Acitelli knows beer. A regular contributor to All About Beer magazine, his first book, The Audacity of Hops: The History of America's Craft Beer Revolution, is the definitive study of the remarkable evolution of America’s craft beer industry.
What was the first craft beer you drank that opened your eyes to this style of brewing?
Like most craft beer consumers of my generation (I was born in 1977), my first tastes of American craft beer came from either Pete’s Wicked Ale or Samuel Adams Boston Lager. I’m not sure which one. These brands have served as what I call “gateway beers,” introducing millions to the possibilities beyond Bud and Miller.
Why do you think Anchor Steam, the original American craft brew, has been able to stay in business and stay relevant?
Anchor has survived and thrived because it has actively, then and now, tried not to grow rapidly. It has emphasized its place as a San Francisco-based institution with a handful of groundbreaking brands like Steam, Liberty Ale, and Anchor Porter that are prepared in relatively small batches with traditional ingredients. Plus, several employees go back decades with the brewery, including current brewmaster Mark Carpenter, who joined in 1971.
Is craft brewing here to stay? How do you see the movement evolving?
Most definitely. I see the movement evolving in a key way that ensures its survival with more standard session beers; moving further away from an emphasis on bitter, stronger beers—what some call “extreme beers”—and toward milder ones that consumers can drink more of in single sittings. In other words, more craft beer brands will likely become the regulars of choice for more consumers and will cease to be such curiosities, even in markets where they’re still relatively new, like the Deep South.
Do you think we’ve reached critical mass in terms of the number of breweries the market can support?
This is a very interesting question. There are now roughly 2,300 breweries, including brewpubs (not including contract-brewing companies), in the U.S., the most since the 1880s. There was a titanic shakeout in the late 1990s and early 2000s that saw nearly 200 craft-beer operations close, leaving only about 400 by 2001. Crucially, that shakeout was due less to market demand, which was strong, than to the iffy quality of a lot of the beer. Now the beer is of, by and large, stellar quality (the U.S. has more modern small breweries than any other nation) and the market demand is even stronger, buoyed in no small part by social media, which wasn’t really around in the late 1990s. Moreover, I don’t want to say there is less competition among craft brewers, but there is certainly less ruthlessness. The bigger operations are acutely aware that a rising tide lifts all boats. It’s not entirely clear that that ethos prevailed in the 1990s.
How has craft brewing changed the marketplace, and what effect has it had on major brewers like Anheuser Busch, Coors, etc.?
Craft brewing drastically upped competition in the American brewing industry. Before craft brewing began to really take off in the mid-1980s, there were fewer than 60 breweries nationwide; most of the domestic beer consumed in the U.S. was made by perhaps four or five breweries. Craft brewing spurred innovation in the marketplace, not just in terms of new or revised beer styles, but in terms of how brewers, craft or otherwise, package and market their brands. Craft brewing also upped the opportunities for ancillary industries, like distributors and retailers and forever wedded good beer to fine food. While the vast majority of domestic beer consumed in the U.S. still comes from four or five breweries, that market share is shrinking. Nationally, craft beer accounts for about 15% of the domestic beer sold annually (up from single digits a few years ago). In certain areas, like the Pacific Northwest and big urban regions like New York and San Diego, that share is much larger. The growth of craft beer has forced the major breweries at times to either co-opt it or crush it. They have tried to co-opt it through what I call “phantom crafts” like Blue Moon (Coors) or Elk Mountain (Anheuser-Busch) and they have tried to crush it through campaigns like “100% share of mind,” which Anheuser-Busch launched in the late 1990s to force its distributors to focus only on Anheuser-Busch brands. Neither co-opting nor crushing has worked, and I think now they’ll co-opt what they can, but their focus now is beyond the U.S. and Europe, particularly China, India, and South America. Their major growth in the 21st century will come from snagging new drinkers in Beijing or Mumbai, not tricking craft-beer diehards in Baltimore or Mendocino.
You wove a lot of individual stories into a larger whole; how were you able to stay on track?
I decided early on to argue two propositions: that craft beer made America the envy of the beer universe and that craft beer was an unmitigated culinary and manufacturing triumph for the United States. For the first point, I worked to show how innovative American craft brewers became as time went on in terms of styles and packaging in contrast to European brewers, who tended to stand firm on tradition and whose industries were undergoing rapid consolidation as America’s brewing industry diversified. For the second point, I tried to show how inextricably American craft beer came to be associated with fine food and how, as the American manufacturing sector shrank on a macro level, the craft-brewing share of that sector grew.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, do you think we’ll ever be able to recover from the national nightmare known as Zima?
I hope so. Did anyone ever drink more than one of those in a sitting? Seriously awful.