Craft Beer 101: The History and Future of Microbrews

The craft brew craze is everywhere nowadays. In fact, craft breweries have gained so much popularity that mega-brewers, including Anheuser-Bush, Miller-Coors, Pabst, and others, have started retaliating against the trend, trying to popularize “beer for beer’s sake.” Unfortunately, beer drinkers have developed a taste for complex, distinctive brews, which means the craft craze seems to be here to stay.

However, what counts as a craft beer has been a cause for debate almost since the first small breweries began a few decades ago. In fact, the sphere of beer has become nearly as nuanced as the wine world. Beer aficionados gain much by learning about craft beer’s origins and history — and they can do so by reading on.

Craft Beer: A Definition

For most of human existence, there was no such thing as a craft beer: Beer was beer, and that was that. However, by the late 20th century, most American beer was created in mega factories by huge, well-known brewing companies more interested in profits than flavorful beverages. Thus, beer enthusiasts needed a term to distinguish the enjoyable beers — lovingly crafted by skilled brewers — from the swill. Though every beer drinker has an idiosyncratic definition of the term, “craft breweries” are those that are:

Small. Breweries that produce more than 6 million barrels of beer every year cannot be labeled “craft.”

Independent. Breweries cannot have more than 25 percent of their companies owned by other alcohol industry members who are not craft brewers.

Traditional. The majority of a beer’s flavor must derive from standard brewing ingredients, such as barley, malt, hops, etc.

Before 2010, the Brewers Association (BA) had far tighter restrictions on what brewers could claim the “craft” title — the production cap was as low as 2 million barrels, for example — and the current definition has incited quite a bit of anger in the brewing community. As a result, most true craft brewers distinguish themselves with a story of their beginnings that makes their dedication to the art of brewing clear to discerning drinkers.

The First Small-Batch Breweries

In 1873, Americans had developed a profound taste for beer: More than 4,000 independent brewers existed throughout the country. During this period, German immigrants brought a taste for complex, bitter all-malt brews — which today often take the name American pale lager; meanwhile, most resident American drinkers preferred lighter lagers made with corn or rice. The plethora of brewers meant plenty of unfamiliar and fantastic experiments in breweries all over the nation.

Unfortunately, brewing enlightenment was killed when individual states began passing prohibition acts, and in the 1920s, it was illegal for any Americans to make and sell beer. Even decades after prohibition was repealed, American brewers failed to recover their previous numbers; in 1950, about 400 brewers were actively producing, and in 1980 — due to competition and aggressive tactics by larger companies — that number dipped to around 40.

Still, as early as the 1970s, craft brewers (by the modern definition) began popping up. Enthusiastic home-brewers, who took to the hobby due to the market’s dearth of delicious beers, began selling their products to fellow beer fans who were eager for higher-quality ales and lagers. The Anchor Brewing Company and The New Albion Brewery were some of the first to herald the impending beer revolution. Craft brewers brought passion and vision to the dying art form, revitalizing Americans’ taste for complex, creative beer.

Modern Microbrew Mania

During the 1980s, mega beer corporations largely ignored the craft beer craze, assuming small breweries would die out due to high operating cost; fortunately, beer companies underestimated Americans’ desire for more delicious brews. Diligently building a community first locally, then regionally and nationally, craft brewers were able to establish a firm foothold in the market. By the mid-1990s, the craft beer industry was vigorous: In 1995, annual volume growth was an astounding 58 percent.

For the most part, the strongest advocates of craft beer are younger, white, middle-class American men, who have the time and income to spend experimenting with innovative beers. However, plenty of other demographics have caught onto the trend: Women make up more than a third of craft beer drinkers, and the Chi/Lat population appear to be engaging more with microbrews, as well.

The Future of the Craft

In 1980, there were only eight craft brewers in America; today, the country has more than 4,000, and that number grows every day. The United States boasts more small, independent brewers than any other country. Whether it is the enterprising American spirit for autonomous success or American citizens’ overwhelming desire for diverse beers to match the complexity of the population, it is clear that for now, the world’s eye is on American craft brewers to lead the charge into new, exciting brewing territory.

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