Klawchat today at 1 pm ET.
Tom Acitelli’s The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution is as comprehensive a history of the topic as I could possibly imagine, sometimes to the detriment of the book’s flow (pun intended), but also a totally fascinating look at one of the country’s greatest entrepreneurial and cultural success stories. Acitelli goes back to the movement’s origins in the 1960s, when Anchor was the nation’s only craft brewer by any reasonable definition of the term, and follows it through legal challenges, the need to educate the consumer, and some truly disgraceful behavior by executives at Big Beer (mostly Anheuser-Busch) on to the present-day climate where the U.S. is by far the world’s leader in both variety and innovation in the craft beer market. If you enjoy craft beer, as I do, this is an absolute must-read.
Acitelli’s initial section, where he describes Fritz Maytag’s takeover of the floundering Anchor brewery in San Francisco as well as other early startup efforts like Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion, spoke to me more than any other part of the book because it reflected so well my own experiences with beer. I grew up thinking I hated beer; I’d had Big Beer at various times, but despised every sip – it was watery and bitter and acrid with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I thought it was what you drank to get drunk, or at least to seem older because you were drinking something forbidden, but never thought of beer as something you would drink because you liked it. When I was in college in the early ’90s, Sam Adams (the flagship beer of the Boston Beer Company, whose founder, Jim Koch, is one of the central characters in Audacity) was popular locally and was the first beer I’d tried and liked, or at least didn’t hate, although it wasn’t quite enough to convince me that I could like beer as a class of beverages. I was always a liquor drinker, rum and gin primarily, as well as the occasional hard cider (although many of those were too sweet, like wine coolers for people who didn’t want to be caught drinking wine coolers).
What I eventually learned, past the age of 30, was that I liked many styles of beer – just not the style promulgated by Big Beer, generally described as pale lagers or pilsners, but made in huge quantities from inferior ingredients. I love darker, richer-bodied beers – stouts and porters, of course, but also bocks, brown ales, amber ales, and even the lagers called Oktoberfest beers which are darker and have more complex flavors than pilsners. I started as a Guinness drinker, and still am to some degree – it’s a rare Big Beer brand I can get behind, along with Newcastle Brown Ale – but over the past six or seven years have found myself drinking more and more craft beers, as much for the adventure of trying new labels and styles as for the beers themselves.
The Audacity of Hops filled in countless gaps in my knowledge of the history of the styles and breweries I’ve enjoyed, starting with Anchor Porter, one of my favorite porters and, as it turns out, one of Maytag’s most important contributions to beer culture: Porter was dead as a style until Maytag brought it back. (Maytag’s great-grandfather founded the appliance maker, and his father founded the dairy farm that produces Maytag blue cheese makers as well. Pretty good bloodlines there.) He also served as the craft beer movement’s first apostle, although adherents traveled to him more than he did to them, and he was helped by English beer advocate and journalist Michael Jackson, who was among the first to sing Anchor’s praises. Maytag opened his doors to other would-be homebrewers, many of whom went on to start craft breweries of their own. Acitelli walks through what feels like every one of their stories, from those that folded, like New Albion, to ongoing success stories like Sierra Nevada (founded in 1980), Mendocino (1984), and Alaska Brewing (1986).
The book careens from story to story in Acitelli’s attempt to cover as much of the movement as possible, including as many startup stories, both of breweries and brewbups, as he can. Sometimes that is a necessary evil, such as his section on the founding of Delaware’s Dogfish Head brewery, the first serious “extreme beer” brewery, adding unusual ingredients to its beers or otherwise using unorthodox tricks with traditional styles – such as adding hops every minute during the hourlong brewing of its highly-regarded 60-minute IPA. But other times Acitelli mentions the openings of breweries or pubs that didn’t last and had no significant impact on the movement. A craft brewery that was the first in its particular state is not notable for that reason alone, and the book could have focused more on the leading figures in the movement – Maytag, Koch, Jackson, McAuliffe, Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery, and others – while losing some of the breadth of the coverage. Acitelli’s research work here is remarkable, given the number of people he must have had to track down for interviews, but the book takes a good 60-70 pages to get rolling because of the disjointed structure that bounces us back and forth between breweries and characters throughout the book’s length.
Next up: Back to the classics with Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, which will probably occupy me for the next two weeks or more.