So, what the heck is Craft Beer? If you asked a dozen people that question, you’re almost guaranteed a dozen different answers. The one thing that most beer drinkers can agree on is that it’s a positive and even necessary movement away from universally bland, flavourless, mass produced brews that have to be served so cold they may as well be beer popsicles. Now, there’s nothing wrong with loving beer popsicles, but where real beer is concerned, it’s the difference between beef-flavoured potato chips, and a Ribeye steak.
Several ingredients are stirred into the Craft Brewing story, the most significant being Size, Tradition, Flavour, Ownership and Innovation. Each one of these has at one time or another been cited as the main impetus behind the Craft Beer movement, but in fact they’ve all played, and continue to play, a major role in the evolution of both the craft, and the industry as a whole.
About 40 years ago, in a bearded and long-haired, George Harrison, John Lennon England, a protest group of sorts arose, CAMRA, or the Campaign for Real Ale. At that time, the beer market in Britain, and most of Europe, were under the heavy, post-war (that’s WW2 for all you millennials) commercial thumb of the predominantly lager producing multi-national brewers. Miraculously, they (CAMRA) struck a chord, as there were still sufficient pools of aggrieved lovers of traditional beer styles in the UK and Europe who needed a flag to rally around. Traditional British brewers found their legs again, while smaller, upstart black sheep brewers took matters, and their brews, into their own hands and a re-birth of ale began.
In the USA, where the culture of beer had suffered an even worse fate than in Britain (e.g. their incomprehensible Prohibition era), they didn’t even know what they were missing, as ever since the 1850’s the production of beer on any significant scale was largely in the hands of German immigrants, who brewed what they knew. Lager. Business being business, the emphasis inevitably focused on the bottom line, and on making more of the same stuff, only more cheaply, and that’s how what we now recognize as the big ‘traditional’ American beer brands came to be infused with cheaper-than-barley grains like corn and rice, to the inevitable detriment of taste.
In the late 70’s, cheap, de-regulated trans-Atlantic air travel, and the legalization of home-brewing in the both the UK and the USA, slowly opened the door to what would eventually become a frenzy of cross-pollination of beer cultures. And just like wind-blown wild yeasts, ideas got everywhere. On stony ground in the USA at first, the concept that taste could actually be combined with beer started putting down firm roots in the 90’s. Micro-breweries appeared, whose drivingphilosophy seemed to be “Small is Good, Big is Bad!”. This of course became problematic when successful micro-breweries turned into Macro-breweries, or worse, were swallowed up by one of the industrial megaliths. Whither the Romance?
But by the early 2000’s in the USA, the demand for individuality and variety had become an unstoppable train. While overall beer sales had slowed, and even declined in some markets, the growth of what had now come to be known as “Craft Beers” continued to rise sharply, and, according to the US Brewers Association, so did the growth in number of small, independent, traditional brewers joining up to brew them. Food became an important part of this landscape, as did innovative (sometimes even bizarre) use of traditional ingredients!
Today, Craft Brewing is a constantly evolving landscape, with possibly as many individual types of beer as there are opinions. The one thing these craft brewers probably have in common is that they’re usually bearded and broke, but worshipped, by customers who refuse to be sheep.