I was recently vacationing in the Dominican Republic at one of those all-inclusive resorts. At times at the pool or at a meal, I’d order a beer. “Hmm… what kind of beer do I want right now?” I’d ask myself. There was no need. I only had one choice – El Presidente. The lone keg handle at the bar reminded me less of a democracy and more of a dictatorship, where El Presidente had all the other beer candidates killed off. Nevertheless I still ordered the cerveza, and the bartender brought a light pilsner, highly carbonated, with no complex flavor, kind of like seltzer water with added artificial flavors of hops. El Presidente is to the DR what Bud Lite is to the USA, but I kind of didn’t mind it. After all, who wants to drink a thick, creamy stout when it’s 1000 degrees, 400% humidity, and the sun is trying desperately to melt your face off.
This cultural experience made me realize one thing. With all of this political talk about what America gets wrong, you know what it definitely gets right? Beer. We Americans are living in the Golden Age of Beer… the Beer Revolution… the Renaissance of Brewing.
Growing up in the 80s and 90s, there weren’t a lot of beer choices. We were told to “Head to the Mountains of Busch… Beer” as though it were some exotic vacation. Really it was more like getting suckered into a timeshare spiel at a dilapidated Howard Johnson. There were a few players competing in the beer space – Budweiser, Coors, Miller – but the competition was akin to a shuffleboard tournament at a retirement home. All the beer was mass produced, light colored, unflavored, and generally unsatisfying. That was a time when American production was synonymous with quantity not quality.
I first experimented with the mass-produced beer known as Bud Lite when I was 20. It happened to coincide with my first game of beer pong, which a friend hosted at his apartment. He clearly was a pro at the sport, constantly sinking the ping pong ball into my cup. I struggled to guzzle the Bud Lite, gagging with each sip. By the time I was half way through one cup, he had already sunk two more. I only assumed that the horrific experience was God’s judgment for underage drinking, and after that day, I swore beer would never be my drink of choice.
A few years after that dreadful experience of beer-pong, I tried to reacquire the taste of beer at a tavern in Annapolis, MD called Rams Head. A friend and I joined the World Beer Club and were given passports with a list of 100 beers. Each time we drank one, the waiter would check it off. However, each beer (mostly foreign) was a gamble, and after numerous rounds of paying for something unenjoyable, I decided to stick to a relatively new player on the American beer scene – Sam Adams.
I fell in love with Sam Adams and became a beervangelist, pleading with the world to “Expect better beer.” When I noticed that it was available in the midwest, I bought a case for my brother-in-law. However, as a faithful Bud Lite drinker, he did not share my enthusiasm for the Bostonian brew. I can only assume that the years of drinking so-called beer had singed all of his beer taste buds and erased his palette for something more adventurous. He was, what I would call, a beer homebody.
What Samuel Adams was to the American Revolution, the aptly named Sam Adams beer was to the American brewing revolution. Jim Koch, the founder of Sam Adams and the son of a brewmaster, ignored his father’s advice to leave the beer industry and disregarded the claims that his beer would result in failure. He took his beer bar-to-bar and to beer contests, and with his award-winning craft brew, he proved America was ready for a beer revolution. The rest, as they say, is history.
What we are experiencing isn’t America’s first go around at beer haven. In 1870, brewing in America reached a pinnacle of 3,286 breweries, producing on average 2,009 barrels per year. The number of breweries declined from there, leading up to the prohibition. While the passing of the 21st Amendment provided a brewing surge, small breweries eventually got sucked up by larger ones. By the late 1970s, America’s beer culture was a thing of the past, as there remained a mere 89 breweries owned by 44 companies.
Though good USA beer was nearly extinct 35 years ago, thanks to the surge of craft brewing, we are experiencing the renaissance of American beer. According to the Brewer’s Association, there were a whopping 4,269 breweries in America in 2015 (a 15% growth from 2014). 4,225 of those were craft breweries.
If you’re like my brother-in-law, faithful to the colossal brands, don’t worry; your big-named brew is not going out of business… at least not anytime soon. 11 large breweries still control 90% of the $100 billion beer industry. Anheuser-Busch, for example, has its iron-fisted grip on a whopping 45% of the beer market share.
Craft brewing may only account for 11% of the whole beer industry, but as anyone who has ever manufactured anything knows, owning market share is not synonymous with producing quality. This is certainly true of beer. According to The 99%: America’s Top Rated Breweries, all 25 of the highest rated breweries are craft breweries.
Those craft breweries have contributed to a vast and growing American beer pallette. The days where the beer spectrum consisted only of Budweiser, Corona, and Guinness are long gone. Today, I can visit one of my favorite local Lancastrian joints – Federal Taphouse and try 100 different drafts (mostly American) of pilsners, IPAs, porters, and stouts with unique flavors such as berries, tobacco, peanut butter, and chocolate.
My recent trip to the Dominican Republic reminded me, like trips to 3rd world countries often do, that we have it really great here in America. And while there’s still room for improvement, especially when it comes to modernizing alcohol laws (I’m looking at you Utah and Pennsylvania), we are truly living in the Golden Age of American Beer.