We have Prohibition to thank for the ubiquity of the American Lager (think Miller, think Budweiser) and Jimmy Carter to thank for the relatively recent resurgence in craft beer. Here’s why: only the biggest beer corporations– the ones that happened to produce the uniformly mild-tasting, broadly appealing, lager beers– survived Prohibition by selling Near Beer.
Legions of smaller, diverse brewing companies disappeared and took the rest of the century to reincarnate. The reason why they finally did come back to life is because Jimmy Carter deregulated homebrewing in 1978. Carter’s legislation enabled a legion of hobbyists to thrive, go professional and eventually pique our appetites for a different beer experience. Today, in some enclaves like Oakland’s craft and homebrew scene, independent and homemade beer abound as if Prohibition had never been.
“My father, and his father, grew up drinking Coors,” Daniel, a homebrewer told me, “Your grandpa probably did too.” (As it turns out, my grandfather was strictly a Pabst Blue Ribbon drinker). “When people in the states got back into brewing more distinctive kinds of beers [in the 80’s], they had to ask people in England and Germany and Belgium how to do it.” As Daniel tells me this he takes a sip of an amber colored beer he’s sampling from the many jugs brought by other homebrewers to a meeting of the Bay Area Mashers Association in a private room at the Linden Street Brewery. “Peanut butter beer,” is Daniel’s answer to the most bizarre flavors he’s ever brewed.
In 1978 when Carter deregulated homebrewing there were only forty-two brewery owners in the country. Today, unless you’re a beer person, you may not even notice that your favorite burger joint doubles as a micro brewery. Sierra Nevada and Anchor Steam are the Bay Area craft beer mainstays and there are twenty three micro breweries, tap rooms and brew pubs in the East Bay alone. Most of the pros come from the grass roots; that is, they started as home brewers.
The Bay Area Mashers is an association of several hundred homebrewers based in Oakland. At their monthly meeting thirty or so beer nerds gather at a brew pub bearing a jug of their latest hooch (or not) and a personal cup for tasting. (If you’re new you should know, style points are given for cool cups. The classic glass stein in diminutive scale will get you envious nods of approval.) An initial period of sampling, palette wafting, sniffing, burping and fermentation fanfare is followed by announcements and a facilitated conversation.
The group discussion quickly spirals out of intelligibility (for a noob like me). There are questions about calculating IBUs and minerality, and pH balance and pre-hopped malt extract versus all grain, etc. etc.. For what it’s worth, the crowd is more than eager to back up and explicate the fundamentals for anyone at the early stages of their homebrewing career. There is palpable excitement as knowledge is conducted and imbued. Mysterious magic is revealed to be understandable chemistry. Eyes alight. Heads nod encouragingly. It’s adorable, and the Mashers know it, and they make jokes about their nerdiness, and the jokes are actually funny, and it’s a pretty great scene.
If you ask the Mashers why they homebrew they’ll rattle off a variety of answers up front. Jason told me it’s mostly about the enjoyment of drinking a good beer. “Even though the really tough to find, imported stuff that I love is available in Oakland, it’s imported so it’s not fresh. There are kinds of beers that if I want them, if I want to drink them at their best, I have to brew them myself.” The craziest beer Jason ever brewed was a watermelon wheat.
Jason’s friend (or the guy he just met that he was standing with), Chris, agreed with this. “It’s just as much about the craft for me.” Both said they were the type of people to want to take things apart and understand how they work. “Anything that I can make or fix on my own, I will. I like the tinkering and working with the mechanics and the chemistry of something until I master it.”
But ultimately the main explanation comes up, “Beer people are good people,” said Daniel. Or as Jason put it, “It’s just a great community. Look at this, we’re sharing our work with each other, and we get to be exposed to so many types of beer with people that are just as excited about it as we are.”
The Mashers are so involved in local beer festivals, competitions and events that the breweries around town treat them like members of some secret society. “If nothing else, being involved with the Mashers will get you free beer,” said the acting president of the association, “so much free beer.”
This is the third in a series of articles highlighting entrepreneurs who are bringing manufacturing back down to a local and sustainable scale. #MakeItLocal.
Micro Breweries in Oakland: