The 2009 Beer City USA results were posted today, based on an informal poll. It seems that the comments came fast and furious with respect to the accuracy of such a poll. Never mind that the notion of ďBeer City USAĒ is hardly something that can be empirically tested anyway, people want to gripe about the methodology. Indeed, I have seen a lot of griping lately around the beer world. Youíre a beer geek; you know the controversies. I wonít rehash them, nor throw my two cents into the ring. Hereís what I will say, however.
We are heading into American Craft Beer Week next week. Itís an industry promotion, yes, but thereís a message to be taken from it. The dynamics of the beer world are constantly shifting. Think of brewing history in the 20th century. We went from small breweries in every neighbourhood at the turn of the century to a model increasingly supportive of large-scale manufacture. This mirrored the trends in business in general, facilitated by the advent of easy long-distance transport, broad-scale access to refrigeration, and some savvy business people taking advantage of the fact that the key demand drivers were not, in fact, taste-related. Throw in a couple of world wars, some truly egregious legislative interferences (Prohibition, three-tiered system) and we found ourselves in an interesting position in the 70s and 80s. Small brewing was all but dead. European beer culture was fading out.
Enter the American brewer. While many early US microbrewers focused on re-creating their impressions of European beer styles, we saw even with Anchor in the 70s and 80s a desire to create truly American beer forms (in particular, Liberty Ale). Something really cool happened. People took notice and taste became a demand driver for craft beer. I remember what it was like when finding a flavorful beer was a victory. Iíve talked to beer geeks older than myself who remember when finding a Guinness or Lowenbrau Dark was a victory.
I see the bickering, the complaining and I just donít get it. Where does this sense of entitlement come from? I remember when craft brewers felt entitled to undying praise just because they are small and local and not Anheuser Busch. That never washed with me and it still doesnít. But neither does craft beer fans who complain every time a beer isnít perfect. The principles of the universe donít change. In the economy, fewer regulations mean higher volatility (such as the Great Depression). Likewise, in brewing the fewer constraints the brewer has the greater the expected volatility of outputs.
This creates a paradox. Politicians have to put up with this stuff, too. People love their free markets when everythingís going up. But the minute it doesnít, they have a problem. But people donít learn. If you want free markets, you must understand that you need to suck up some recessions every once in a while. Itís the same with beer. If you want great beer Ė truly wonderful beer Ė you must accept that there is inherent volatility. There is a lot of risk inherent in making truly great beer. It will fail once in a while.
Growing up in Vancouver I saw the opposite. Brewers donít take a lot of risks there. You get some all right stuff, but you seldom see them hit really high notes as well. One small brewer up there makes some of the best, and worst, beers in the province. Thatís an extreme example of the effects of risk-taking but it leads me to the point here.
American craft brewing is, by and large, about risk-taking. Itís about trying things that have never been tried before. This has lead to a few wonderful outcomes. First, itís why there are 1500+ craft brewers in the US. Second, itís why all the other New World beer nations Ė Japan, Italy, Denmark, etc Ė have adopted the American ďrisk-takingĒ model. The inherent nature of the industry in the US brings far more good than bad.
Being a beer lover is awesome right now. Beershine and I are about to spend the summer in Bamberg, taking it back old school. Back to a land where beers are 5% alcohol. Back to where ďbarrel-agedĒ means Schlenkerla on gravity from the wood. The American beer scene has no influence on Franconiaís village brewing scene. We have Old World and New World. The latter is entirely attributable to Americaís innovative, risk-taking craft brewers. I think itís bloody awesome that because of Americaís craft brewers, you can go just about anywhere and find a killer beer. We havenít been able to do that for 100 years. So Iím not going to sweat that I had a couple beers last night that didnít float my boat. Iím going to toast the fact that I had a couple beers last night that rocked my world. Cheers to Americaís craft brewers!