Beer Evolution: Remember History

Beer is a prominent component of my social and cerebral life. When I am not sharing beer with friends or debating topics about beer, I am reading about it. My social media streams are culled of politics and provide a steady dose of industry event announcements, new bottle and (thank Ninkasi) can releases as well as scattered new brewery openings.  This immersion is leading me to contemplate the why.  Why should I stay?  Is craft beer gaining a foothold of cultural permanence or will it become a passé industry?

Beer bloggers and news outlets inundate media feeds with terms like craft beer bubble and cite statistics showing simultaneous growth and loss.  They pine over AB InBev take overs and bankruptcy/foreclosure of prominent craft breweries, pointing and declaring the sky is falling. Speculation is a sport for those with little personal skin in the game.  If the proverbial crystal ball existed, this game of speculation would be over and I wouldn’t be contemplating that falling sky.

As with everything, beer needs to be put into context.  Much of the speculation and nervous agitation are like fresh pitched yeast with a high dose of oxygen in a carboy of just chilled wort. There is a lot of sugary data to chew through, but once those quick articles and filtered photos are posted, real work needs to be done.  Most of main stream media isn’t interested in the hard work of, to continue the analogy, putting content through an anaerobic process requiring much more energy for a different, more complex end product.

Here is where I calm my own nerves by way of one of my favorite quotes. Philosopher, poet, novelist and essayist George Santayana wrote:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness.  When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.  Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

This may be a bit deep for beer, however, through reading “The United States of Beer” by Dane Huckelbridge and “Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer” by Maureen Ogle, change patterns and industry tipping points became obvious, allowing us to apply the concepts of retentiveness and remembering.

From this historical perspective, shifts in the beer industry are based on more than a bright shiny object.  Instead, drastic change is based upon industrial advancement, governmental and political policy changes and, most significantly, changes in cultural/social mores and norms.

Look at the years 1873-1880.  According the the Brewers Association, the number of breweries in the United States dropped from a peak of 4,131 to 2,226. This was shortly post Civil War, during a time when pre-prohibition, anti-alcohol politics were picking up steam and literal steam was becoming a prominent component in the advancement of brewing, processing and transportation of beer.  This was the beginning of beer’s golden age in which the names, vilified in today’s craft circles, began their dominance.  The West was being won and cities were growing exponentially, filling with immigrants and the ale to lager shift was being solidified.  It was also during this time when quality, reproducible beer improved in consistency, heightening consumer expectations.  Thus, the big guys consumed the little guys.

In, again, referencing the Brewers Association graph, we see another significant tipping point in craft beer numbers.  In 1978 there were 98 breweries in the US.  This was the lowest point since prohibition. At the end of 2017 there were 6,372 breweries in the US, a change of +6,274 over 39 years.

Can we possibly believe that these changes to our social consumption patterns are here to stay? In short, we cannot.  Change is inevitable and required for continued growth.  We need to, however, avoid blind change. In order to do so, we need to remember experiences, study historical and social context and apply them academically and culturally.  In doing so, we can avoid panic in regard to dramatic change believing in a round earth rather than a cliff at the end of the too-good-to-be-true horizon.

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