As a new millenium approached, the microbrewing trend seemed, to many, to be on its last legs. It was reported that one in eight microbreweries (and one in seven brewpubs) had closed by 1997. And yet, if there was a lifeline being thrown toward this craft beer experiment, it was thanks to Big Beer.
Scared of losing shelf space to these upstarts, Anheuser-Busch acquired interest in a Washington State microbrewery, Redhook, in 1994. Miller partnered with the Texas-based Celis Brewing a year later, while Seagram’s began offering the Devil Mountain line of microbrewed beers in 1996. Some of these corporate-owned “crafty” beers went on to succeed, but the strategy of anticipating the current trend and scaling it only lasted for so long. Not even a team of corporate forecasters could have predicted where craft beer would go in the aughts, with its war over who could make the most teeth-chatteringly bitter IPAs, small breweries combining their powers merely for the joy of collaboration and new packaging methods that came to completely revolutionize the industry.
This is the second in a three-part series exploring the major trends that defined each decade of the craft beer boom, beginning in the 1990s. This edition covers the turn of the 21st century to 2010.
To the Blue Moon
For craft beer to become mainstream, it needed at least one release that would be ubiquitous, as easily found at grocery stores and chain restaurants as a Budweiser or Coors Light. Enter Blue Moon, a macro beer masquerading as a microbeer. While getting a Ph.D. in brewing at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, a once-aspiring doctor, Keith Villa, fell in love with the Belgian witbier style. Back in America, now brewing at the Coors-owned SandLot Brewery within Denver’s Coors Field, he put his own thumbprint on the style, using wheat and oats along with coriander and Valencia orange peel. Originally called Bellyslide Belgian White, it hit the market in 1995 as Blue Moon Belgian White. Cloudy, citrusy, herbal and a little bit funky, it was more flavorful than anything most American beer drinkers had ever tasted—and it flopped. Villa’s marketing genius, however, came into play by hand-delivering sacks of oranges to bars, instructing bartenders to garnish each Blue Moon with a wedge, à la Corona and its signature lime. This “retail theater,” as Villa called it, worked. By 2001, sales were growing rapidly and Blue Moon experienced 25 percent growth year after year for nearly the rest of the decade. Despite in-the-know beer geeks comparing it to Milli Vanilli, the Grammy-winning 1990s duo later found to be lip syncers, and drinkers who’d felt duped eventually suing Molson Coors over its misleading portrayal as a craft beer, today, some 25 years after its creation, Blue Moon remains the bestselling “craft” beer in America.
Bitter Is Better
For the most part, American craft beer had made it to the 21st century without inventing any new styles—microbreweries were mostly reviving old European styles, like the aforementioned witbier as well as hefeweizen and porter. In 1994, however, Vinnie Cilurzo, working for Blind Pig Brewing in Temecula, California, began upping the hops and ABV of IPAs for the first time, creating the world’s first double IPA. By 1997 he had moved to Russian River Brewing (at the time owned by Korbel California Champagne) where he first brewed a double IPA called Pliny the Elder. When he and his wife Natalie took over ownership of the brewery in 2003, this insanely hoppy, dank and brutally bitter (for the time) beer was bottled and became an immediate sensation. Other California breweries quickly followed suit, offering their own “hop bombs”: Stone Ruination IPA arrived in 2002, Ballast Point’s Sculpin and Russian River’s triple IPA Pliny the Younger in 2005, while 2008 saw the debut of Green Flash’s Palate Wrecker. These and other West Coast IPAs went on to dominate the decade, becoming the industry’s calling card style.
If Big Beer had always been a cutthroat business with every brand fighting tooth and nail for market share, craft beer would introduce a novel collaborative spirit that seemed to eschew economic reason. In fact, in 2004, when Russian River and Boulder, Colorado’s Avery Brewing realized they both released beers named Salvation, they decided, instead of suing each other, to blend their two beers together, hopefully accentuating the best flavors of each. Fittingly called Collaboration Not Litigation, it was the beer that launched a thousand joint efforts and underscored a defining ethos of the craft beer movement, that a rising tide lifts all boats. More collaborations followed, notably Isabelle Proximus (a wild ale project between six breweries in 2008), Infinium (Sam Adams and German brewery Weihenstephan in 2010), and Sierra Nevada’s massive Beer Camp Across America undertaking—with 12 craft breweries coming to Chico, California, to brew 12 collaborations—in 2014 and then again (with 31 breweries) in 2016. Even today, continuing partnerships show that the craft beer industry really does think of itself as All Together, the name of Other Half Brewing’s worldwide project involving over 800 breweries in 50 states and 53 countries, designed to raise much-needed funds during the pandemic.
Yes We Can
In the early days, microbreweries distinguished themselves by how they packaged their beers. So-called “bombers,” 22-ounce bottles, were de rigueur; a six-pack of metal cans was strictly for macro lager. Then, in 2002, Dale Katechis, the owner of a humble brewpub in Lyons, Colorado, called Oskar Blues, decided to start offering his popular beers to retail. As a marketing gimmick, he put his eponymous Dale’s Pale Ale in 12-ounce cans, the first microbrewery to do so. At first, many craft beer snobs were concerned: Wouldn’t the aluminum leach into the beer? Eventually, early adopters realized that these polymer-lined cans not only kept the beer fresher and out of reach of harmful UV rays, but they were lighter and more durable to haul around. By 2005, The New York Times had named Dale’s Pale Ale the best pale ale in the country, essentially making it safe for other craft breweries to consider cans an acceptable vessel. In 2011, when Vermont’s Heady Topper began to be released in 16-ounce “pounders,” the ultimate craft beer packaging had been decided. Bombers hardly exist anymore and standard bottles seem dated, all thanks to Oskar Blues, which today, as part of the CANarchy, a craft beer collective, has become the eighth-biggest craft brewery in America.