A review of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution by Tom Acitelli (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2013)
* * *
In the world of mass standardization, the American beer industry stands out. Its gigantic breweries have dominated market share and undiscerning palates for decades. In 1975, some 50 of these big breweries reigned supreme in the whole country producing notoriously bland beer.
But suddenly, something changed on this flat horizon of “big beer.” Almost from nowhere, a flourishing craft micro-brewery movement was born. Today, there are some 2,300 breweries in the United States, many of which are producing world-class beer and ales.
Tom Acitelli’s The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution is a chronicle of the movement. It is an amazing story of human creativity unleashed and steely determination. From the basements and garages of homebrewers came many fine beers that gradually acquired a following. It is the stuff of which legends are born.
It is a complex history that begins with the liberalization of taxation and regulations in 1975. The well-written chronicle has plenty of human interest stories. The author, himself a homebrewer, tells the personal stories of the successive waves of brewers, writers, and promoters who pioneered the way to good beer in America.
On the positive side, the craft brewery movement has elements of what can be called organic society where the human element is allowed to develop in connection with the locality and tradition. In this sense, it is refreshing example of what can be achieved when human creativity, local products and old European traditions are given free reign to grow unhindered. There are impressive examples of that passion for excellence, which is the characteristic of organic society and its products.
But this organic element suffers from a lack of depth that can be traced to commercialized American culture. Since few brewers had any tradition, they borrowed from Europe or simply invented an imaginary link with the past for marketing purposes. Whereas in an organic society, products are expressions of the local culture, Acitelli’s description of the craft brewery movement makes it clear that this niche market that has yet to integrate itself and become a true expression of a region. One does not yet sense the support of family and community that would guarantee the continuity of classic beers. However, the movement should not be faulted since these and other factors are problems that are usually resolved over generations not decades.
There is a modern side to the traditional beer brewing that is problematic. The image of calm and meticulous brewers in pursuit of excellence is great for marketing but not always accurate. There are elements of what can be called the frenetic intemperance of frenzied markets that constantly throw the craft beer market out of balance.
That is to say, the history of the craft beer movement also participates in the contradictions and hype of modern markets. With each success, there is the constant temptation of mass expansion that is like a siren’s call to the giddy brewers flush with profits. What Acitelli refers to as the “tyranny of fast growth” wreaks great havoc upon the movement as some brewers lose focus. Some developed their recipes, for example, and outsourced the production to industrial breweries to save on capital expenses and slash prices. Wall Street investors soon converged upon micro-breweries urging them to go public and cater to stockholders. For all their antagonism for “big beer,” the frenetic intemperance of many micro-brewers led them to try to become “big beer lite.”
The result has been market shakedowns that have fell many a good—and bad—brewer. While some still cling to modern business models, other micro-brewers soon found that they could not be all things to all consumers without sacrificing quality. Their best strategy was to maintain their quality which attracted loyal customers and gradually spread their good reputation.
Thus, the craft beer movement remains a work in progress. Acitelli’s account tells the story with all objectivity (and a bit of unnecessary vulgarity). The movement with its business models still remains part of the modern economy which its imagery tries to deny. It is still a movement that has not yet made that organic connection that would make its beer a true expression of a region or locale.
But it is also a movement with great promise. One of its achievements is that it developed a beer culture in which Americans have now begun to appreciate good beer—and integrated it with good food.
Above all, the book is a real testimony about what can happen when a door is left open to that craftsmanship that was once found in organic Christian society
It is a step in the right direction. There is hope amid the hops.
Photo credit: “Pouring Beer” by Petr Kratochvil.