NEW YORK (MainStreet) There's a bar down the street from where I live with 24 taps against the wall, 23 of which serve beers brewed in or within a few hours of Chicago. As I'm writing this, at a different bar, the only Bud Light is in a can under the taps. Craft beer is taking over, and not a minute too soon.
Over the last ten years, America has seen an extraordinary boom in craft brewing. Once the province only of small operations and home brewers, craft beer has become a national phenomenon, capturing over 10% of the market in 2012 and quickly growing. Some 40 ago only one craft brewery survived in operation. Today more than 2,500 produce over 13 million barrels of beer a year.
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Brewers are making them, stores are selling them and in the bar familiar Miller Light taps have been replaced by carved wood in every size, style and color. It's a golden age even if you like your beer dark. The only question is, how do you choose?
Happily, we here at MainStreet are here to help, with seven recommendations from the experts:
Beer #1: Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen
Brewer: Brauerei Aying
Price: $3.50 per bottle
Expert: Stephen Beaumont, Co-Author of The World Atlas of Beer
Here's what Stephen Beaumont has to say about the Ayinger Oktoberfest:
"When I think of fall, I think of the märzen style of lager, a little stronger and maltier and richer than the classic Bavarian blonde lager known as helles. And of all the German märzens that are imported to the United States, one of the best, I think, is the Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen, a medium-bodied beer with a light, floral sweetness and just a touch of toasted maltiness."
High praise, and from a man who knows his beer. As co-author of The World Atlas of Beer, Beaumont has researched and written about this industry all across the world. Craft beer, he says, is becoming an international force, with even non-traditional markets such as Brazil, Mexico and New Zealand becoming world leaders in innovating and creating new products.
"It's a smaller and smaller world," Beaumont said. "People are discovering new flavors, they're finding new tastes, new cuisines, and they're not going to really be satisfied with the old tried-and-tested familiar. So everywhere you look people are finding new beers whether it's in their backyard or an import from all the way around the world."
The world is changing, and it's taking beer with it.
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Beer #2: Victory Prima Pils
Brewer: Victory Brewing Company
Price: $9.99 per 6-Pack
Expert: Michael Agnew, Certified Cicerone at A Perfect Pint
Cicerone is the new sommelier.
When enough new choices hit the market, people need help picking between them. With so many new beers and terms like "weisse beer" and "APA" getting thrown around at bars that used to ask "Budweiser or Guinness, that's where the cicerones come in. They help drinkers figure out the maze of options to pick their drink, and Michael Agnew is one of the best.
"It started about 10 or 11 years ago when I started home brewing," he said. "That just kind of turned beer from a love into an obsession. So I started learning everything and anything I could from every source possible."
One of the things he learned? That pilsners, when done right, can be absolutely amazing.
"I really love pilsners," Agnew said. Regarding his personal pick, Victory Prima Pils, "it's a really well made pilsner for one thing, which is not an easy task to do... it has these kind of citrusy and fruity flavors--it's subtle."
Still, according to Agnew, beer lovers should expect the marketplace to keep shifting in front of their eyes. "I don't think what's happening now is sustainable," he said. Agnew suspects that the explosive rate of growth in craft beers is a bubble that may well burst, weeding out the really good craftsmen from those who are just riding the tide.
Beer #3: New Holland Dragon's Milk
Brewer: New Holland Brewing Company
Price: $7.99 per 12 oz Bottle
Expert: Kristan Raymond, Bartender and General Manager at Rocks, Chicago
No one knows beer like the people who serve it, and by that measure Kristan Raymond is the expert's expert. A long time manager of Rock's bar in Chicago, Raymond has been running bars and serving beers since she was in college, including at the original Bar Louie.
"I'm mostly behind the scenes, but I get to bartend about two times per week, which is probably my favorite part of the job," Ramond said. "I [particularly] like it when I can tell from behind the bar that somebody is on a first date. You see the guy or the girl show up early and sit at the bar, and they kind of take their cues from each other."
From behind the bar Raymond has seen craft beers take off, and one of her favorites is the Dragon's Milk stout by New Holland Brewing Company. This dark beer is aged in whisky barrels, picking up some taste from the liquor and making it perfect for whisky fans who want to sip on a beer or get something alongside a nice glass of bourbon.
It's a great drink for the fall, when cooler weather and early nights call for darker beers. When asked if she had some interesting stories to go with her recommendation, Raymond just smiled.
"People also forget when they're sitting at the bar that they're only about two feet away from my ear, and I can hear everything they say," she said. "So none that are appropriate here."
I guess we'll just have to visit and find out.
Beer #4: D.L. Geary's Hampshire Special Ale
Brewer: D.L. Geary's
Price: $10.99 per 6-Pack
Expert: Tom Acitelli, Author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America's Craft Beer Revolution
Tom Acitelli got interested in beer from the business end of the industry. A longtime journalist covering business and economics, Acitelli said he wanted to get into something that felt more fun and interesting than his usual beat. Covering beer did the trick.
Acitelli's book covers the rise of the craft beer industry in America, a trend he says began long before the recent revolution over the last decade.
"There's more than 2,500 craft breweries in the United States," Acitelli said. "The United States leads the world in beer styles and has the most small breweries in the world. It has its roots in a lot of things. One of those was the takeover of Anchor beer in 1965 by Frtiz Maytag, heir to the appliance company fortune."
At the time, California's Anchor beer was the last craft brewery operating in the United States. Its revitalization by Maytag was, according to Acitelli, one of the first steps decades ago that eventually led to the industry we see today.
Another major force has been the legalization of home brewing that allowed small craftsmen to experiment and develop their skills in basements and garages across the country.
Today, Acitelli says, the craft beer market has become defined by high quality and a new culture that demands it.
"In the 1990's you had a huge explosion of craft beers too, craft breweries and craft brewpubs," he said. "But a lot of them were beers of dubious quality because a lot of them were just in it to make a quick buck, so you had a major shakeup. And you have a beer culture, a beer subculture, that just wasn't there 20 years ago and certainly not 30 or 40 years ago. I mean, at this stage even the President homebrews. There's home brewing at the White House."
Beer #5: Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
Brewer: Sierra Nevada
Price: $8.99 per 6-Pack
Expert: Matt Simpson, Craft Beer Consultant and Owner of the Beer Sommelier, LLC
For the past six years, Matt Simpson has worked as a consultant in every aspect of the industry, from how to start a business and testifying as an expert witness in court to, of course, helping people figure out which beer goes where. It's been an incredibly rewarding experience, Simpson says but one that's only been possible because of what he calls the recent "beer revolution."
"The title of my business is the beer sommelier, and I gave it that title because this was really before the crest of the craft beer revolution that we have today," Simpson said. "A lot of the aficionados saw it coming long before it became a part of the public reference. We were into it and realized that it had to only be a matter of time before the rest of the beer drinking public recognized that craft beer tastes good, and it sure tastes a hell of a lot better than some of the fizzy yellow pale lagers that were being passed off as beer."
Simpson says he doesn't see the industry growth receding any time soon. Given the size of the market that so-called "macrobreweries" like Coors and Miller control, there's plenty of room for craft beers to grow and expand. After all, everyone out there drinking watered down lager is another potential customer for a good craft beer.
Of course, part of the challenge is figuring out exactly what a craft beer is.
"The Brewers Association will define craft brewing one way--I like a lot of their definition but I don't agree with all of it," Simpson said. "The best pros in the business can't tell where that change occurs [from macro-brewing to craft beers]. The Brewers Association had to change their definition volume wise in order to keep Sam Adams."
"Personally," he added, "as far as I'm concerned, craft beer is defined by an attention to detail, ingredients, style, experimentation and hands-on attention to the quality of the finished product."
Beer #6: Bellwood Brewery Berliner Weisse
Brewery: Bellwood Brewery
Expert: Crystal Luxmore, Author the Weekly Column "Hopped Up" in The Grid
A bit of an unknown down here in America, Toronto's Bellwood Brewery gets high marks from journalist Crystal Luxmore. She describes the brewery's Berliner Weisse as a slightly sour beer that's still very light and refreshing.
"It really shows off what a craft beer can do," Luxmore said of Bellwood's Berliner Weisse, "a low alcohol, kind of drink-all-day beer."
The creativity behind unusual flavors, like Bellwood's sour, are one of the most interesting parts of writing about the craft beer industry Luxmore says.
"To know all of the makers, I think of them as really creative, artist-meets-scientist types who are really, really passionate about what they do," Luxmore said. "Every brewer in the world can use the same basic ingredients and then play with temperature or fermentation times, or you could add fruit or extra malts... You have a lot more control [than with wine or liquor] and I think that gives you a lot more room for creativity. At the same time there's a lot more room for error."
Industry experiments like sour beers, made by storing new beer in old barrels so that existing bacteria can effect the flavor, would be unthinkable in industries like winemaking Luxmore said. The result of this far more adventurous style is a craft beer market in which small breweries are constantly experimenting with new approaches to an ancient idea. This movement, which took root in the United States over a decade ago, has just now begun to really take hold up north as well.
"I guess what really inspires me," Luxmore said, "is, I think, here in Canada we're still at the very beginning of what's going to be a big craft beer movement. It's really exciting for me to be on the ground floor."
Beer #7: Night Owl Pumpkin Ale
Brewery: Elysian Brewing Company
Price: $7.99 per 6-Pack
Expert: Kendall Jones, Author of the Washington Beer Blog
With the fall coming on, breweries are starting to roll out their seasonal bottles. For beer blogger Kendall Jones of the Washington Beer Blog, this means getting to look forward to Elysian Brewing Company's Night Owl Pumpkin Ale.
For those of us outside of Washington State, however, finding the Night Owl may be more difficult.
"We are quite isolated up here in the Pacific Northwest, so much of the nation doesn't even know we are here, much less that we have a great beer scene in Washington," Jones said. "Very few of our breweries make any kind of effort to distribute our beer. They don't need to. If you want to drink the best beer Washington has to offer, you've got to come here."
It's one of the challenges, and thrills, that craft beers have reintroduced into the market. As local breweries pop up around the country, regions increasingly have outstanding local brews that you simply can't find anywhere else. Finding the best that Milwaukee, Atlanta or Seattle has to offer often means having to hop a plane and get out there yourself. It's allowed excitement back into a marketplace that, until relatively recently, had looked more or less the same across the country.
Today that scene is getting more and more diversified, and more and more exciting for lovers of good beer.
"Good beer begets good beer," Jones said. "If a bar gives its patron the choice between two different craft beers on tap, it will not take long before those customers will want four choices. And so on."
Sounds good to me.
--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.