A ‘golden age’ of brewing? My ass…and BTW, get off my lawn
05/04/2011

As I travel both literally and virtually around the US beer scene, I am constantly reminded by those that purport to ‘know’ that we are currently enjoying a ‘golden age’ of brewing. I suppose, that if one were to look at the relatively recent past, AND restrict ones view to the USA, AND one were to simply look at numbers then one could see a grain of truth in the statement, but closer inspection of even that narrow view suggests that the ‘golden age’ is being exaggerated a great deal.

Prohibition certainly worked its own ‘number’ on brewing in the USA, with an approximately 50% reduction in breweries from 5 years before prohibition in 1915, to the time prohibition had been repealed in the early 1930’s. But when we look at the number of breweries now present in the US (approx. 1600 in late 2009) we see that the 1915 populace has just about been re-established – hardly a ‘golden age’, more of a ‘return to where you once were before prohibition’.

Of course, putting aside the pure statistics there other ways of attempting to qualify this ‘golden age’. Some cite the ‘innovative’ brewing that is taking place in the US right now and one of the poster children for that particular campaign is the American Style Black Ale, AKA the oxymoronic ‘Black IPA’. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that this ‘style’ is an example of American brewing being at the cutting edge and forging into new and previously unknown and exciting territory – it’s just a shame that these people don’t know that in one way, shape or form, highly hopped ales combined with dark malts have been produced for decades prior to the recent ‘explosion’. No matter where or how these brews were previously concocted, whether in the UK, US or elsewhere, or what they were previously labeled, whether stout, porter or something else, ALL of these combos have been brewed before at some point in time. As Andy Crouch says, just because it suddenly popped up in the PNW of the US and used American grown hop varieties doesn’t suddenly mean a new style has been invented.

Given that no beer in 2011 and beyond is likely to be “innovative”, let’s look at a couple of things that American brewers actually do really well; pushing envelopes and reviving styles.

For me, the classic example of both of these attributes is encapsulated in the American (in particular, West Coast) Double IPA. Now, there is a pretty strong argument to say that like ASBA’s, American DIPA’s are hardly anything new at all. The late 19th century IPA’s that were brewed in England were certainly much higher in ABV and more aggressive in terms of their hop profiles than modern English versions of the style, and in that respect American brewers could (and perhaps should) be credited with reviving a genre of beer that had long disappeared in England. However, before heaping unlimited praise upon these brave new brewers we should consider what the American mindset has inadvertently created. Contemporary American breweries have not only taken those higher ABV and higher hopped IPA’s and brought them back to the craft beer scene, but in typical American fashion they also cranked it, yanked it and ripped the knob off! To be fair, there are a number of these types of beer that I actually enjoy, so why you ask wouldn’t this qualify as part of a definition of a ‘golden age’ for me? The problem is that amongst they very best, carefully crafted examples of this revived style, we are ALSO inundated with a much larger number of crass, ‘in bad taste’ (in both senses of the phrase) beers, that instead of nodding respectfully to tradition, only serve to  illustrate that they fail to know the difference between healthy irreverence and being an obnoxiously loud adolescent. There is a vast array of crappy, (literally) distasteful beers in the DIPA category as well as all other styles too. The growth of beer interest in the US has seen the production of a large amount of mediocre beer, that in the name of ‘craft’ has been anointed as good or great, when in fact it is sitting firmly at the other end of the quality spectrum. ‘Craft’ does not define ‘good’. Many modern geeks have lost the ability to discern what’s good and bad, and have come to the conclusion that if it’s not BMC then it must be worthy. The fact that these poor examples are in such abundance brings me to my final point.

In a nutshell, quantity does NOT equal quality, nor should an abundance of availability suggest a culture of understanding and appreciation. American bars with literally hundreds of taps do not, by definition, mean that all is well. Beer stores bursting at the seems with colossal choice do not, by definition, mean that we are living in a beer utopia. Much more important is the culture and depth of understanding surrounding the beer that is available. In so many cases there seems to be an inverse relationship between quantity (especially availability) and that cultural connection.  Smaller, well thought out offerings that reflect DISCERNMENT will always trump the conspicuous flaunting of a myriad of ‘beer wealth’, whether it be in terms of pure TASTE, in terms of the tyranny of choice, or in terms of the more practical issues surrounding the cleanliness of tap-lines and the (lack of) turnover of beer.

Of course, if we start to apply words and phrases like ‘discernment’, ‘taste’ and ‘conspicuous flaunting’, no strata of American popular culture is likely emerge in a favorable light.


18 Comments

  1. Slouch

    Why should anyone give a shit if you think we’re in the Golden Age of brewing?

    Reply
    • Ding

      No reason. Just stating my honestly held, frank opinion.

      Reply
  2. Ben

    I agree with a lot of what you’re talkin’ about here Ding. But in terms of statistics, (forgive me if I’m ignorant) weren’t most of the breweries of 1915 more local brew-pub type establishments rather than distributing breweries as we know them today? But alas, in the end it makes little difference as many of these breweries have jumped of the craft beer wagon and produce weak to mediocre brews.

    Reply
    • Ding

      Well it’s obviously true that we are talking about a different distribution of types of breweries as a whole when comparing 1915 and 2011, but nevertheless I think it makes for an interesting comparison.

      Reply
    • Jess Kidden

      @ Ben – “…weren’t most of the breweries of 1915 more local brew-pub type establishments rather than distributing breweries…”

      It’s actually just the opposite. Today, the majority of “breweries” are brewpubs which, by law in many states, can only sell their beer on-site at their brewery-restaurant (over 1,000 of the 1759 total- according to Brewers Association’s figures).

      In the pre-Prohibition era of the 20th century, what today we call “brewpubs” probably no longer existed. Sure, many of the breweries were very small and with a very local distribution, and a fair percentage were keg only with no bottling line, but they weren’t limited to only one retail outlet, where selling beer is often secondary to the food side of the business.

      Subtract the brewpubs from today’s totals, and the US is really back to 1930’s Repeal era numbers of around 700 brewing companies. But even that comparison ignores the near 80% of the market controlled by just the top 2 – Anheuser Busch-inBev and MillerCoors. The Top *Ten* breweries in the late ’30’s, by contrast, had under 20% market share, the Top Two (A-B and Schlitz or Pabst, depending on year) around 7-8%.

      Reply
      • Ben

        Sweet- thanks for the knowledge bomb. I truly appreciate it and stand corrected.

  3. Nathan B

    Nice read, I mostly agree with everything. But, it’s interesting you knock the quantity argument (which you should, I agree, that’s a silly measurement for being in a ‘golden age’ of anything) that beer geeks use today, but use that same argument – quantity – to make your case for where we were in 1915, and that time period being America’s true ‘golden age’. Or are you saying we’ve never really had a ‘golden age’ of beer?

    Reply
    • Ding

      Well I was trying to say that people are wrong, twice! By pointing to a ‘large number’ of breweries in contemporary times they are not only (relatively) wrong in terms of numbers, but they are also wrong to point to quantity as a measure of quality. Maybe I didn’t express myself very well, but I’m not a pro like you when it comes to blogging for CNN! ;-)

      Reply
  4. Stephen

    Hi Ding. This is as good a place to post this as any. I have always enjoyed your reviews and posts on BA (whether I agreed or not) and think you have a good opportunity here with your new blog. Why don’t you do a post, or a series of posts, aimed at the American craft beer drinker who is open to broader horizons, so to speak? What I mean is, it’s very easy to go into Hop City (I live near Atlanta), or wherever, and pick up very good (IMO) beer from any number of American breweries that are well known — Founders, Bells, Lost Abbey, DH, etc. etc. etc. It’s more difficult to select English, German, or other beer that one may not be familiar with. (I feel like I have a more-decent handle on Belgian offerings, based on what’s readily available, but it’s all relative.) You can do what you want, of course, with your blog, but some would appreciate your perspective being given on how to begin a journey with non-American beer (beyond what you find on the grocery-store shelf), recognizing, of course, that most of use, for better or worse, are not going to have ready access to cask or other offerings that might be ideal, and are going to be selecting from what is available in stores. Could simply be a list of beer to pick up if you can find it, or a more detailed how-to post. Just a thought. Cheers.

    Reply
    • Ding

      Hi – many thanks for the thoughtful post. I’m really not at ALL sure in which direction the Blog will go, but yours is a good suggestion. However, I will say this; what you’ve proposed is a much more optimistic, upbeat angle than I usually approach from, so it might not be ‘me’ so to speak! Certainly for now I need to get some stuff that would not have been tolerated on BA off my chest, and perhaps after that I can move on to more productive stuff. We’ll see.

      Reply
  5. Lisa

    While I appreciate your point that there’s nothing particularly new about ‘new’ beer styles (although I doubt the brewers are unaware of that history – it’s just less handy for marketeers), I’m not convinced there is any one place that has a special appreciation for ‘beer culture’ – even in Belgium, the majority of people will still go for a Stella over a Westy. Go to your average British pub (and by this I do mean an ‘average’ one – not one praised by CAMRA, nor one nearly as awful as my former neighborhood hooligan pub, The Hammers) and you’ll find most people with something from a big brewer. I’ve been lucky enough to live in some places in the UK that did have great pubs with quality selections, but there was never a sense that this was the norm – and in those places, the ‘good stuff’ was not what sold the most. The same is true in the US – even in high-end beer bars, they’ll (usually) make most of their money from the typical macros.

    If beer culture does exist (and I believe it does), I don’t see it as being based in any one city, country or region – it’s happening anywhere people appreciate good beer.

    Reply
  6. Matt

    You apparently do not understand what the word “literally” means. The word you are searching for is “figuratively.”

    Reply
    • Ding

      No, I meant ‘literally’. Distasteful as in ‘unpleasant’ and ‘disagreeable’.

      Reply
      • Matt

        It reads like “crappy” as in “covered in fecal matter”

  7. Jaxbeerlover

    Wow interesting post. I myself think this is all a fad that will die out here in the good old USA in about 10 to 15 years or less. Let me be clear about that word fad: I think craft beer is here to stay of course, its just it will never break into the mainstream.

    While I do not know that many brewers, the ones I have ran into seem to be stuck in the got to make a IPA phase of this fad.

    I for one would love to see a brewer locally that breaks the mold, some in the USA are unique, many are the same old same old crap beer.

    Cigar city while not truly local is the only brewer in the area that is at least trying to put a different slant on the styles.

    Call me old fashioned, but I prefer the simple styles made well and that are NOT costing me over a buck a pint. I know dream on right, it’s why I switched to home brewing. I guess when you not a big fan of pine tar bombs, you tend to dislike IPA’s.

    To me it seems its all anyone makes now days. also prices are getting insane and while it will fly for a while longer it cannot be sustained for ever.

    Just my rant for today…

    Reply
    • Alex

      How do you define “mainstream”? Will craft overtake BMC in the states? Probably not, as BMC has a stranglehold over consumers that unlikely to be lifted anytime soon. There’s just too much history and marketing to be displaced, it would require a new generation of consumers.

      But craft beer as a fad? I find that hard to believe. Craft beer market share is growing. Breweries are growing. Beer fest attendance is increasing. In Philly, you can’t walk 2 blocks without passing a craft beer bar.

      Sure, there’s some market over-saturation. There are 4 craft beer stores within 2.5 miles of my house. 6 within 3.5 miles. As someone who goes through a 6-pack a week, there are just too many stores to patronize all of them. So I effectively shop at only 2 of them. I imagine that over time, the smaller stores won’t be able to compete with the 2 larger stores, and some may shut down.

      Likewise, there’s probably too many breweries. Buying a 6-pack a week, it would take me over a year to try all the beer available at the local store. Some breweries’ beer is better than others. I think that over time, the less successful breweries will close down, so we’ll be left with fewer options, at higher prices, but better quality among those options.

      But craft beer is only going to keep growing. All of my friends only drink craft. All of them, across the country. More bars and restaurants start serving craft, allowing us to drink it. We are a generation of craft drinkers, replacing a generation of BMC drinkers. We aren’t going to get tired of drinking craft. We’ll keep drinking craft for the rest of our lives, and encourage new generations of craft drinkers. Our children will drink craft. In 10-15 years, there will be a whole new generation of craft drinkers replacing a generation of BMC drinkers, and craft will be much bigger than it is now.

      Reply
  8. victory4me

    I think you make a lot of excellent points here, Ding. Albeit, slightly condescending, but good points regardless. I personally don’t understand the Black IPA concept at all and find most of the ones I’ve had to be nothing more than highly hopped porters or sub par IPA’s. Most of the new styles we see are nothing more than spinoffs of pre-existing styles. I think the whole “golden age” thing is overblown as well. If this is the apex, is it all downhill from here?

    Reply

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