Taking stock of the craft beer movement and its image

Alex Bigman

In 1949, LIFE magazine ran a nifty chart (below) plotting Americans’ tastes across the “brow” spectrum: highbrow being the most intellectual and sophisticated group, lowbrow the least. For example, where the most refined among us (retrospectively speaking) might attend a ballet for entertainment, the lowbrows would catch a Western flick. For drink, wine reigned at the top; beer was about as lowdown as you could get.

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65 years later, a lot of this chart looks mighty outdated, but perhaps nothing so much as its snobbery about beer. While the age-old concoction of hops and malted grain may have been a working man’s dream in the forties, it’s no longer so simple.

In recent years, a boom in artisanal brewing has elevated beer to a status akin to wine, with a descriptive lexicon nearly as vast and price tags that can give your average Napa red a run for its money. And as beer has climbed the social ladder, graphic designers have been called upon to create an image to match.

Much has been written about all this, but it’s not always easy to find hard data behind the trend. In the spirit of coming Octoberfest, we dug up some astounding numbers and, of course, put together a visual tour of craft brewing today. But first, a quick definition.

What is “craft”?

Brewers Association defines “craft” as:

Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (3% of total beer production in U.S.)
Independent: No more than 25% of the company can be owned by an alcoholic beverage industry member which is not itself a craft brewery
Traditional: Proper beer only—no “flavored malt beverages.”

Within craft there are several subcategories, the largest of which are the microbrewery, which sells over 75% of its beer offsite, and brewpubs, which sell more onsite.

The historical path of American beer

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Source: Brewers Association

As you can see in the above chart, which plots the number of U.S. breweries over time, the history of beer in America is a strange and often unexpected one. We’ll give you a super-condensed version here:

The golden age: As the chart shows, the number of breweries in the U.S. reached an early peak in in 1873 with 4,131—a number we are only now in sight of reaching again. Considering how much smaller the population was in 1873, that’s an insane brewery-per-capita ratio. The cause? Massive German emigration to the midwest was certainly one factor; lax regulation was probably another. It’s important to realize that most of these breweries were only serving very local markets.

Prohibition: Notice that the number of breweries dropped to “zero” between 1920 and 1932? That’s not a mistake. Believe it or not, the U.S. congress outlawed alcohol in those years, forcing all legitimate breweries to shut down. Of course, plenty was brewed under the radar and distributed in the illegal “speakeasies” of the time.

Reign of the macrobrew: Prohibition was a dark time for beer lovers, but perhaps not as dark as the postwar decades. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, U.S. beer production became consolidated in a small number of giant companies, like Anheuser Busch and Coors Brewing Company, that pursued profit by churning out tasteless junk in massive quantities. In 1978, there were only 89 breweries left in the country.

The rise of craft: Fortunately, in that same year president Jimmy Carter legalized small batch brewing in the home, effectively allowing for the testing ground that would eventually lead to the rise of independent breweries and the innovative practices that we know today.

Still, the “craft” movement did not really take off until the 1990s, and the most tremendous period of growth has occurred since the mid 2000s (final years not shown in chart). Indeed, in August 2014, the National Beer Wholesalers Association announced that the number of brewery permits had reached 4,500. If all of them were to actually open, we would see the greatest number since the colonial period.

Largest breweries

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 7.30.01 PM

The above map, created by The New Yorker using data provided by Brewers Association, shows the fifty biggest craft breweries based on 2012 census data. Below are the top five, presented along with a sampling of their visual identities.

1. Boston Beer Co. (Samuel Adams) (Boston, MA)

Sam-Adams-Header-Beer-Bottl

2. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (Chico, CA)

Sierra Nevada

3. New Belgium Brewing Co. (Fort Collins, CO)

new belgium

4. The Gambrinus Company (Shiner) (San Antonio, TX)

Shiner

5. Deschutes Brewery (Bend, OR)

Bend

Fastest-growing breweries

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 7.30.21 PM

Source: The New Yorker

This view shows the 50 fastest-growing craft breweries, as measured by their increase in production between 2011 and 2012.

1. Blackstone Brewery (Nashville, TN)

blackstone

2. Karbach Brewing Co. (Houston, TX)

karbach

3. Austin Beerworks (Austin, TX)

Austin Beerworms

4. Golden Road Brewing (Los Angeles, CA)

Golden Road

5. DC Brau Brewing (Washington D.C.)

DC-Brau-Tasting-Notes-Gear-Patrol-Lead-Full

New breweries

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Source: The New Yorker

This map plots the total number of breweries that opened in 2012—quite a lot, as you can see. We’d be curious to see the chart for 2013, in which nearly 400 breweries opened between January and July alone.

Most beloved beers

The authoritative website/magazine Beer Advocate maintains a user-generated list of beers, ranked by readers on a scale of 1 through 5. There are thousands upon thousands in this list. These are the top 5 highest scorers:

1. Heady Topper by The Alchemist (Waterbury, VT)

headytop-thumb-608x405-103457

2. Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout by Goose Island Beer Co. (Chicago, IL)

GooseIsland

3. Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout – Double Barrel Aged by Cigar City Brewing (Tampa, FL)

Hunahpus-Imperial-Stout-by-Cigar-City

4. Pliny the Younger by Russian River Brewing Co. (Santa Rosa, CA)

Pliny_younger

5. Pliny the Elder by Russian River Brewing Co. (Santa Rosa, CA)

Pliney_elder

Which craft beer labels are jumping off the shelves lately? Share in the comments!

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