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US: From Pilgrims to Pale Ale

"A man without beer is like a lawnmower without grass." - American suburban proverb

Beer has long occupied a central position in American culture. This was true even immediately before the craft-brewing revolution, which has dramatically increased the beer choices available to consumers.

Strictly speaking, 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. 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. Indeed, their landing choice of Plymouth Rock was dictated by an onboard crisis-the beer was running low.

Beer has been and is 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 with flavor was your choice of beer, there was not much alternative to a British import. The market was clearly ready for the revival of ales with substance, brewed with 100% malted barley, when the pioneers of the craft-brewing revolution first established their breweries at the close of the 1970s and early 1980s. Such pioneers such as the Boston Beer Company of Boston, Massachusetts, and Sierra Nevada of Chico, California, are now thriving businesses and familiar brands to anyone who has occasion to visit a bar on either coast or much of the rest of the country.

"Craft brewing" is a "warm-fuzzy" term that simply implies that a beer has been produced without the use of cheaper adjuncts (e.g., rice and corn). Although it has overtones of local artisans in small breweries, rather large breweries can and do produce craft-brewed beer in multiple locations.

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 was, and essentially remains, centered 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 by happy coincidence had been easy to reproduce at home. Home brewing ale requires none of the costly cooling and storage vessels required for high-quality lager 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.

Craft-brewed ales in today’s beer market

On a national basis, craft-brewed beers are not in any danger of becoming a national staple-yet. According to recent figures compiled by the Institute of Brewing Studies (IBS) in Boulder, Colorado, craft-brewed beers amounted to a not-so-whopping 2% of the total volume of beer sold in the United States in 1998. Even in the strongest craft-brewing market, the Pacific Northwest, this figure rises to only 5%. Marketing muscle and the economic inertia of a distribution system heavily influenced by the giant brewing companies have slowed the rapid growth of craft-brewed beer. Craft brewing is no longer a fast route to easy money, as many recently shuttered breweries have found. Good beer alone is not enough to make it in today’s market. A good dose of business savvy is also required. The growth in the craft beer market has leveled off to the point where new start-ups in many states will be taking market share from existing microbreweries and not from the large mass-market brewers. According to figures published by the Institute for Brewing Studies, the same amount of craft-brewed beer was brewed in 1998 as 1997, a total of 5.6 million barrels. The flip side of all this competition for a currently fixed-size market is good news for the craft beer consumer-quality, in the sense of getting high-quality, fresh beer to consumers-is becoming a greater factor in the success of microbreweries and brewpubs.

Brewpubs

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 an amber ale, an English-style brown ale, a pale ale, a stout, and/or a porter. (It would be less than libelous to note that brewpubs tend to do a much better job at brewing ales than lagers. For a whole host of technical reasons, good lagers are more exacting to brew and condition properly than good ales.) 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 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 Octoberfest in September, and possibly a maibock in springtime.

Though not within the scope of this site (yet), the kitchen, and how intelligently it matches and uses beer in the preparation of food, is a factor that is essential for a satisfactory brewpub experience.

Belgian-style ales, the next wave?

A niche of the U.S. market, primarily on the East and West Coasts, is finally warming to the notion of Belgian ales, as increasingly sophisticated consumers seek to broaden their palates. A few craft brewers, most notably New Glarus Brewing in Wisconsin and New Belgium Brewing in Colorado, have already made a splash with their homages to the Belgian styles. However, 1998 saw the successful introduction of the first Belgian-style brewery devoted entirely to the production of authentic Belgian-style ales. Brewery Ommegang of Cooperstown, New York, was conceived by Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield, proprietors of the pre-eminent Belgian-ale import company, Vanberg & Dewulf. The quick market success of Ommegang’s beers proves that some consumers are ready to spend an extra few dollars and take their beer to the dinner table. This is an interesting albeit miniscule niche that, hopefully, will continue to develop in the coming years.

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