The so-called death of microbrewing occurred on May 7, 1997. That morning, the New York Times reported the closing of one of Manhattan’s venerable brewpubs, Zip City, and warned ominously that beer drinkers were tiring of “trendy” craft beer.
That followed a “Dateline NBC” expose that reported that Samuel Adams’ handcrafted beer was made in the same brewery that spit out Stroh’s.
For the next three years, as struggling microbreweries and brewpubs closed up, newspapers repeated the same warning: The infant craft brewing industry was just a trend – a scam! – whose death was imminent.
Reports of the industry’s demise, it turns out, were premature. As the Brewers Association meets in Philadelphia this week, the happy news more than 1,200 attendees will hear is they’re the hottest segment in the alcoholic beverages market.
While mainstream beer sales were up just 0.5 percent last year, craft brewing was up 7 percent. Yes, it’s a small portion of the business representing about 1,400 breweries, but it’s living, breathing and growing.
“A lot of brewers seem to be smiling these days,” association president Charlie Papazian said in an interview this week.
Papazian isn’t certain why sales keep climbing. “Maybe beer drinkers are finally getting it,” he shrugged. “American craft beer offers the flavor and diversity they’re looking for, as opposed to those trendy malternatives and tooty-fruity cocktails. We’re producing ‘real’ beer, instead of just adding sugar and caffeine . . .
“Plus, finally, we’re answering the European mystique, that a lot of imports – the Germans, the Belgians, the English ales – are better. American brewers are matching these beers, style for style. “
Indeed, craft beer in 2005 seems ready to take another important leap forward. Thanks to a growing focus on matching beer with food, brewers are now producing exotic – eccentric, even – lagers and ales in large, often corked bottles. For many drinkers, these unusual flavors (cumin-finished Saison? Yep, I had one Tuesday night) are far more interesting than any California wine.
“We’re now seeing speciality bottles in the $10-$20 range,” Papazian said. “It’s new to America. You wouldn’t even dream that something like that could happen with beer.”