Out of fairness, I should begin this post by admitting that I do not actually like beer. Never a big drinker, when the urge hits, my tastes veer toward wine and, OK, a nip of whiskey. But just as I appreciate (and, in fact, spend my professional life studying) livestock production despite being a mostly-vegetarian, I appreciate beer as an art.
So it was that I found myself last weekend at San Francisco's Omnivore Books, a cute nook of a store filled to the brim with cookbooks and other food-related literature, to hear author Brian Yaeger speak on his book Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey. Drawn in by the microbrew craze, Yaeger criss-crossed the country to interview a sampling of U.S. brewery owners and brewmasters, from the heir to the Maytag (washing machine and blue cheese) fortune, who owns Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, to the eclectic owner of one of the nation's tiniest breweries (Electric Brewing in Bisbee, AZ, which does not have a website). He visited America's oldest brewery, Yuengling and Sons in Pottsville, PA, as well as new breweries that have popped up in the micro-craze of the last few years.
Kudos to the owners of Omnivore, who greased the wheels with a fine beer selection for attendees. In a break with tradition, I sipped on a Midas Touch from Delaware's Dogfish Head during the talk, which I have to say was really good. Probably because it was made with saffron and muscat grapes, so it didn't really taste like beer.
The U.S. boasts an amazing number of "craft" breweries, said Yaeger - over 1400 - but the $50 billion beer industry is not nearly as diverse as that number suggests. 80% of beer sold in the United States comes from the big two, the Belgian-Brazilian firm InBev (which bought St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch last year) and MillerCoors (yep, they're one company, as of late 2007.)
I probably shouldn't have been surprised by the parallels between the beer industry and the rest of the food system, but I was. Market concentration - the "get big or get out" phenomenon - has left us with a few mega-brewers and many tiny ones. It now looks a lot like the meat industry, where Smithfield and Tyson hold at least a third of pork and chicken markets respectively, or in soybeans, where three companies control over 70% of the annual crush. And like the food system, industrial beer is based around one ubiquitous commodity: corn. Many craft brewers use corn as an adjunct - a source of fermentable sugars that doesn't add flavor to the finished product - but larger breweries may use the grain in place of malt. Yaeger offered a few choice expletives to describe what that does to the taste of beer. Some cheap beers also contain corn syrup.
But just as farmers markets, CSAs, and farm-to-institution arrangements have provided outlets for small farmers to pedal their delicious wares to a salivating public, the craft breweries peppering the country have found a receptive audience of beer connoisseurs. Happily, many of them seem to be doing well.
Even for non-beer drinkers, visiting these breweries can be a blast. I should know: my partner in crime and I have made a habit of visiting local breweries whenever we find ourselves near one. Many offer tours and samples. I've seen hops growing outside the solar-powered Anderson Valley Brewing Company in tiny Boonville, CA; smelled heady wet mash in a copper fermenter at Otter Creek Brewing, which makes Wolaver's organic beer, in Middlebury, VT; and even run a 5K (complete with post-race beer garden) that began and ended at Harpoon Brewery on the Boston waterfront. This weekend, we'll be lacing up for Beer 2 Breakers, a bike ride to breweries around San Francisco. It's one of many events taking place for SF Beer Week.
When I moved from the east coast to California a year and a half ago, breweries (and, I admit, cheesy roadside attractions and small slaughterhouses) were the reason to leave the major highways. My co-pilot dad and I found gems: Firehouse Brewing Company in downtown Rapid City, SD (as the name suggests, it's built in an old fire station); Snake River Brewing Co., which welcomed us as we rolled into Jackson Hole, WY after a hike in the Tetons; Silver Peak Brewery in Reno, where I ran in to buy a pint glass.
And during my two weeks back home in New Hampshire this winter, I made a point of visiting the Portsmouth Brewery, where locals packed in to warm themselves and escape record snowfall with a hoppy IPA or a strong barley wine. I admit, I had one too. And it was good.
You can find breweries near you and print out maps at the Beer Mapping Project or through Beerfly at Beer Advocate, which is also the source of more info on beer than you will ever need. Bay Area residents should check out the events at SF Beer Week, which runs through February 15th.