American Craft Beer Culture and Tips for Homebrewers
After driving more than 4,000 miles across the United States visiting craft breweries along the way, I’ve added words like sparged, wort, and flocculation to my vocabulary and picked up a few insights into American craft brew culture, trends, and tips for homebrewers (scroll down to see Tips for Homebrewers video below!).
Quality & Freshness
Fermentation is often described as an art and a science, and rightly so. Brewers pay careful attention to every step of the process to achieve the desired style, flavors, color, and alcohol content. In order to maintain the integrity of a particular style of beer, Epic Brewing Company in Salt Lake City, Utah mimics the water chemistry in Germany, for example, by using a carbin filtration process. “The malt doesn’t know its not in Belgium!” says Steve Koonce of Epic and goes on to say how the brewery avoids ‘house flavor’* by removing mineral content from the water prior to fermentation. Maintaining consistency from “keg to keg, year to year” is important in the industry, according to Greta Canton of Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma, CA and Dallas Archer of Upstream Brewing Company in Omaha, Nebraska urges homebrewers to “aim for consistency, know your system!” According to Archer, freshness is the main benefit of craft beer and brings this point home when he says “Our beer travels less than 75 feet before it is born into your glass.” Microbreweries are known for serving beer on premises and even though many focus on local distribution, micro-giants and nationwide distributors like Stone Brewing Company of Escondido, California are also committed to providing customers with fresh beer. A striking example of this is Stone’s ‘Enjoy by (Date) IPA’, which highlights the shelf life of the beer in its actual name and label. Same-day bottling, kegging, and shipping are other ways that craft brewers uphold high standards for producing a superior product.
*House flavor: the distinct taste that often shows up in the same brewer’s beer due to using the same base of malt, water, and yeast
Creativity and Innovation
The American craft brew industry and culture is fueled on individuality, creativity, and innovation. A well-loved craft brewing practice is the release of seasonal beers and micro-batches and it is not uncommon to hear stories of die-hards lining up or camping out to be the first to have access. In some cases, micro-batch beers become seasonal releases, which then turn into year-round fan favorites like Tröegs Perpetual IPA, which has recently overtaken sales of their popular Sun Pilsner. Brewers notoriously experiment with the process to achieve new flavors, like aging beer in old wine or whiskey barrels. More common techniques involve simply adding specific ingredients during the fermentation process. Peanut butter beer anyone? How about a mint brew for the upcoming holiday season? In addition to flavor, brewers are also looking for ways to innovate other aspects of the business to improve quality or efficiency. “There are a lot of things in the craft brew industry that have changed how things are done,” says Andrew at Stone Brewing Company. When Stone started out in the mid-90’s no one wanted to distribute their beer because it was said to be too strong. Instead of giving up, the founders of Stone decided to distribute their own beer and are now in the top 20 craft beer distributors in the United States.
A Community Affair
“In the craft brewing industry it is not about competition, it is about community,” says Bailey Wiegel of Copper Kettle Brewing Company in Pittsburgh, PA. Copper Kettle is one of about two dozen “brew on premises” locations currently in the United States. This designation of brewery allows anyone over the age of 21 to come in and brew their own beer on site and take it home. Wiegel’s thoughts are echoed in various way across the country as brewers share how they create and support their community, donate beer to good causes, and view fellow craft brewers as what Drew Martinez from Odell Brewing Company calls “friendly competition”.
Tröegs Brewery has been organizing the Harrisburg Brewer’s Fest for nine years and donates all of the proceeds to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation of Central PA. Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma, California donated money to fund a popular local park project. Odell Brewing Company in Ft. Collins, Colorado partners with Colorado State University to offer a Brewing Science and Technology class (where do we sign up?!?). In addition to philanthropic ventures, many brewpubs reward loyal customers with a personalized mug and first-access to seasonal beers, host special events (the Drinking and Writing Festival at Haymarket Pub & Brewery in Chicago is among my personal favorites), or give left-over grains to local farmers and bakers who use them to make beer breads, dog treats, and feed cattle! It is also important that craft brewers understand and tap into the needs of the community. Mike Francis, founder of Payette Brewing Company in Boise, Idaho says, “We want to drink our beer where we like to go, and we like to go to the river.” Since it is illegal to bring glass bottles into public parks and outdoor spaces in Idaho, Payette cans most of their beer.
India Pale Ale, usually known as IPA
On tap in nearly every brewery in the United Sates right now is India Pale Ale. In honor of IPA Day on August, 2, CraftBeer.com highlighted the fact that in the 2012 world-cup, American-style IPA’s dominated as the most-entered category for competition with 150 entries. “The key to making a good IPA is to balance the hop and malt profiles or else the malt get’s lost and the beer is too bitter,” says Jeff Herb, who runs a blog called The Pour Travelers in addition to his full-time position at Tröegs Brewing Company in Hershey, PA. Brewers all across America are in agreement on this point. “Don’t over-hop!” says Dallas Archer of Upstream Brewery.
Craft Brewing Trends
American craft beer sales have steadily increased in the last five years by volume and dollars, according to the Brewer’s Association. (Check out Beerpulse’s handy infographic!) Is this any surprise to craft beer consumers? Probably not. Brewers are passionate about high-quality beer, innovation, and giving back to the community. Craft beer and the craft brew community offer high-value experiences that large brand beer makers (which shall remain unnamed…we know who you are) simply cannot replicate with their mass-marketing and general lackluster appeal. Craft brewers are finding new ways to compete with the larger beer brands. In addition to the heavy-hitting IPAs, ales, and stouts, many brewers are now offering lighter ‘session beers’, or beers with a lower percentage of alcohol that allow consumers to kick back a few cold ones without worrying about a high blood alcohol content.
Tips for Homebrewers
The majority of brewing company founders began at home in their kitchen or basement. What started out as an appreciation for good beer turned into brewing beer as a hobby, and then grew into a life-long passion and business. In the true craft brew spirit, they and their knowledgeable employees have offered homebrewers the following homebrewing tips and advice.
- The Brewer’s Association
- American Homebrewers Association
- Official fact Sheet for homebrewers interested in starting a brew-on-premesis site