I spent the weekend participating in TAP NY – billed as both the largest craft beer festival in New York State and the largest single-state craft beer festival in the US. It was enormously fun: I had the pleasure of helping my husband Patrick dispense his Great Life beer to hundreds of jovial people over the course of the two days. And – thrilling to us – his 1875 Milk Stout won the Bronze Medal in the Hudson Valley Stouts category.
I love being involved (peripherally) in Patrick’s brewery partly because he’s so passionate about it, partly because brewing beer is intrinsically interesting (and I love finding out things), and partly because it’s so fascinating watching this business niche -craft brewing – explode.
On the TAP NY website, their own history page describes the geometric curve that is craft brewing. They started in 1998 at the Culinary institute of America in Hyde Park, NY with a handful of breweries, styling themselves the Hudson Valley Craft Beer and Food Festival. After just a few years they outgrew that site, moved to the Hunter Mountain Ski area, renamed the event TAP NY, and expanded to include all of NY state. Over the next few years, the festival continued to grow slowly, with about 25 breweries involved by 2007. Then, in true geometric curve fashion, it really began to ramp up: 40 breweries in 2010, over 60 in 2013, almost 90 in 2015, and 116 breweries attending this past weekend.
When I wasn’t busy drawing 4-oz tasting glasses for the continual stream of folks who stopped by our booth, I wandered around and observed. In some ways, the craft beer culture is like any newly vital business sector, with lots of early entrants wanting to get in on the action. It’s analogous to the early 20th century in autos, when there were literally hundreds of car makers in the US. Then the larger manufacturers began to take over through superior distribution and economies of scale, and the smaller auto companies began to go out of business or get bought up. But beer has already been through that evolution: in the late 19th century, it’s estimated there were over 4,000 mostly small independent breweries operating in the US. Then brewing began to go through the same kind of consolidation, helped along by prohibition. In 1935 there were only about 750 breweries in the US, and by 1980, there were only about 50 brewing companies in the whole country. And, as one beer writer in the 1980s commented, “They are pale lager beers vaguely of the pilsener style…They do not all taste exactly the same but the differences between them are often of minor consequence.” Beer had become standardized and commercialized: what could be made most efficiently and while appealing to the largest number of people.
Then, in the late 1980s, the tide started to turn. As people began to explore using locally grown and naturally sourced foods, they also started get interested in the possibility of drinking beer that was locally produced, with stronger and more interesting flavors. Once the trend started, it gained momentum every year, as evidenced by the growth of TAP NY and dozens of similar festivals across the country. In 1990 there were about 400 microbreweries and brewpubs in the US: in 2015, there were over 4000. We’ve now matched (and are on a path to exceeding) the high-water mark for American breweries set in 1873.
The big commercial breweries are still selling most of the beer drunk in the US – but the craft beer share of sales is significant and growing yearly: one recent statistic estimates that around 13% of the beer consumed in the US today is produced in craft breweries (doubled from just a few years ago).
I’m fascinated to see how this business of craft beer will continue to evolve. In one way, it’s a return to the way humans consumed beer hundreds of years ago, where every village had its own brewer, often the owner of the local tavern and his wife. And in another, it’s completely modern: a manifestation of the free-lance, entrepreneurial, artisanal explosion of the last decade, where more people want to work for themselves and join together with small groups of like-minded others to create products and offer services about which they feel passionate. One element of the craft beer explosion I find really interesting: although still largely male, craft brewing seems not to be age-specific. As I wandered the booths this weekend, I noted some brewers in their 20s and some in their 60s – and everything in between. I also noted that nearly everyone, brewers and samplers alike, seemed to be having a great time.
And I don’t think it was just the mellowing effect of the beer itself: it’s fun to create things you love, it’s fun to connect with the people who make the things you consume, and it’s fun to consume things that are made with care and attention.
¡Viva la evolucion!