In 1983, two years before I wrote my first article about beer, the U.S. brewing industry had sunk to an all-time low. (Not counting the early years, since the first beer on these shores arrived in the Virginia colony from England in 1607. But even by 1810 there were 120 breweries in the U.S.)
According to the Brewers Association, we reached our zenith in 1870, when 3,286 breweries were actively producing suds. We plunged to the nadir in 1983, when a mere 51 companies were operating 80 breweries, and most of them churning out virtually indistinguishable watery lagers.
But like the phoenix from the ashes, something stirring was about to take flight. In my 1985 article I took note of an increased interest in imports and beers from new, small breweries like those in New York City–the New Amsterdam Brewery and the Manhattan Brewing Company.
Both these pioneers are now defunct, but consider that New Amsterdam was a model for the Boston Brewing Company (Samuel Adams), or that Brooklyn Brewery’s star head brewer Garrett Oliver cut his professional teeth at MBC. (Actually, Garrett and I were members of the New York City Homebrewers Guild together. I may have bested him in a competition or two at the time. But he’s left me far in the dust since.*)
The craft brewing renaissance grew from there, slowly at first. I’m guessing it was still a goodly ways into the 1990’s that I remained on a nodding acquaintance with all the breweries and most of the beers in the country.
Such an achievement is laughingly impossible now. The recent flight path of new brewery openings is like a jet off an aircraft carrier, fast and climbing. The BA estimated there were 2,722 U.S. brewing facilities by the end of 2013, and even more amazing, an additional 1,744 in the planning!
What those of us who were fans as well as chroniclers have always wished for—more choice in breweries, beers, styles and flavors—has not only arrived, it’s arriving with the lights flashing and the horns blaring.
Indeed, the bounty is a little like the circus clowns in the car: loud, raucous, wildly colorful, often comic and seemingly endless in number. This cornucopia of high energy activity may seem a little tough to pin down at the moment, but those of us who remain fans as well as chroniclers wouldn’t dream of complaining! [Jan. 30, 2014]
[*Thanks to Peter LaFrance of BeerBasics.com for unearthing a YouTube video of the New York City Hombrewers Guild from a 1989 MTV show, from which the fuzzy screenshot above is taken.]