Every brewer has a story. In many instances, Craft Brewing Business (CBB) is dedicated to sharing those stories with other brewers. So when we heard about Tom Acitelli’s new book “The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution” — an epic, story-driven account of one of the most inspiring and surprising American grassroots movements — we knew we had to track him down to find out more about the page-turner. From people brewing using kits in their kitchens, European breweries imitating American innovations and even the White House creating its own honey ale concoction, Acitelli charts the movement’s growth, the counter-reaction of the big breweries, and the craft beer movement’s place in other food movements of the last half-century.
CBB: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Tom. To start, can you give us some background on your craft beer journalism and what drew you to write about craft beer?
Acitelli: I wanted to tell an American business story at book length. Moreover, I wanted to tell a story that was fun and that intersected with other stories. The craft beer movement met that criteria head-on: It’s not only a wonderfully diverse and diffuse story of entrepreneurialism and moxie in itself, but one that intersects with other movements in post-World War II America, like the decline of the nation’s manufacturing sector; the rise of fine wine and food; the rejuvenation of many of the nation’s cities; and even things like the Interstate Highway System, the deregulation of the airline industry and the rise of the web.
As for brewing, I’ve done a little homebrewing, mastering a decent pale ale and an even better holiday ale (though, admittedly, I use a lot of cinnamon to mask any off-flavors).
CBB: Why was now the right time to write “The Audacity of Hops”?
Acitelli: In 2015, it will have been 50 years since Fritz Maytag saved the Anchor Brewing Co., sparking the rise of the modern craft beer movement. Plus, the movement has more participants than ever before, with more than 2,300 breweries (some peg the number at around 2,700); a remarkable number of festivals and publications dedicated to it; and a share of the national beer market that should crest to 10 percent any quarter now (and already has when you drill down into regions and localities).
CBB: “The Audacity of Hops” offers excellent brewer stories. How did you go about tracking down the details? Did you have to cut out any stories?
Acitelli: I only included those anecdotes that I could independently confirm. And, as you can imagine, given the time lapse in some cases — 20 to 30 years — and the fact that few people logged what they went through when they were going through it, it was difficult in some cases to independently confirm certain anecdotes. That meant leaving them out—or for a later edition.
Plus, there was very little media coverage, trade or consumer, of the craft-beer movement early on. In a lot of cases, I started cold and warmed up through interviews that often began with cold calls and emails out of the blue.
I want to say that everyone I approached in the movement, even if they had bowed out decades ago, was forthcoming and frank, which is a real pleasure for a journalist. In a few cases, movement pioneers mailed or hand delivered boxes and boxes of information they had collected over the years — marketing material, business plans, photos, media clippings, old brewing handbooks — and said, ‘Have at it!’
CBB: Sounds very cool. With so many great stories in the book, what’s your favorite section?
Acitelli: I absolutely loved writing about the efforts of the beer writers and critics, perhaps for obvious reasons. The exertions of people like Fred Eckhardt, Michael Jackson, Mark and Darci Silva, Bill Buchanan, Rob Gardner and Byron Burch had a profound and lasting effect on the industry. I especially think that the early web pioneers do not get enough credit; few people seem to remember them.
CBB: Taking a look to the future of craft brewing, with more brewers entering the market place, where do you see the craft brewing industry heading?
Acitelli: That’s the big question, isn’t it? I see the craft brewing industry continuing to gain market share nationally as the macro-brewers focus on emerging markets in places like Brazil, India and China. I do not think the industry is headed for a shakeout like the one in the late 1990s, when as many as one-third of all craft operations shuttered.
Why do I think this? Three main reasons:
1. Unlike the late 1990s, the quality of the craft beer out today is, by and large, stellar (the U.S. has more modern small breweries than any other nation).
2. There is a real and almost self-sustaining beer culture surrounding the industry that wasn’t present in the 1990s (just like most of this culture’s vehicles, like Twitter and Facebook, were not present).
3. An ethos of a rising tide lifts all boats prevails in the industry now, whereas in the 1990s, it could be a little tetchy, even angry.
There are other reasons, too: Better distribution; cheaper money for business loans; greater access to professionalized training; a restaurant industry that’s warmed to craft beer, particularly in the big cities. This growth isn’t going anywhere.
CBB: Brewing history and the industry honoring those early brewers is a reoccurring theme in the book, how do think today’s generation will be looked upon in 10 to 20 years?
Acitelli: It’s a torch-passing moment, I think, in the industry at large. A lot of the pioneers from the 1970s and 1980s who’ve survived are laying the groundwork for retirement (or semi-retirement as the case may be). Fritz Maytag at Anchor already bowed out in 2010; that’s been the biggest retirement so far.
I also think this is the generation that ankled American craft beer away from the stylistic extremes. Nothing wrong with extreme beer, per se, but the movement’s not going to win any new converts — at least converts that will come back to the product again and again — with hopped-up styles with lots of exotic ingredients. Milder norms, like bitters, sessions and saisons are making a big, big comeback.
CBB: Being craft beer enthusiast and writers, we loved the book here at CBB. But in your view, why should a craft brewer care about your book?
Acitelli: I can tell you that several have already bought and read it—and more than a few have bought copies for their entire companies, which flatters me tremendously.
Really, though, it’s the first and only of its kind: the history of the American craft beer movement from its start in 1965 to the present, and all the intersections it’s had with all sorts of other movements and trends. It’s exactly what I set out to do and I enjoyed it.