A hoppy history lesson

Plus, craft sales keep booming
By LOU PAPINEAU  |  July 31, 2013

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It all starts with Anchor Steam. The storied brew’s label proudly declares that it has been “made in San Francisco since 1896,” but it was saved from extinction when Fritz Maytag bought the brewery in 1965 — inauspiciously launching the craft beer industry and establishing its benchmarks: small, independent, and traditional. Anchor Steam is often cited as a gateway brew by many beer lovers, and it’s the gateway tale in Tom Acitelli’s great new book, The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution (Chicago Review Press). It’s a compelling tale of the passionate (and often accidental/lucky — and sadly unlucky) visionaries (aka home brewers who went pro, for the most part) who challenged unadventurous palates, dared to stand up to Big Beer, and added rich new chapters to brewing history.

Acitelli notes that “it is a story populated by quintessential American characters: heroes and villains, hippies and yuppies, oenophiles and teetotalers, gangsters and G-men, men in kilts and men in suits.” The Audacity of Hops traces the early (and later) days of craft giants Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada; the birth of the brewpub (in Washington in 1981); the influence of beer evangelist Michael Jackson; the rise and fall of Pete’s Wicked Ale; the craft explosion and shakeout in the mid-’90s; and the recent market shift (craft expands while macro recedes, slowly and steadily). And there are dozens of other narratives, from Jack McAuliffe’s pioneering efforts in the mid-’70s at New Albion Brewing (Sam Adams recreated their influential pale ale earlier this year; you can still find six-packs, but they’re long past their sell-by date), to Kona Brewing Company being founded by the guy who made his fortune with Kettle Chips, to Tony Magee launching Lagunitas with a few refitted tanks from a Russian brewery . . . .

A striking thing about the book is how the dominant story lines from 20 years ago are here again in 2013, with a plethora of beer makers clamoring to push into the market, shelf space at a premium and tap handles getting maxed out, and big beer launching faux craft brands (remember Red Wolf? Say hello to Batch 19!). Acitelli notes that from 1996 to 2000, nearly 200 breweries and brewpubs closed, saying that “two things were inarguable. There was too much beer, a lot of it of dubious quality, and too many breweries, brewpubs, and contract brewers.” Given the numbers cited in the next item, it could be a cautionary tale. But given what has happened in the last decade, at every level of craft beerdom, perhaps lessons have been learned and there’s room for everyone at the table, no matter how micro or nano.

And if you haven’t had Anchor Steam’s signature beer or their Liberty Ale (aka the first modern American IPA), get some soon. Fritz Maytag knew what he was doing.

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