by Rick Kempen Beer Sommelier at Het Bierplein
The Craft Beer RevolutionJust what is craft beer?
The craft beer revolution has changed the world immeasurably - what else would you expect from a revolution? But there’s something weird going on: nobody seems to know what craft beer actually is. No definition exists for it, yet it’s caused a revolution!
You actually write the ‘Craft Beer Revolution’ in capitals to signal a form of American English. The ‘craft beer’ phenomenon began in America. We can pinpoint the exact moment when the revolution broke out: in 1978. President Jimmy Carter signed a law lifting the ban on home brewing, a remnant of the Prohibition era during which the production and sale of alcohol was banned (drinking alcohol was, oddly enough, not banned). Prohibition lasted for thirteen years: from 1920 to 1933.
Before prohibition, brewing was mainly a local activity. Because of America’s large immigrant population, the beer made it easy to trace where people came from: wheat beer in the German areas, ales in the English areas and wine in the Italian areas.
There’s a pilsner for everyone
At the beginning of the nineteenth century there were more than four thousand active breweries: in 1900 there were less than two thousand. Twenty years later, when prohibition was declared, there were just thirteen hundred breweries left. Only a few dozen started up again after the end of prohibition. What’s remarkable is that almost all breweries brewed only pilsner. It benefited from large scale production, which went hand in hand with mass advertising, an invention of the second world war. Brewers merged at a quick pace, and by the mid sixties there were just 63 breweries left. Just one of them, Anchor Brewing Company from San Francisco, doesn’t brew a pilsner- the rest almost exclusively do.
The rise of homebrewing
Beer imports were slowly rising and Americans were starting to get their hands on Belgian beers. Once the ban on homebrewing was lifted, hundreds of enthusiastic beer fans started brewing beer, primarily inspired by the ‘new’ flavours they had discovered through trying imported beers. Some of these homebrewers turned their hobby into a business and several hundreds of small breweries were established. Consumers embraced them and by the turn of the new millennium, business was booming. Currently, two breweries are launched each day in America and there are more than five thousand breweries on American soil! American beer enthusiasts lovingly called it ‘craft beer’.
This then is the ‘craft beer revolution’, loosely translated as ‘the revolution of artisanal beer’. Consumers are looking for alternative flavours to the pilsner- don’t forget that American lagers are even flatter and more uniform than our pilsners. A thousand enthusiastic brewers have jumped to fill this gap: from stouts, porters and India Pale Ales to gose and saison: they’ve rediscovered the beer styles of old and given them a new lease of life.
Funnily enough, there’s no official definition of ‘craft beer’ although there is one for ‘craft brewer’, even though we don’t say that ‘craft beer is brewed by craft brewers’. A craft brewer is ‘small, traditional and independent’. But even Heineken started out that way. Perhaps a definition isn’t even necessary: craft beers are immediately recognizable by their taste and appearance. The craft beer revolution lives in the heart of the beer drinker and that is where the battle has long been fought!