By: Erik Lars Myers
When the “craft beer revolution” began, there was a purpose. The craft beer industry was built by people who had been to the promised land and seen the light. That promised land was usually somewhere in Europe, and the light was not all that light. It was a revelatory moment in which a drinker found themselves confronted with beers that were not the light, bland, American-style macro lager they knew at home, but rather beers that were dark, moody, and hoppy. They were beers bursting with flavor and individuality, something that those American beers lacked. Those people returned from their promised land as evangelists, priests of a new order built to spread the gospel of those beers to a new, insulated, naïve market. Craft beer was born.
The roots of what we learned to see as normal craft beer offerings came through the lens of one book. It is so ubiquitous in the craft beer industry that some older beer veterans have referred to it as “the Bible”. The reverence with which Charlie Papazian’s book The Complete Joy of Homebrewing has been treated, as well as Papazian himself, who recently retired from the Brewers Association, makes it easy to draw a direct line from that book to the development of the modern beer industry.
Ignore, for a moment, that many professional brewers still brew with the dated knowledge presented in that book: knowledge that still makes great homebrew but is fairly basic for a professional brewery. The recipes presented in the book in the 1970s are the harbingers of the industry’s path to maturation some 15 to 20 years later.
By the 1990s, in the first big boom of the craft brewing industry, every brewery in the country worth its salt was putting out the same simple lineup: Golden Ales, Brown Ales, Pale Ales, IPAs, and Porters or Stouts. All the flavors of beer. Breweries with extra tank space might have thrown in the occasional lager, but since money and space were often limited, lagers sometimes fell by the wayside. Invention and innovation in the brewing industry leapt directly from Charlie’s books. He published what was probably the first pumpkin beer recipe. He let us know that honey was a great addition to brown ales, that fruit belonged in dark beers, and that historic styles that no longer existed were cool.
At the same time, the beer industry itself was working as hard as it possibly could to lower the barrier of entry to open a brewery. As startup brewers were treated like royalty by eager homebrewers, those brewing pioneers began to release books regaling fans with the tales of opening a brewery and all of their mistakes, so that you – the eager reader – would not be doomed to repeat them. It seemed like writing a business book was a prerequisite for owning a nationally-distributed brewery for a decade or so. Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada), Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head), Jim Koch (Sam Adams), Tony Magee (Lagunitas), Steve Hindy (Brooklyn), Tom Schlafly (Schlafly), and James Watt (Brew Dog) among others have all written books about starting their breweries that, to some degree or other – mostly blatantly – encourage the reader to believe the idea that starting a brewery is an achievable task, even if you don’t know what you’re doing.
The Brewers’ Association itself followed suit by releasing a book plainly titled “Starting Your Own Brewery”. The first edition was a loosely tied together collection of academic articles and essays that acted as a dry review of boilers and floor sealants of the 1990s, but the second edition was transformed into an easy manual to start a brewery by Dick Cantwell (Elysian, Magnolia). The Siebel Institute of Brewing Technology even went so far as to hold a “How to Start a Brewery” course using that book as a rough textbook. The course did not teach people to make beer or run a business. It taught people how to start a brewery.
And so, the barrier to entry became the notion that “It’s just so crazy it might work” and the finances to afford the most minimal amount of equipment. Buoyed by an industry (and industry association) that boasted double digit growth numbers for 20+ years, banks were eager to throw loans at anybody who could write a passionate business plan.
But when those breweries started, they were different than the earlier ones. They were not built by the originators and inventors, the people that had traveled abroad and found new ideas to bring home. They were started by their fans. They were started by eager homebrewers who wanted to do the same thing their heroes did, and when they started breweries, they started homebreweries instead.
Over the past decade and more, homebrew took a natural step from Charlie Papazian’s creative recipe starts into the concept of Extreme Brewing. You can thank Beer Advocate for it. Though their tame definition, “A beer that pushes the boundaries of brewing” is an easy definition to apply to even, say, the latest trends of non-alcoholic beers and low-cal IPAs, their intent was made clear in their preference for high alcohol offerings and rare, outlandish ingredients that was showcased on their website, and at Beer Advocate’s Extreme Beer Fest.
In breweries at the time, these extreme beers were fairly uncommon. Dogfish Head’s brewers stood out among their peers as the people who were most likely to throw lobster in the boil kettle, or have their entire staff chew corn to make a traditional chicha, but in homebrew it was an easy step. Ingredients that are off-limits to commercial brewers due to cost, scale, or regulatory reasons pose no impediment to a homebrewer.
The only thing stopping any homebrewer from making a beer out of 10 lbs of Snickers bars is the cost of 10 lbs of Snickers bars.
For years, the Brewers’ Association had a mantra based on fear: Quality is the most important thing. The fear was that a potential customer would try craft beer for the first time and it would be terrible and they would never try any craft beer ever again. The idea that a macro American lager drinker would walk into a craft brewery, drink a sub-par IPA, and then give up forever is a myth. Instead, that drinker tried beer again, maybe not that day, but at some point. Everybody drinks craft beer now, macro American lager drinkers.
For years, craft breweries were not at the mercy of their customer’s tastes, they defined them. Now, the educational period is over.
When thousands of homebreweries started throughout the country, they brought their recipes with them and taught millions of craft beer fans to love what they made: chock full of lactose, breakfast cereal, candy bars, fruit, and all kinds of sugars. More and more brewers experimented with more and more ways to get hops into beer, because they had been trained by those giant hopheads of yesteryear, and they found the gold mine in New England IPAs.
Today, our most successful small breweries flourish on a small variation of hazy IPAs, fruited sours, and dessert stouts. Our most successful large breweries cling to the waning popularity of their flagships in a broken distribution system.
Now, most craft beer fans value alcohol, adjuncts, and adjectives over quality and classic styles.
And they should. We taught them to. The only way back to classics is forward through education and inspiration of a whole new set of craft beer fans.
Erik Lars Myers is an author, brewer, and lover of beer. He currently works as the Director of Brewing Operations at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, NC where he strives toward innovation every day while supporting the Southern Beer Economy by using brewing ingredients sourced and grown across the American South.