Sustainabrew: This 4th, Free Your Beer

After a long day in the sweltering sun (or windowless cubicle, depending on your situation), few beverages are quite as enjoyable as a nice cold beer. Of course, left to its own devices, Agribiz has done its best to screw this up too. How? The usual way: a combination of the mass-production approach to food, systemic elimination of competition and the single-minded pursuit of profit. Fortunately, craft brewers have rejected the industrial beer model - and the results are delicious.

An Exceptionally Brief History of the Rise, Fall and Rebirth of US Beer

Old School

Way back in the day, people brewed their own beer. But it took time and effort and skill, so eventually, entrepreneurial brewers began producing beer for sale. Life was good.

Brewery Boom

Fast forward a few hundred years (think increased global population, industrial revolution, urbanization, invention of India pale ale, etc.) - breweries expanded, multiplied and upped their collective output to meet the ever-growing demand; by 1870, 3,286 breweries operated in the United States. There was beer diversity, and life was still good.


Skip to the 20th century (think industrialization of agriculture, emergence of corporate food, etc.) - the beer industry underwent dramatic consolidation; Big Beer dominated the market through mergers and acquisitions while small breweries went bust. By 1990, only 101 US breweries remained in business. The diversity of styles was virtually eliminated and quality, flavor and freshness were severely compromised. Life was ok, but the beer really sucked.

Real Beer Rediscovered

In 1978, President Carter signed a bill that legalized home beer brewing (when prohibition was repealed, home wine production was legalized, but someone forgot to include "and beer" in the text). The 1978 legislation (along with the low quality of commercial beers) helped renew interest in home brewing, which ultimately inspired a generation of intrepid amateur brewers to found their own breweries, spawning the reemergence of independent US beer production at the end of the century. Real beer was back!

What's "Craft" Beer, and Why's It Any Better Than Bud Light?

According to the Brewers Association, craft beer (also known as microbrewed beer) is produced by breweries that utilize traditional brewing methods, function independently of the major beverage corporations, and operate on a small scale.

The Brewers Association defines "small scale" as production of less than two million barrels per year, which is the volume at which the federal excise tax rates on beer production increase. However, this size limit will likely be reexamined as the craft beer movement gains popularity. Indeed, the Boston Beer Company, which produces Sam Adams and was among the first US craft brewers, sent great sudsy waves through the beer world in June by announcing that it expects to exceed the two million barrel per year production mark by 2012. Many argue that breweries like the Boston Beer Co should be able to expand without losing their craft status; in fact, there's now a bill in the senate that would raise the small brewer / big brewer excise tax threshold from two million barrels to six million barrels. Though  this increase may seem problematic, six million barrels is still a drop in the keg compared to the output of any of the big breweries - advocates believe that the bill will therefore enable the burgeoning craft beer sector to grow without compromising the integrity of the industry or the quality of its product.

In any case, the most obvious difference between industrial/macro/Big Beer and craft beer is taste; industrial beverage corporations invariably chose quantity over quality, striving to pump out enormous volumes of lager as cheaply as possible. So they cut corners; for instance, while beer is traditionally made with just four ingredients (water, malted barley, hops, and yeast), industrial brewers add cheap "adjuncts" like corn and rice. It's an effective way to reduce costs - but, as you'd imagine, the flavor of the beer suffers. Furthermore, since the industrial stuff is produced at centralized mega-breweries, it ends up traveling farther, which means you can expect a can of Coors to be much less fresh than a pint from your local microbrewery.

Craft beer is also available in a wide variety of styles - Big Beer corporations, on the other hand, aren't so big on consumer choice, typically producing only pale lager and pale lager light. Craft breweries produce a dazzling array of fermented options: stout, IPA, porter, pilsner, barleywine, bock, doppelbock, dubbel, tripel, witbier, brown ale, red ale, pale ale, strong ale, wee heavy ale, etc. (Need more examples? Check out this list of more than 100 different beer styles.) Independent breweries help preserve these beer varieties and the craftsmanship required for their production.

On a similar note, craft beer provides much-needed market diversity. Currently, Anheuser-Busch InBev (the mega corporation that manufacturers Budweiser), produces approximately one out of every two beers consumed in the United States. MillerCoors manufacturers another 30 percent - so just two corporations produce roughly 80 percent of all US beer. (Wanna know who makes what? See an abridged list of brands below.)

As you'd probably guess, huge multinational corporations don't care a whole lot about preserving the craft of brewing, stimulating local economies, or even producing a tasty product. They care only about profit. This is why Big Beer snaps up smaller brands and immediately shutters historic breweries after transferring production to centralized facilities (see Anheuser-Busch's acquisition of Rolling Rock). This is why megabev corporations launch pseudo-craft beer brands designed to siphon market share from true craft breweries (see Blue Moon, Wild Blue, etc. - note conspicuous omission of Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors from the bottle labels). This is why the "King of Beers" is made with rice.

A Few Beer Brands Owned By Anheuser-Busch InBev

Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob, Busch, Natural Ice, Rolling Rock, Labatt, Bass, Becks, Boddingtons, Hoegaarden, Kirin Ichiban, Leffe, Stella Artois, Hurricane, King Cobra, Bacardi Silver
Fake Craft Brands: Wild Blue, Landshark Lager, Wild Hop Lager (organic), Stone Mill Pale Ale (organic)

A Few Beer Brands Owned By MillerCoors

Miller, Coors, Icehouse, Keystone, Milwaukee's Best, Olde English, Steel Reserve, Sparks, Grolsch, Molson, Pilsner Urquell, Fosters, Killian's
Fake Craft Brands: Blue Moon, Henry Weinhard's, Leinenkugel's

The CAFOs of Beer?

Those familiar with the meat, dairy or processed food industries won't be surprised by the evolution of the US beer market; it's the same pattern:

Phase 1 : industry undergoes rapid consolidation; big corporations fight for market share, undercutting competitors by mass-producing goods of decreasing quality; the little guys are pushed out; production becomes increasingly centralized; local production facilities and distribution networks are destroyed; consumers are left with cheap, mediocre products.

Phase 2 : people reject the industrial system; small, independent producers reclaim traditional production methods; consumers support them!; industry attempts to cash in via ethically questionable strategies (see Big Ag = Green campaigns and pseudo craft brewery brands), and by launching organic product lines, then lobbying to weaken the organic standards (see the organic hops debacle - aka the "Budweiser exemption").

On the upside, unlike CAFOs, industrial breweries don't store excrement in huge uncovered pits, foul water and air with pathogens, or promote antibiotic resistance through reckless production practices. Still, it's good to be able to use your beer dollar to support local businesses, quality products and brewers who care about their craft and their communities.

The Revolution

Fortunately for anyone who prefers beverages that have flavor, the craft beer revolution is well underway! Currently, 1,558 craft breweries exist in the United States. Although these facilities produce only 4 percent of the nation's beer (the other 96 percent is spewed out by just 41 non-craft US breweries), demand for craft beer shows no sign of slowing. According to the Brewers Association, while overall US beer sales and imported beer sales declined in 2009 by 2.2 percent and 9.8 percent, respectively, craft beer sales increased by 7.2 percent!

Certainly a trend worth supporting - so next time you're looking for refreshment after a day in the sun or cubicle, drink the good stuff.