The story of the American craft brewing industry goes back decades, to before the boom times of the past decade. The journey from an industry controlled by a few giant companies to the vibrant and diverse offerings seen today took time to come to fruition, but the results have clearly been worth it. The wide availability of delicious beers that suit a variety of palates is a luxury that has been earned through the concerted efforts of brewers through the years.
Learning the story of craft brewing, from its humble beginnings in the 1970s to the present era of cultural saturation, can grant a new appreciation for great beer and the people who make it. Sit back with a glass of your favorite beer and take a trip through time.
Reacting to a Stagnant Market
The Brewers Association noted in its history of craft brewing that by the time 1979 turned to 1980, the whole beer industry in the U.S. flowed from 44 companies. The pace of consolidation was high, and it was suggested that soon these breweries would merge into five mega-companies. As you would expect from such an invariable industry, the styles of beer offered didn’t cover much stylistic ground.
When beer brewing first came to the U.S., it came from several different traditions. When brewers immigrated, they brought styles and recipes with them. Over the years, however, some of this variety was lost. The Brewers Association lamented that by the ’70s, light lager had become the face of beer in America. With limited imports available, one kind of brew ruled the roost.
While big brands got bland, a revolution was brewing. According to Vinepair, 1972 saw the introduction of Anchor Porter. The move was meaningful because it was the first porter brewed in America in the post-prohibition era. Then, near the end of the decade, President Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing at the federal level. Now people could tinker with recipes even if they weren’t ready to open full-scale breweries yet.
Leading a Phenomenon
The Brewers Association explained that the early ’90s constituted the first big era of micro-brewing. Small-scale brewers had made their start in the ’80s, but had faced a tough market. Breaking into a business controlled by a few major corporations wasn’t easy. Vinepair noted a few other historical landmarks. Sierra Nevada rolled out its ever-popular pale ale in 1980. Just over a decade later, in 1991, New Belgium Brewing launched its Fat Tire amber ale, turning Colorado into a craft beer capital.
The growth of the craft scene progressed in fits and starts through the ’90s and the beginning of the millennium, with the Brewers Association explaining that while there were only eight craft brewers active in 1980, there were 537 in 1994. By 2013, there were 2,800 small breweries putting their products on shelves and into pubs’ casks.
A History Worth Knowing
Craft brewing is a fascinating tradition, one that has changed the way people think about beer in a few short decades. Keeping track of the industry’s history has become a scholarly pursuit. California State University San Marcos recently announced the opening of the Brewchive, which is a historical archive of California’s craft beer traditions. The collection is meant to focus on the period from 1987 to the present and beyond, as this coincides with the revival of vibrant brewing in San Diego.
The past few decades have seen immense progress in the amount and variety of brews on the market. Dedicated brewers braved a tricky marketplace to create the craft scene as it exists today. The industry, which was at risk of becoming a cookie-cutter world of light lagers, has innumerable corners and avenues worth exploring.
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