Mike's take on American Beer Culture
by Mike Bristol
I just returned from the Pacific Northwest after a week of fishing, drinking beer and discussing the ‘state of the U.S. craft brewing scene’ with brewers from around the country. The fishing was my addition to the schedule, but the rest was part of the National Craft Brewers Conference, which takes place once a year in a different sudsy locale. I returned intact and am here to report that the American beer culture is in very good shape.

American beer culture – the term feels a bit odd to say for those of us over the age of 40. After all, we came of age in a time when we had very few choices for beer brands and even less choice in taste. We’ve seen dry beer, ice beer and low-carb beer come and go. We’ve seen old regional brands die or be taken in by the big 3. We’ve seen beer advertising erode to the point that it appears the intent is to find a brand that will get you laid, instead of something you might actually enjoy (the beer I mean).

Well, guess what? During this same era, a small group of dedicated folks were buying, piecing together or borrowing brewing equipment to produce beer on their own terms. These were beers of distinction. Beers that had traditional European influence. Beers that had the personality of the brewers infused in the end product. At first, it was a very small niche, then it was called a fad, now it’s a solid part of the beverage market. In both 2004 and 2005, the craft beer segment showed higher increases (7% and 9% respectively) than any other segment in the beverage alcohol industry. More than the domestics, more than the imports, more than wine and more than spirits. In fact the craft beer segment has shown growth for 35 straight years†.

The American beer culture is here to stay, and it’s being driven by over 1,300 small breweries that are brewing everything from green chile beer to imperial stout. Did you know that over half of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of a brewery? That means local jobs, local tax revenue and brewery employees who not only live in the community, but are an active part of it. As I talk to brewers from around the country, I am continually reminded of brewer participation in causes that affect their communities and their world. These folks are committed to much more than the bottom line – they are passionate about the beers they brew and the difference they can make.

The big breweries are taking notice; after a couple of years of flat sales, they’ve started to acknowledge that the craft brewers are on to something. Perhaps looking to the rich history, culture and diversity of beer can help them gain back some of those customers who have switched to wine or cocktails. Check out Here's to Beer to see what the big guys are doing to get back to their ‘beer roots’ so to speak. This web site (which I really like) was put together by one of the big 3 (rhymes with Bud’s geyser), on behalf of all the large brewers, and features the TV ads they’ve done as well. You may remember the first one from the Super Bowl – a nice ad reminding us about the international history and diversity of beer…without a bikini in sight. While I applaud their efforts on the advertising front, their commitment to diverse styles, and ownership in once-independent craft brewers, is a bit more suspect. They will continue to roll out new beers dressed in ‘craft’ clothing and will continue to forge partnerships with successful independent craft brewers. How that shapes the future of the beer market remains to be seen.

While the American beer culture will continue to evolve in ways I can’t imagine, I am confident of one thing – these same folks who have quietly continued brewing and selling great beer in their communities across the country won’t go away. These folks will be your neighbors, your council members, your mayors; they’ll be on the boards of your community foundations, your local environmental groups, your business and tourism organizations. They will continue to work to make their communities better and they will continue to brew the highest quality and most distinctive beers available. How do I know this? Because I’m one of them.

†Source: Association of Brewers
:4/27/2006 12:32:32 PM