Make It Brew: The rise of craft breweries is less a story about business than one about taste

July 19, 2013, 3:55 p.m. ET

Make It Brew

The rise of craft breweries is less a story about business than one about taste.

MAX WATMAN

Do you remember where you were when you tasted your first Anchor Steam? If you do (and don’t worry, you’re not alone), then Tom Acitelli’s “The Audacity of Hops” is going to make you very happy. Mr. Acitelli’s exhaustive chronicle of the American beer revolution begins “on a breezy, warm day in August 1965,” when Fritz Maytag walked into the Old Spaghetti Factory “and ordered his usual beer: an Anchor Steam.” The brewery was about to close, and the next day, Fritz Maytag—inheritor of not just his great grandfather’s washing machine fortune, but his father’s blue cheese fortune, as well—bought 51% of the company, tweaked the recipe and lit a fire under the brew kettle of American beer that is still burning. For hop heads, this is a defining moment. It’s like reading about Henri Cartier-Bresson looking at Martin Munkácsi’s “Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika,” going out to a shop in Marseilles and finding a box with a curvy “L” printed on the side.The Audacity of Hops

By Tom Acitelli
Chicago Review Press, 400 pages, $19.95

America drank plenty of beer in the 1960s, it just didn’t taste like much. (The underwhelming aromas of typical American lager come from the cheaper grains used as adjuncts, which have sweet, neutral flavors and counteract the natural astringency and bitterness of the barley we grow here.) Before Prohibition, beer had been a local concern; every city had a brewery. Most breweries didn’t survive to see the repeal of Prohibition in 1933; those that remained were systematically gobbled up by the big beer companies, such as Anheuser-Busch, Schlitz and Pabst. Consolidation proceeded for decades, simplifying the taste of American beer and reaching a symbolic apex when Miller released Miller Lite, a lower-alcohol imitation of a German pilsner called Diat. The debut of Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Light, in 1982, “would lift the nation’s largest brewery to a market share of 32.5 percent . . . the following year.”

“The Audacity of Hops” tracks the hardscrabble ascension of American craft beer over the five decades since Mr. Maytag’s inspired purchase. We find, in these pages, Jack McAuliffe working off the coast of Scotland on a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine tender. While running errands in Glasgow at a Boots drugstore, he buys a copy of “The Big Book of Brewing.” His path becomes the prototype for many beer pioneers: He started to make his own beers, trying to re-create (stateside) the beers he had enjoyed in Glasgow. He ended up opening New Albion Brewing Co. in Sonoma, Calif., America’s first microbrewery.

All of the major players are here—Sierra Nevada, Geary, Bell’s—and many readers will flip through in search of their favorite brews or their favorite anecdotes. Mr. Acitelli has a hard time, as the industry grows, keeping a tether on the narrative, and as he piles in the details, the subject gets away from him.

Craft-brewed beer remains a relatively small—though steadily growing—percentage of the beer made in America. But the rise of craft beer is less a story about business than it is about taste.

There are still those who believe that real food and drink, the quality stuff, happens in other countries and that America is a nation of rubes snuffling at a trough of high-fructose corn syrup, ground up factory-farmed cows and processed cheese-food product. This sentiment often features in diatribes on the various ways that we’ve failed gastronomically.

Like others of the post-Panisse generation, I take it on faith that we were, once upon a time, stuck in a dark and tasteless age, but I was some years shy of legal drinking age when I pulled an Anchor Steam out of a cooler at a garden party. The revolution had long since begun, and the decades since have seen an incredible proliferation of excellent foodstuffs: our cheese, our ham, our coffee—it’s really time to drop the act. The story of America’s beer, lovingly told here, is the story of the maturation and increased sophistication of the American palate.

Mr. Watman is the author of “Chasing the White Dog.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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