Some mass-produced beer is good stuff: not all MB beer is terrible. For example, Guinness is a mass-produced beer with flavor, body, and character; it sells in 120 countries and has totally dominated the stout market for decades. Domestic German beer is mass-produced, but of very good quality. The trend, however, of larger and fewer brewers making more and more widely distributed beer is clear. Bland beer is cheaper to make (if you produce millions of barrels, even very small production savings will accumulate significantly), and it appeals to a mass market, in ways that local brews (geared for quixotic local tastes) cannot.
On the other hand, over the last third of a century it seems that a discerning section of the population, in several countries, has decided that bland Macroswill is just too bland. To save money, many MB beers partially substitute rice for malted barley; rice contains lots of starch, which ferments perfectly well but imparts little flavor. Light beers have lower carbohydrate levels (and, as a consequence, reduced body and flavor), but most of the calories in beer come from the alcohol, so light beers are watered down more than regular beers. Thus, a typical light beer is 4.1% abv, whereas a regular beer is about 5% abv. Given the blandness of most regular MB beer, what can we expect of the diluted light version?
In the early 1970s in England, a consumer lobby organization called CAMRA emerged. The CAMpaign for Real Ale grew from 4 people to the present 84,000 members: beerophiles who were dissatisfied with Macroswill and were determined to do something about it. CAMRA publishes a Good Beer Guide, encourages small brewers who make traditional beer, and points out bad practices in the brewing industry. From the beginning, CAMRA’s call for quality beer has resonated with many beer drinkers, and the number of small breweries that catered to this discerning market started to grow, reversing the 100-year trend of reduced brewery numbers and increased brewery size. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the same reaction arose in the United States. The first microbrewery (mb; the word itself dates from 1982) began operation in Sonoma, California, in 1977, and the first brewpub opened in Yakima, Washington, in 1982 selling a brand of beer called Rocking Horse Doo. A brewpub is a mb that serves food as well as beer. (For simplicity I will refer to both breweries and brewpubs as mbs.) As in Britain, these little mbs grew out of consumer pressure. Today there is a large and vociferous body of increasingly sophisticated American beer lovers who organize beer festivals, lobby the brewing industry, and energetically promote the brewing and appreciation of good-quality beer, ale, and lager.
A pub today is characterized as a brewery that produces fewer than 25,000 bbls of beer (or perhaps 15,000 bbls—it depends on whom you consult) per year. To put this in context, in 1966 Budweiser became the first MB brand to sell 10 million bbls in one year. The mb market is small, at about 2.5% of total U.S. annual beer sales,28 but you can see from the graph of figure 1.15 how the number of breweries has grown since 1980—there are currently about 1,400 mbs. Some mbs have outgrown their 25,000 bbl limit. (The Sierra Nevada Brewery of Chico, California, was the first to do so. Sam Adams Brewery, of Boston, is currently the nation’s largest mb.) Some of the older regional brewers have repositioned themselves in the marketplace and now produce good traditional beer.
The growth of traditional small breweries over the last 30 years has taken several forms: craft regional breweries, microbreweries, brew-pubs, U-brew outlets, and homebrewers. The current umbrella term for the multitude of beers, ales, and lagers that are brewed by these connoisseurs is craft beers. The Brewers’ Association “Beertown” Web site defines craft beers as follows: “Craft beers are produced with 100% barley or wheat malt or use other fermentable ingredients that enhance (rather than lighten) flavor. Craft beers only come from craft brewers.” A “craft brewer” is characterized as “small, independent and traditional.” The consistent theme here, across countries and threading through the last three decades, is a reaction against large MBs and a concern for reviving local, high-quality cask-conditioned brews. This theme may seem like the only common factor in a diverse and rapidly changing sector of the brewing world. A few of the most vociferous advocates of the beer revival movement verge on paranoia, but most craft brewers are united by a desire to make (yes, and to drink) good beer the way it used to be made.