Microbreweries roll out the barrel (1987)

Roll out the barrel

Microbreweries tout flavor and freshness

To judge by many of the offerings on supermarket shelves, dependable mediocrity and the illusion of choice might well be the twin goals of American mass production. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the beer section, where most national brands stack up with dull similarity. Typically, they are bland, with thin sour-sweet aftertastes. One yearns for the winy, copper-etched malt aroma and the complex flavors of the best beers of Germany, Denmark and Holland.

Enter the microbreweries — small local producers who generally turn out no more than 15,000 bbl [barrels] a year (in contrast to Anheuser-Busch’s 72.3 million-bbl ocean sold last year) and whose brews are primarily intended for regional consumption. For lovers of the yeasty, golden suds, this is good news. It means that beer can be fresh and natural, made with only the essentials: water, malted barley, hops and yeast. And because of their limited distribution, microbrewers can turn out distinctive flavors. Before Prohibition, hundreds of breweries existed in the US. But after the repeal only large producers could rebuild, so that now a handful of breweries controls more than 90% of the market.

Today, whether it is New Amsterdam in New York City, Catamount Amber in Vermont, Abita in Louisiana, Lair Dog at the Tap & Growler in Chicago, Reinheitsgebot in Plano, Texas, or one of the 20 regional brews on tap at Cooper’s Ale House in Seattle, the appeal of locally brewed beer is akin to that of regional cheeses, breads and homegrown vegetables. “It’s the fascination with something unique and handcrafted,” says Shelby Meyer, who writes a newsletter for a home-brewers’ club.

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