 1976: New Albion brewery of Sonoma County.

At the same time, adventurous importers were bringing in bolder European beers, widening the American palate beyond the one-note Bud, Pabst, Coors, and Rheingold parameters of yore. Broadly speaking, the prime movers in American craft beer (many self-trained brewers) started off by refashioning hoppier and maltier British styles (pales, golden ales, bitters, IPAs, browns, porters, stouts, etc.) but soon moved on to trickier Belgian and German beermaking traditions which blur stylistic lines. We'll get into those eventually.

America's craft beer juggernaut shows no sign of slowing, with new companies launching almost every week. It's nothing short of a revolution in American beer making, and American brewers, once sneered at by our European forebears in the industry, have started dominating prestigious international brewing competitions like the World Beer Cup, held most recently in Chicago.

Further Reading and Viewing

The craft beer world is insanely wired, with hordes of people tweeting, web sites, blogs, magazines, iPhone apps, and more to keep track of. Not all of it is worth your time. Here's a video, "I am a craft brewer," that the clever folks at San Diego's Stone Brewery created. For industry news, backgrounders, and local and national events, check out For tasting notes, check out the user-generated kaffeeklatsch at (which also prints an insidery magazine edition) and ratings-focused For a few good beer magazines in print, check out Draft, the irreverent Mutineer, and lifestyle-centered Beer Northwest. There are several great books on the craft beer timeline and growing scene in America—check out the late British beer and whisky writing guru Michael Jackson's The New World Guide to Beer, the recent release The Naked Pint by Christina Perozzi and Hallie Beaune, and novelist Ken Wells' Travels With Barley, for starters.

Next week, the current state of American craft beer.

— Christian DeBenedetti

Oregon native Christian DeBenedetti (@debenedetti) is currently hard at work writing a book about American craft beer for National Geographic, due out in the Fall of 2011, and writes about beer and travel for magazines including Food & Wine, Men's Journal, Departures, Outside, and others. He lives and drinks in his hometown, Portland.

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