Craft Brewers are the Willy Wonkas of our Generation

I like to imagine that if I owned a brewery, it would look like Tim Burton outfitted the mechanics of the operation, and of course it wouldn’t be complete without some strange character portrayed by Johnnie Depp, lurking in the shadows, flitting around the brewery floor. But seriously, this generation, my generation, the Generation Xers who awoke to find themselves listening to Pearl Jam and Nirvana, Screaming Trees and Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains and Weezer, confused and enthralled by the transition from the eighties rock our siblings consumed to the alternative music which exploded out of Seattle in full flannel regalia, seem to have wakened a sleeping giant. Resurrecting the fabled craft breweries that seemed to have wane and fizzled out during the middle of the twentieth century, the kind of breweries of who’s passing our parents lamented, as they cracked open a can of light, over-carbonated, piss-colored, dull tasting beer, because it was the only thing left for them to drink, is the product of our generations heterogeneous nature.

After being bombarded with lesser quality products for years and years, we came out on top, brewing, experimenting, creating phenomenal brews; whether at home in our basements, fermenting in 5 gallon carboys, or on a larger scale, in the craft breweries we all love and know today. To give you an idea on how bad the situation was, how dire it became for us in the beer world, let me give you some statistics. In 1887, 2,011 breweries were in operation throughout the United States. After the Eighteenth Amendment was enacted, and repealed with the Twenty-first, many breweries who’s operations ceased during this thirteen year drought, never reopened. Unable to cope with the change, breweries shuttered their doors of many famous beers our grandparents imbibed. This eventuality led to a homogeneity of the industry, and even as time moved on, and the Volstead Act seemed a distant memory to the population– nothing more than an unbelievable story lost in time, passed on from parent to child–its effects were still seen like ripples in a pond, each small wave growing larger as it moved away from the epicenter of that careless pebble tossed into the placid waters by the irresponsible peddlers of hypocrisy and temperance.

It was in the seventies that we saw the worst of the worst, and when you reach rock bottom, you only have place to go, and that is up. Many of us grew up with our parents drinking cheap beers smelling and tasting of sulfur, looking like urine from a camel having been in the desert for weeks on end, only palatable ice cold, the smallest bit of warmth instantly skunking these mass-produced brews; the Walmart of beers. Maybe this is why we revolted, why we needed to do something different, to buck the trend and bring back flavor. Whatever the reasons, I am relieved it happened. In 1977 there were only 89 breweries left in the United States. Think about that, from 2,011 to 89 in only 90 years. Many were bought up by greedy companies that didn’t care about taste and quality–and that still happens today–and many just couldn’t compete against industry giants, due to their large marketing budgets and campaigns which dominated the television screens of my youth, and so they faded away, their beers slowly disappearing for the shelfs of package stores and within bar coolers.

Come the rumblings of a revolution. A youth upset that toys moved from metal to plastic, that greed consumed everything in society. We watched our television shows with 90 second commercial breaks and no interruption for over fifteen minutes of program viewing. We saw quality programs. Imagination and innovation prevailed.  There was something unique about all this, but at the time, it was the norm, the status quo, the standard convention; we never thought twice about it. But then as we matured and got older, as we began to observe and rationalize, to coalesce information and our observations, to synthesize all this into coherent thoughts, we realized times had changed, and quality degraded, till there was nothing left but the tripe we find today in the mass media. Jump ahead, past our formative years, the years when we absconded sips of our parents beers and sneered at the foul taste, past the years we bought suitcases of Meister Braü because few others were available to us, and drank it with disdain, lets move past all those years. There on the horizon of the current, yet still the unknown future of our youths, was a revolution of brewing growing inside all of us, disgusted by what a generation of greed had done.

We exploded, like a firecracker in a closed hand. We blew up the industry, awakening a youth with our tastebuds, nothing less of something fabulous and revolutionary in flavor. Brewers began to melt out of the shadows, rubbing their eyes at the light of day, hidden for so long below the piles of empty silver beer cans, heaped with red and white emblems on many, others bearing the mark of “light or lite” on their bodies. These beer magicians become heroes for our generation, giving back taste to something that was so prolific in our lives, yet was missing for so long we didn’t know any better. They merged malt and hop with the cleanest water. They found strains of yeast, known only in Europe, to munch on rich sugars, creating the brews we began to love. And so it happened, we found ourselves destroying the bonds of homogeneity and creating something spectacular, an imaginarium of all that we held holy.

There is no sign of abatement, and for this I am excited. It seems we’ve reached an epoch, an era, a historical moment in time where we appreciate higher standards, taking quality over quantity. Today over 3,418 breweries and brewpubs exist in the United States, and that number is growing every year. Yes companies like InBev, one single company, now owns almost a third of the beer distributed in the world, but this is not a concern for us, the beer lovers of the world. While a few smaller breweries have allowed themselves to be bought by Anheuser-Busch InBev, selling out their values siting easier distribution, the majority of craft breweries resist this trend, knowing a loss of regional and local fanbase would occur, and, also, the whole reason they began this journey was to create something beautiful, works of art we consume, and no artists wishes to see their work destroyed. But, how can small breweries compete against giants like AB InBev, easy, they already do it. By creating better beer, and due to the attention their beers get by brewers who care about their product, they are like a gardner nurturing a plant, willing it to grow and flourish, investing the time so it can flower into something beautiful.

Like Willy Wonka hiding a golden ticket to sup on candy in his factory, breweries create special edition beers, that only the most dedicated beerphile will know of, find, and relish with secret delight, squealing with sheer giddiness and glee as they imbibe these toothsome brews. With brewery-release beers, like the hop forward, delectable pale ale Dinner, from Maine Beer Company in Freeport, Maine, droves of people wait in line for hours to buy a case, some even camping overnight to be first in line. Smuttynose Brewery, in Portsmouth, NH, once upon a time, released an imperial stout named Kate the Great, which, to obtain said beer, had to purchase a scratch off ticket for $2, of which 900 tickets out of 1000 were winners, allowing the holder to claim this illustrious, coal black stout. These events seem tame compared to 3 Floyds Brewing Co. who hosts a Dark Lord Day during which you can purchase their Dark Lord Imperial Stout. With musical acts and over 10,000 people arriving for this monuments day, those who purchase a “beer lover’s ticket” are then allowed about 3 or 4 bottles of this holy relic of beer. These are just a few of the special occasions we find ourselves drawn to as beer lovers, while domestic beers fall flat and insipid, even trying to capture the craft market, but always falling short with beers that lack flavor.

With so many other events and speciality brewery release beers out there I could go on forever. As we constantly rebel against the commercialization of everything, from enjoyment to experiences, food to nature, like a phoenix from the ashes of our childhood youth, we are creating something unique and exquisite, which is only going to grow with time. As Willy Wonka–the one, true, and only Willy Wonka, Gene Wilder– said, “We are the music makers and we are the dreams of the dreams.” Please, brewers, keep on dreaming.