To the uninitiated, the current explosion of craft beer on the US market might seem like a new thing, and it is, at least in some ways. However, it’s also a reconnection to the past. Craft beer isn’t new – it’s the way things were once done before big breweries got into the act, and before Prohibition made it illegal to enjoy a frothy brew.
For thousands of years, humans have brewed beer, and most of them brewed at home. From farmsteads to small households, it was everyone’s right to brew their own beer. Most of the Founding Fathers brewed their own beer. At the time, “craft” beer was the only type. That slowly began to change during the late 1800s and early 1900s, as larger breweries began to dominate the scene. Prohibition quashed all of that, putting breweries out of business and making it illegal for anyone to brew their own beer at home.
When Prohibition was repealed in the 1930s, it revealed a radically changed landscape. First, it wouldn’t be for several more decades that you could once again brew your own beer. Second, thousands of small breweries had gone out of business, never to reopen their doors. The few breweries that were left stepped in to fill the gap, giving us the birth of the modern beer era, dominated by “Big Beer”. In fact, by the time beer production once again reached its pre-Prohibition peak (1940), there were only half the number of breweries operating in the US.
By 1961, the number had dropped to just 230, of which only 140 were independently operated. Things seemed set to follow that course, with brewery after brewery closing down as Big Beer dominated, but 1969 marked a change. It was in this year that Fritz Maytag took ownership of Anchor Brewing in San Francisco and began brewing high-quality beer that appealed to those with different tastes.
In 1970, the Eastern Coast Breweriana Association was born, followed by the birth of New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, California, which would be known as the nation’s first craft brewery. In 1978, the laws were changed (thanks to President Jimmy Carter), and home brewing was once more legal. This spurred a slowly building explosion that would eventually become the craft beer movement that we know and love today, thanks to the freedom to brew and experiment with beer at home.
The first ever Great American Beer Festival was held in Colorado in 1981 (it’s grown to become the largest and oldest such competition in the country). By 1983, the number of breweries operating in the US had dropped to just 80, of which fewer than 30 were independent. By 1984, that number had grown to 83. Jim Koch also founded the Boston Beer Company that year, and quite a few other craft breweries also got their start – Snake River, Millstream and Columbia River, for instance.
By 1995, the number of breweries operating in the US had climbed to 500 and just a year later, that number had more than doubled to 1,102. By 2001, there were 1,458 craft breweries in the country (not counting breweries affiliated with Big Beer), and the number has only grown since that point.
Today, craft beer is a major force in all 50 states, and its growth has sent shockwaves through the entire industry. In 2014, craft beer accounted for 11% of the market, an incredible milestone.
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