This post was inspired by a recent weekend trip to see a great friend of mine. We have always enjoyed a few beers together - initially this meant drinking whatever we could afford or could get our hands on (I'm talking Keystone, Natty Light, Milwaukee's Best...). I can't speak for my friend, but at the time it seemed to me that Bud Lite was a high-end, classy beer. Beer was beer, and we didn't think too much more about it. A couple of years wiser and a couple more beers consumed have changed our tastes. And more recently, they have made me aware of a rapidly growing craft beer movement taking hold in the United States. For under $100, you can now purchase a home brewing kit and - with a little homework - can brew and bottle your own beers in an astoundingly quick and easy way. Trying my friend's surprisingly tasty brew (affectionately named "Old Swatty" for the creek that runs behind his house) motivated me to learn more about the movement.
The roots of the microbrew renaissance in the US have to be viewed in the broader historical context of American beer making. As a country with strong European influences, beer brewing was extremely popular in the US prior to Prohibition. But the dry period devastated beer brewers, wiping out an estimated 800 breweries. Following Prohibition was a period of massive industry consolidation that took place for decades (and is still taking place today). This brought the total breweries in the US down to just 50 in 1982. Incidentally this also led to the flavorless lager/pilsner mass market beer that we have suffered through for far too long.
The great news is that there are currently almost 1,500 small breweries in the US. The home brewing movement began in the late 1960s in Northern California with breweries like Anchor Brewing. It was very much a grassroots movement, with people sharing tips and recipes. However it caught on quickly, and was influential enough that a group of computer developers, who likened the home brewer networks to their open source visions for technology, called themselves the "Homebrewer Computer Club." These same developers ended up founding Apple Computer. Over time the craft beer movement picked up stream and soon state fairs were holding large beer competitions. Different regions developed distinct styles and brewing preferences - two of the my personal favorite east coast brewers are the Boston Beer Company (owner of Samuel Adams) and Dogfishhead. Northern California, Oregon, Massachusetts and Vermont are particularly well known for their craft beers.
Most successful breweries began with exactly what my friend is now doing (and what my college roommate and I quite unsuccessfully attempted during sophomore year) - buying equipment, mixing ingredients, and developing flavors and brewing tactics that you like. A science project for adults, if you will. Highlighting the success of craft beer is that politicians are taking notice at the national level. John Kerry recently proposed legislation to cut taxes on craft brewers, one of the few recent examples of successful American manufacturing. Unfortunately politicians are also screwing things up - the Oregon Liquor Control Commission very recently, confirmed the illegality of transporting one's own fermentation (beer or wine) outside of one's house. This has already cancelled wine and beer competitions that have existed for decades. Fortunately there has been widespread public outrage over this ruling - I hope justice for beer and wine lovers prevails!
After my research on the topic, my conclusion is that home brewing is pretty damn cool. It is creative, it is fun, and it is both customizable and flexible. It is customizable in the sense that you can be as sophisticated or unsophisticated as you'd like... You can dig into the science of it, or just make the standard brews. And it is flexible in the sense that beer brewing can be done just about anywhere (including from an apartment in Manhattan!). I haven't yet taken the plunge, but I'm getting closer. Until then, stay tuned for Old Swatty brew, the best beer you've never heard of!
Here are some links for those who want to learn more:
How to brew a batch of beer (video)