“I'm not the type to work in a bank
I'm no good at slappin' on paint
Don't have a knack for makin' motors crank, no
But I'm pretty good at drinkin' beer”
What’s as American as apple pie? Beer of course! Sure, beer originated elsewhere. But so did apple pie. They even share a common heritage: both came to these shores from England. Although Americans were gulping down lager and ale long before they even heard of a McIntosh or a Granny Smith.
It was beer that actually sparked the movement for independence. Brewers in Philadelphia, a major hub for beer production, refused a large shipment of British malt, asserting their right to make beer as they pleased, and with the ingredients of their choosing. This declaration of defiance, years before that other declaration, emboldened the colonists, and made it clear they no longer would accept the dictates of King George III. Or his tea.
The little tea party held in Boston Harbor enraged the king — and not because he wasn’t invited. The next thing you know, the British were sent packing, and the founding fathers set out to improve the lives of Americans.
Along with independence, Americans gained a robust domestic beer industry. In Pennsylvania alone there were 48 breweries dispensing beer to the other states of the union. It may just be Keystone State folklore, but a monument to beer was to be erected at the Pennsylvania State House—when at the last moment, they decided to go with the Liberty Bell instead.
As the nation grew, the customs and culinary traditions of the new immigrants found their way into the American fabric. German immigrants brought their beer-making skills with them and contributed to making the German Triangle—Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee—the undisputed center of the American beer industry. All the large brewers originated in this area. It was these beers that made Milwaukee famous.
Fast forward to the new millennia, and a different type of beer emerged to make cities like Denver, Seattle, Portland and San Diego famous.
For beer drinkers in cities large and small, the beer they pour must be something more than what the large brewers are selling. No longer do they pay homage to the King of Beers. Wherever you look, people are taking a break from Miller and Bud. And it’s craft beer from smaller breweries that they’re embracing.
The reasons are pretty simple: taste and variety. Craft beers provide a richer and more distinct taste, and are available in a seemingly infinite number of styles and flavors.
Contrast this with traditional American beer, which has long been available any way you liked it, as long as you liked it weak and watery. But don’t blame the big brewers for that. Americans preferred this type of beer and snapped it up. The beer industry just gave them what they wanted.
The Great Depression had a lot to do with shaping the American beer palate. In a time when Americans struggled to put food on the table, beer was a luxury. Brewers responded with a beer that was weak and watery, but affordable. What mattered most to all those suffering through the Depression was that they were still able to drink beer.
The Depression eventually ended, but Americans’ taste for the beer that got them through the lean years lingered on. Fuller flavored beers—often imported—did not conform with the American way of life. Drinking German beer at the ballpark? Inconceivable! Take Me Out to the Ballgame could only be sung with one hand over the heart, and the other grasping a Budweiser.
Amazingly, big beer’s greatest innovation over the past 50 years was a beer offering that was even more bland and watery. Marketed as light, it claimed to be less filling and to have fewer calories. Beer drinkers everywhere guzzled this new beer, safe in the knowledge that the more they drank, the more calories they were saving. Light beer was a tremendous success.
Ultimately, these light, lighter and lightest beers created a vacuum large enough for a Clydesdale to gallop through. Craft beer from small breweries was the inevitable result. With more than 20,000 brands of beer available in every imaginable style, aroma, and flavor, craft beer sparked its own revolution. Americans everywhere declared their independence from those light, watery concoctions that dominated the beer market.
Beer sales attest to the popularity of craft beer. Craft beer’s share of the beer market recently reached 12%. Incredibly, craft beer rings up more sales than the Budweiser brand.
The big beer companies don’t really know what hit them, and are doing what they can to win back beer drinkers’ hearts and minds. To paraphrase an old saying: “They’ve met the enemy, and are buying them out,” acquiring a number of popular craft breweries lock, stock and barrels of beer.
So if you’ve got the time, these craft breweries have the beer. One word of caution. If you’re the type who finds it difficult to choose among 31 flavors of ice cream, you might be a bit apprehensive about having to choose from a myriad of craft beer options. However, the news is all good for you. You can’t go wrong as you go from beer to beer. And in the end, you’ll get pretty good at drinkin’ beer.
Steve Lipman is a Pulitzer Prize-worthy writer residing in Los Angeles. He chooses to write on anything that interests him, always keeping his style lighthearted.