Every week in The Man Who Invented Beer, Adam Cowden brings you the latest in craft beer, usually with a history lesson for flavor.
Budweiser. It’s the king of beers, right? Only fitting that it should reign from the greatest country on Earth: Ammuuurrrica. Only it isn’t, because we’re not about that over here. In fact, we’re about to celebrate the 237th anniversary of the day we flipped the giant bird to old King George and told him and his royal buddies to GTFO. You may think of modern mass-produced beer is an American invention (and if you do, you’re right), but here are just a few reasons why American craft beers kick the stars and stripes out of these other pretenders to the throne:
1) The United States has more breweries than any other country in the world
That’s right. The Czech Republic consumes more beer per capita than any other country in the world, and China leads the world in total beer consumption (you can see the full data here), but guess who leads the world in total number of breweries? The good old land of the free, that’s who. And that’s not all…
2) Over 97% of U.S. breweries are classified as “craft”
In 2010, 1,716 out of 1,759 brewers in the United States were craft brewers. Since then, I can think of a number of new craft brewers that have arrived on the scene, but no new big-name players, and this leads me to believe that this number has only gone up.
So, when did our beer economy transition from an oligopoly dominated by a few big-name lagers to bustling, vibrant market? Well, before Prohibition in 1920, we were actually quite a good place for beer. The National Prohibition Act put about 1,500 breweries out of business, and by the time the law was repealed in 1933, very few were poised to make a comeback. Due to a “clerical error” in the 21st amendment, however, it remained illegal to brew beer at home, even in small batches. After WWII, “national bands” such as Budweiser and Miller began to scoop up many of the smaller breweries, and by 1980, there were fewer than fifty breweries in the U.S..
So, why the enormous resurgence in interest in brewing? Well, probably because…
3) Craft brewers are innovative, bold, and entrepreneurial
According to journalist Thomas L. Friedman:
America is the greatest engine of innovation that has ever existed, and it can’t be duplicated anytime soon, because it is the product of a multitude of factors: extreme freedom of thought, an emphasis on independent thinking, a steady immigration of new minds, a risk-taking culture with no stigma attached to trying and failing, a noncorrupt bureaucracy, and financial markets and a venture capital system that are unrivaled at taking new ideas and turning them into global products.
Innovation has long been thought to be essential to the American spirit. What’s more American than the little guy taking on the big guy, or the lowly inventor pulling himself up with nothing more than his bootstraps and the force of his ideas. Today’s American craft brewers are really just following in the footsteps of great American innovators and inventors like Franklin, Edison, and (more recently) Steve Jobs. What they have in common with these luminaries are their creative spirits and the tenacity, boldness, and willingness to risk failure necessary to pursue their ideas.
I recently overheard a conversation with a local craft brewer in Nashville, who was asked if he thought Germans made the best beers in the world. His response was this: “Germans do what they do very well. But they only do a few things. There’s not much of a creative spirit in their brewing culture, so they focus on fine tuning every aspect of the brewing process. I prefer some of the bolder, more creative beers we make over here.”
4) Craft beer in America traces back to colonial times.
You’re probably familiar with this Benjamin Franklin quote, which you may or may not have seen hanging in an almost-defensive fashion on the wall of your favorite dive bar:
Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.
Actually, Franklin never said this. BUT, it is well documented fact that craft beer was an essential part of life for American colonists. In fact, the Pilgrims decided to land at Plymouth Rock largely due to the stress imposed by their diminishing beer supply. As you might already know (if you read some of my earlier articles), beer was an essential part of a “healthy diet” in those days because it was a much safer alternative to pathogen-infested water. Beer was not only part of the early colonists’ diet, but part of their survival strategy; they would drink ale in the morning, during work, and before bed the same way that we now drink water. In these early days (before beer and brewing supplies began to be imported from Britain), colonists were forced to brew their own beer at home, and most colonial houses even featured a small brewing room.
5) Craft beer helped fuel TWO American Revolutions
The explosion of craft beer in America in recent years has been dubbed by some as the “American craft beer revolution.” But did you know that beer helped lubricate the original American revolution, as well? Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern was a gathering spot for many of the most important figures in the American Revolution, and it was here that Samuel Adams helped devise the “Boston Tea Party.” George Washington was a beer lover, and he even wrote down a beer recipe in his notebook. The beers of choice during this time (and for much of the next century) were darker beers, usually porter, and were often brewed locally. In fact, in 1789, President Washington announced his “buy American” policy and encouraged citizens to follow his example of only drinking American porter. If you are at all curious as to what the beer enjoyed by our founding fathers tasted like, you can try Yards Brewing company’s line of beers called “ales of the revolution.” These are designed to reflect the beers of the period, and one is even inspired by Washington’s original recipe
6) American makes the best damn craft beers on the planet
Go here. This is the most recent list of ratebeer’s top 50 beers in the world. Wanna guess how may are from the home of the brave? No less than 37. America may have once deserved its reputation as a beer wasteland dominated by watered-down, adjunct-filled, mass-produced dredge, but that’s simply not the case anymore. So, next time some pretentious European turns their nose up at you and starts to sound off about your country’s “dreadful excuse for beer,” shove one of the beers from the aforementioned list in their face and remind them which country has more breweries. And also which country invented the cheeseburger. And the modern constitutional republic. Because America’s the greatest country on earth, and we’ve got the greatest craft beer on Earth, too.