The majority of people have a fairly simple relationship with beer. If you’re a girl it’s probably a beverage you usually associate with hot days or being at the beach; if you’re a guy you probably associate beer mainly with sports or just getting rat-arsed with your buddies.
But if that’s not too far from how you feel about beer – it’s time you reconsidered your associations. Beer, and in particular American beer, has undergone a stunning renaissance over the last 25 years, and is right now enjoying a moment of creativity and quality that’s unrivaled in human history. Beer – surprisingly enough – has become sophisticated.
(Certain you can’t be convinced to try new beer? Perhaps check out today’s exciting renaissance in cocktail culture).
Let’s wind the clock back a little to see just how we got to this frankly, glorious moment in time. It all starts way back in 1920 with the nakbar, or catastrophe that was Prohibition, (on which subject there’s an excellent Ken Burns Doco now screening on PBS – 1st episode: A Nation Of Drunkards below).
(See more Ken Burns here.)
The temperance movement had already succeeded in shutting down many breweries, and when the Constitution’s 18th amendment banned the production, sale & consumption of liquor, the last 1500 or so breweries closed their doors.
Nearly a decade and a half later America’s taps finally started pouring again, albeit slowly due to the still-strong temperance movement. But before the American beer industry could re-establish itself, WWII began, forcing grain rationing, which meant smaller brewers had to insert corn and rice as cheap substitutes for barley, inhibiting their growth. From 1941 til 1945 beer production exploded by 40%, but it was from an ever decreasing group of mega breweries like Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser) and Coors that came to dominate the market for the next 50 years with their light, flavorless lagers and pilsners.
American beer became a joke around the world, nicely encapsulated by this riddle:
Q: What do American beer and sex in a canoe have in common?
A: They’re both fucking close to water.
If it wasn’t for Jimmy Carter, this sad and tragic state of affairs might still be the case today; but in 1978 Carter legalized home brewing. This sparked a resurgence of interest in beer from passionate enthusiasts who began to create beers with actual flavor. At the time, many people who tried ‘craft’ beers shrugged them off as “too strong.” But after a while people’s palates began to adjust to beers with flavor, body, and aroma, in contrast to the bland swill they’d been served for decades.
Home brewers got good enough at what they did that they started their own micro-breweries. This really was an unusual case of creating demand for something people didn’t know they wanted (because like an iPhone, it didn’t exist before), rather than the usual focus-group-tested and market-researched approach to product launches in the modern business world.
Today, while the overall beer market in America – and in most industrialized countries – is stagnant or declining, the pricier craft beer segment continues to grow anywhere between 5% and 10% annually. This is in the face of a worldwide economic collapse.
Why the surging popularity? It’s largely due to the consistently increasing quality and range of styles on offer. American brewers are now regarded as leading the world because of their innovative, take-no-prisoners approach to brewing. Even prestigious German and Belgian brewers, who arguably have made the best beer in the world for the longest, are today influenced by American brewers. And English consumers crave American brews (even if some of their journalists are a little fuzzy on the difference between a lager and an ale).
It’s also no doubt in part because people are increasingly realizing the range of beers on offer in most convenience stores in the US offers more and better options for matching with food than your local wine store ever can.
Yeah I said it – beer is better for matching with food than wine. (Cheese in particular). “Sacre bleu!” and “Bullshit!” I hear you cry through the internet. How can this be? It’s simple. While wine is made with one ingredient – grapes – beer is made with four ingredients: water, barley, yeast and hops; all of which reflect the terroir they come from. And it can be made with many more ingredients from chili to chocolate, flowers, bacon, and more. Because of this, beer simply has a much wider variety of flavors and textures than wine, that can both complement and contrast with food.
Here’s a very useful chart for matching beer with food. Download it and explore!
There are nearly 100 or so different styles of beer available and growing. Arguably the most famous new style is Cascadian Dark Ale, also known as a black IPA, and the innovation in the beer industry, notorious for beer names, beer blurbs, and increasingly insane quantities of alcohol – even extends to the packaging.
How’s that? Cans are becoming in vogue over bottles, much as screw-caps are displacing corks in wine bottles. But wasn’t it the mass produced shitty beer that was in cans and the good stuff in bottles? Not any more. Light is the enemy of beer because it oxidizes it, making it stale (which is why beer isn’t produced in clear bottles). Cans also weigh less, don’t shatter into foot eating shards, and are much more convenient outdoors, or in cities that forbid bottles in public places like parks and beaches.
Anyway, before I get carried away talking about how the main difference in flavor between Belgian beers and American beers is that the Belgians focus more on the yeast, while the Americans focus more on the hops, I’ll leave it here for now. Below is my gift to you, a map I constructed of the best places for craft beer in New York. It’s by no means complete – a work in progress are like that – but it should come in handy for anyone looking for a good brew in New York.
If New York’s a bit far away from you, I recommend perusing the Beer Mapping Project for a comprehensive list of US cities, as well as 12 other countries around the world.