Beer-loving Homer Simpson may have thought “we elected the wrong Carter,” although, in actuality, Jimmy was more responsible for today’s culturally rich brew scene than his hard-drinking younger brother Billy and that eponymous beer. In 1978, the 39th president federally legalized homebrewing, allowing hobbyists to hone their skills and eventually, in some cases, turn professional. This law would open the floodgates for the first wave of craft brewers like Ken Grossman, the owner of a homebrew supply shop in Chico, California, who opened Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in 1980.
When Carter signed HR 1337, there were fewer than 100 breweries in America, all making industrial lagers under names you probably still know, like Schlitz, Old Style and Coors. This first wave of microbreweries (in the parlance of the day) countered those with European styles that burst with flavors unfamiliar to drinkers in the States. Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Brewing, for example, became popular for its British-inspired ales, including a porter that was darker and richer than anything else on the market. (McAuliffe had railed against the American beer of the day as a “national disgrace.”)
But this new breed of microbrewery would also make distinctly American beer, capitalizing on the new breed of hops grown domestically in the rich soils of the Pacific Northwest. Notable among the hop varieties, Cascade lent a dank, citrusy aroma to pale ales like Sierra Nevada and Anchor Liberty Ale. These beers went on to inspire a generation of brewers that delivered to us the ubiquitous IPA factories of today, and crystallized a flavor profile that has become the calling card of American craft beer.
By 1983, brewpubs—breweries offering on-premise drinking—were legally allowed in Washington and California. Before long, Bert Grant’s Yakima Brewing & Malting Co. in Washington, and Mendocino Brewing and Buffalo Bill’s in California, were among the first to pop up in this model. Other states soon followed suit. With homebrewing and brewpubs both legal, the laws were finally in place to allow intrepid entrepreneurs to put their mark on this fledgling American beer scene. Here are the trends that set the foundation for the modern craft beer boom, from 1978 until the turn of the century.
A Brewpub in Every Mall
In late 1984, the East Coast welcomed its first brewpub when 37-year-old Brit Richard Wrigley—who had mocked American beers as tasting like “soft drinks”—opened Manhattan Brewing Company. Every night, a line of trendy yuppies snaked around its SoHo block trying to get in. A runaway success, the brewpub model began to look like a license to print money. By 1985, New Amsterdam Brewing opened a 110,000-square-foot tap room further uptown, in the neighborhood now known as NoMad; within a year, it was selling more beer in the United States than Sierra Nevada. That same year, Mike and Brian McMenamin opened the Hillsdale Brewery & Public House in Portland, Oregon. (They eventually expanded to 60 locations throughout Oregon and Washington.) In 1988, Gordon Biersch opened in the Palo Alto area, and by 1995 it had grown to chain status valued at $20 million, with dozens of locations. There was Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery and BJ’s Brewhouse, both of which seemed to exist in every mid-tier American city and several airports by the mid-1990s, as prevalent as a Chili’s or Ruby Tuesday. These places didn’t make “good” beer exactly, certainly not by today’s standards, but these brewpubs gave many Americans their first encounters with all sorts of never-before-tasted styles: amber ales, oatmeal stouts, and those de rigeur hefeweizens, almost always served with a lemon wedge perched on the fluted glass.
Wall Street began getting dollar signs in its eyes as it looked at these newfangled bottles of apricot ale and witbier and, especially, Samuel Adams’ Boston Lager, which, despite its humble beginnings, eventually grew to an initial public offering of shares for $15 in 1995. (Boston Beer Co. literally printed this offer on their bottles.)
Descended from a long line of immigrant brewers, Jim Koch, a Harvard MBA graduate, started the brand in 1984. His savvy, if not outright shameless, marketing skills aided him in getting full-flavored beers to a wider audience, with “Sam” available in nearly every supermarket across the country. In 1994, the brewery even produced one of the first barrel-aged beers. Sam Adams Triple Bock was an 18 percent ABV, port-like strong ale aged in whiskey barrels. That year, the brewery reached $128 million in revenue. If investors at the time thought Boston Beer Co. was on the path to one day being as gigantic as an Anheuser-Busch, by 1996 it became clear that micro was always going to be micro—the stock fell 22 percent within one year. And yet, Boston Beer and Koch continued plugging along, fighting the Goliath of “big beer” at every turn. Koch had the last laugh, becoming a billionaire by 2013.
In 1992—or maybe it was actually 1994—Greg Hall found himself at a beer and bourbon dinner in Indiana, seated next to Booker Noe, then the master distiller of Jim Beam (who would likewise change bourbon history). Hall’s Clybourn Avenue brewpub, then a small Chicago outfit named Goose Island, was about to make its 1,000th batch of beer and Hall wanted to commemorate the occasion with a special release. He asked Noe if he could have a bourbon barrel to age his Russian imperial stout in for 100 days. Noe obliged. When the resulting Bourbon County Brand Stout was entered in the Great American Beer Festival in 1995, it was disqualified for breaking every stylistic rule. Nevertheless, it was also immediately recognized as avant-garde in vision (despite the release of Triple Bock around the same time). Mostly served for the next decade as a special tap-only release, by 2005 it was bottled for the first time; within a few years, fans were lining up on Black Friday to score cases.
It would take until the late aughts for other American breweries to experiment with barrel-aging in the hopes of achieving the same success as Goose Island. By the 2010s, the practice of barrel-aging beer had become ubiquitous. Today, it’s the sole focus for a corner of the beer world, with some breweries, like Private Press, devoted entirely to the concept.
The Second Wave Approaches
Like most revolutionary industries, craft beer was not an overnight success and breweries faced significant growing pains along the way. Many of these early pioneers produced landscape-altering beer, but that wasn’t enough to keep the lights on (New Albion, for example, quietly closed in 1982). This first wave of breweries and brewpubs peaked in 1999, just as the dot-com bubble was spinning the country into a recession. As Y2K approached, 1,964 breweries were operating in the U.S. But for most of the aughts, the industry continued to plateau.
Still, although many microbreweries were shutting their doors in the late 1990s, a few that were hanging shingles would go on to start a second wave that truly solidified the industry. Breweries like Dogfish Head (1995), Stone Brewing (1996) and Three Floyds (1996) weren’t just offering the same old, same old, but were reinventing the wheel with new styles that would come to define American beer—double IPAs, boozy ingredient-packed stouts and sour beer loaded up with fruit. An even greater boom was about to begin.