“The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer,” by William Bostwick (W.W. Norton, 304 pages, $26.95).
There has never been a better time to love beer. Duck into any local sudshouse in any half-horse town, and one is likely to find behind the bar a distinctive tap dispensing Fat Tire Amber Ale, or Shiner Bock, or—at the very least—Samuel Adams Boston Lager. At fashionable metropolitan lounges, the menu is more dizzying: porter and stout, hefeweizen and lambic, ales brown and blonde and pale.
’Twas not always so. Shortly after the repeal of Prohibition, the number of American breweries spiked to more than 800, but thereafter consolidation marked the industry for decades. By the late 1970s, that figure had fallen to fewer than 100. These were the Dark Ages, when selection was nigh nonexistent and “lite” was a selling point. Miller went so far as to brag in the tagline of its commercials: “Everything you always wanted in a beer—and less.”
The best anecdote I have found to help explain these dismal times comes from “Confessions of a Beer Snob,” a 1976 article I stumbled across in the archives of The American Spectator, the magazine where I work. There’s a bit midway through the piece in which the author, a former Nixon speechwriter named Aram Bakshian Jr, describes a beer newly available on the East Coast that had taken Washington, DC, by storm. That beer? Coors.
“What transports of delight the availability of Coors threw certain White House colleagues of mine into. I always suspected that they were more excited by the idea of its being specially flown in from Colorado than by what little taste it — or, for that matter, they — had,” Bakshian wrote. “Today the Coors cult still thrives, its devotees buying it even at the most ridiculous prices, and liquor store windows across the country proudly displaying banners blazoned with the inspiring motto, ‘Coors is here!’”
This was the state of affairs until near the end of the decade, when everything changed, not quite suddenly, but faster than could have been reasonably foreseen. In 1978, Congress and Jimmy Carter officially legalized home brewing, previously a federal crime punishable by prison time, bringing tinkerers and hobbyists aboveboard. The first brewpub since Prohibition opened in Yakima, Washington, in 1982. It was a mad dash to the fermenting tanks from there. Today, somewhere around 3,000 breweries of various sizes operate from sea to shining sea, churning out all manner of hoppy, malty, citrusy concoctions.
A Few Good Brewers
“The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer” is about more than just the boom in microbrewing. The book’s author, William Bostwick, who writes about beer for GQ and the Wall Street Journal, traces a whole timeline for the beverage—from ancient Babylon, where the Code of Hammurabi fixed beer prices, to modern London, where porter, stout, and India Pale Ale were invented in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
But Bostwick shines most when he leaves the history books back at the library and instead visits the entreprebrewers responsible for our current beer renaissance. It helps that he speaks the lingo: Bostwick is himself an enthusiastic home brewer who once made a batch of mead by boiling and fermenting an entire beehive, “honey, pollen, propolis, wax, and live bees, venom and all.” (For what it’s worth, he describes the resulting draft as “floral, resinous, numbingly strong—to this day the best drink I’ve ever made.”)
With that background, Bostwick is well equipped to turn his tours of factories and hops farms nationwide into colorful sketches of great American beers and the kinds of men who create them.
There’s Brian Hunt of Moonlight Brewing Company in Sonoma County, a feral hippie with fraying clothes and hairy hobbit feet (Bostwick’s description, not mine), who brews with herbs he discovered at a local homeopathic medical school. Hunt also makes a beer called Working for Tips using redwood twigs. At one point, he walks up to a tree, breaks off a branch, and instructs Bostwick to nibble. “Back where it’s barky, you get tannins, like when you leave a tea bag steeping for too long,” he explains. “The palest growth, the tips, are very citrusy.” Hunt says he learned all this from experience: “You can’t find an iPhone app to tell you when to pick the twigs. You gotta chew the tree.”
There’s Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head in Delaware, a sort of mad scientist figure whose odd creations include Choc Lobster, a stout flavored with cocoa and crustacean, and Ta Henket, an ancient Egyptian ale fermented by wild yeast originally caught in petri dishes on a date farm outside Cairo. Dogfish reportedly prints its phone number on its packaging, and Calagione will probably regret joking that he doesn’t mind your slurred, late-night voicemails.
Or there’s the no-nonsense team at Sierra Nevada, the country’s second biggest craft brewery, producing almost 1 million barrels every year, and known for its Pale Ale. A piece of company lore that Bostwick recounts: “If a Sierra employee happens to taste a Pale past its prime at a bar or beer store, he has carte blanche to buy the lot and dump it, saving any other drinkers from the suffering of a mediocre pour.” One wonders how often this happens.
Don’t forget famed lager technocrat Jim Koch, CEO of the Boston Beer Company, which makes Sam Adams. Koch takes the author to a café and orders a tofu Reuben. When asked which beer is the best in the world, he doesn’t hesitate before answering “Budweiser.” Then he drops a bit of Harvard MBA: “Quality isn’t some metaphysical thing—it’s a manufacturing question. Conformance to specifications and intentions. Did you make what you were supposed to make?” That’s true enough from a manufacturing standpoint, perhaps, but now every time I sip a Sam Adams, I will think, “Ah, yes. The refreshing taste of Six Sigma.”
A Toast to No. 39
Jokes aside, it’s remarkable how fast microbrewing has gone from an avocation to an industry. With only a few notable exceptions, the craft breweries whose kegs and bottles now wend their to way public houses nationwide are of relatively recent vintage: Sierra Nevada (founded in 1980); Sam Adams (1984); Bell’s (1985); Harpoon (1986); Rogue (1988); New Belgium (1991); Lagunitas (1993); Dogfish Head (1995); Allagash (1995); Stone (1996). Those last three haven’t even reached the legal drinking age yet.
Readers old enough to remember the Dark Ages of the ’70s probably need not be reminded, while surveying the taps at the neighborhood tavern, to savor the bounty now available.
The rest of us young’uns, indulgently brought up on oatmeal stout, should lift our glasses and say a silent toast to those among our forebears who pushed American beer forward: the hobbyists, the entrepreneurs, and—yes, however painful it may be—President Carter.
Here’s to you, Jimmy.