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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Frank About Beer: American Craft Beer Week 2013

What is "craft beer"?

The Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as being small (produces an annual output of 6 million* barrels or less of beer), independent (no more that 25% of the brewery is owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member, who is not a craft brewer, themselves), and traditional (brewer has either all malt flagship or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor).

What does this actually mean?

Well, one could actually name what beers are NOT craft beers. Or one could list some traits that craft brewers share. Let's look back at a little brew history and see if that helps us understand what craft beer is. 

By the late 1970's, the beer industry had begun to boil down to fewer and fewer breweries, producing less unique and flavorful product. The adjunct American lagers, which use non-malted, lower quality ingredients to lighten the flavor and increase the amount of beer brewed at a lower cost, and light adjunct lagers were gaining the foothold as THE beer of America. These type of breweries started to consolidate down to what we have known as "The Big Three": Coors, Miller, and Anheuser Busch. Now, they are basically two powerhouses: MillerCoors and AB-InBev. These breweries are considered Macro-Breweries, producing mind boggling amounts of beer, annually.

"The Men Who Launched A Thousand Breweries": Charlie Papazian, Fritz Maytag,
Ken Grossman, Fred Eckhardt, and Jack McAuliffe

But, also in the 1970's, a few key happenings can be observed as the start of the craft beer movement in America. Beer drinkers wanted more variety and more quality in their beverages. They were tired of the same old flavorless brews. The craft beer movement was soldiered by homebrewers, who were creating unique styles in their homes and garages, as the only means to have a variety of beer. Several realized that other people across America would enjoy what they were creating, and felt they could make the jump into the U.S. beer market. In 1965, Fritz Maytag purchased Anchor Brewing in San Francisco. Fritz continued brewing unique beers, even when the market was shifting toward light, bland beer. The next major player emerged in 1976, when Jack McAuliffe opened what is considered to be the first American craft brewery in Sonoma, called New Albion. Although New Albion shuttered after only six years, Jack inspired throngs of homebrewers to start up their own breweries. Then, in 1980, a homebrewer named Ken Grossman took his hobby to the next level and opened Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, California. Many more took the leap in that time period, but these three men were most credited. Unbeknownst to the forefathers, Fritz, Jack, and Ken, they proved that small batch, delicious, and unique beers could be brewed using fresh, quality ingredients, without watering the product down to increase profit margin, and without shelling out major money for advertising campaigns. Thus, the craft beer movement was born in America.

Today, there are a staggering amount of microbreweries and brewpubs in America. This number grows incredibly, each year. The growth rate is so high, in fact, that there is discussion as to whether the high growth rate will be detrimental to the craft beer industry. The sales from these brewers increases each year, very slowly nibbling away at Big Beer's sales. In relative terms, it's minute, but it is still progress. This trend shows that people are becoming more aware of what craft beer has to offer; people do not need to settle for mediocre or poor quality beer. They are standing up for quality, flavor, and choice. In doing so, they support small, American, and often local and regional businesses, that in turn, give back to their communities.

In 2006, the Brewers Association created a week to celebrate American craft beer, and fittingly named it American Craft Beer Week. All across the United States, craft beer is celebrated through events, tastings, beer dinners, and all sorts of fun-filled activities. This year, American Craft Beer Week officially is May 13-19. However, many breweries, bars, and beer vendors are starting the fun as early as Friday, May 10.

How can you get in on some of these great events? Easy. You can visit the American Craft Beer Week website here, for a calendar of all the events that have registered. You can also check your local bars, stores, and breweries to see what they have on tap.

I know for the Joplin area, Mother's Brewing Company of Springfield, Missouri, is hosting a 10+ tap takeover at a local establishment called Blackthorn Pizza & Pub. (On a side note, Blackthorn and Instant Karma are two establishments that have really help blow up the craft beer scene in Joplin.) Springfield, which is home to three craft brewers, now (White River Brewing Company, Springfield Brewing Company, and Mother's Brewing Company) is absolutely covered with beer events for the week, including a craft beer festival at the Brown Derby International Wine Center on Saturday, numerous tastings throughout the week, and culminating with the 3rd Ever Mother's Day festival in the backyard of Mother's brewery, followed by the Mother of All Tap Takeovers that night, featuring 35 SEPARATE, UNIQUE handles of Mother's goodness! That's just f'n insane! To get more information about all the Springfield events, you can listen to or download last week's (5/2) episode of Springfield's only beer-centered podcast/radio show Beer Buzz Radio with host Ben Stange on the TagSGF website

I encourage you to give craft beer a try, this coming week. If you're used to just light lagers, there ARE craft alternatives you could give a taste. (For example, Boulevard Pilsner!) If you are already a craft beer ambassador, spread the word to your friends. Invite them over to try some new beers, or invite them to one of the events in your area.

Please leave comments below on how you are celebrating American Craft Beer Week! Pros't!

[ * = The longstanding cutoff was 2 million, until a few years ago when Boston Beer Company, of Sam Adams fame, was about to go over that limit. At that time, they lobbied the Brewers Association to bump up the cutoff three-fold, to ensure they would still be considered a craft brewer.]