1931: The Era of Blind Pigs, Homebrew and Bathtub Gin
The Rise of Craft Beer, Take Two
By the late 1800s, America boasted over 4,000 breweries and an ever-expanding thirst for beer. Once Prohibition hit, however, the vast majority of breweries were forced to shut down. A few stayed in business by switching their efforts to producing malt extract (think of the sweet, somewhat grainy fillings inside Whoppers candies). Others made ice cream, root beer, and “near beer,” a technically legal brew that contained less than 0.5-percent alcohol. The companies that effectively made the appropriate manufacturing switches were enabled to almost instantly resume brewing after the repeal of Prohibition. Still, it wouldn’t be until decades later that the American craft beer industry would get back on its feet. Even by the 1980s, only about 50 breweries existed, largely due to the fact that the end of Prohibition marked the start of Big Beer—giant companies like Coors, Yuengling, and Anheuser-Busch.
Beer Cans & Casserole
The reign of Big Beer came hand-in-hand with the general modernization of the food industry in the 1950s–‘70s. “There was a large emphasis on manufactured food,” says Matthew Allred, Communications Director of Epic Brewing. During that era, ready-made food (as in “casserole culture,” or what Allred refers to as the “Campbell’s Soup era”) was a symbol of affluence and easy, better living. “That ethos helped fuel the consolidation of post-Prohibition breweries and the rise of Big Beer in general,” says Allred.
During Prohibition, some folks would purchase the manufactured malt extract, dilute it, pasteurize it, and pitch yeast on top of it. Once the yeast would consume the sugars, they’d have alcohol. While this home-brewing continued to take place during and after Prohibition, however, it wasn’t until 1976 that the craft beer movement, as we know it today, was pioneered with the founding of California’s New Albion Brewing. Brewpubs, restaurants that served house-made beer, started popping up throughout California and Colorado. The trend soon caught fire country-wide.
Now, we’re seeing a massive American craft beer boom. Surprisingly, it’s only been in the past decade that the scene has finally reached its enormous pre-Prohibition numbers. “Our ethos is changing,” says Allred, who attributes the flourishing craft beer scene—and its enthusiastic consumers—to a parallel resurgence in slow food. Nowadays, we’re looking for trendy buzz words when we purchase groceries or pick out a restaurant: artisanal, locally sourced, sustainable, farm-to-table, heirloom, etc. Six out of 10 drinkers say a brewer’s independence plays an important factor in choosing a craft beer. “[Consumers are] no longer valuing something that comes in a can,” says Allred. “They’re looking for identity in their food. The resurgence of craft beer follows along with that: People are looking for education along with their consumption.”
The Bigger, The Better
While the American craft beer industry parallels the shifts in how we perceive food, it also pays tribute to some age-old American truisms. “It’s the whole American dream of being able to start a business in your garage and have it be successful,” says Allred, regarding the grassroots, collaborative nature of brewing. “Brewing companies—home-brewing clubs, especially—have fueled a lot of experimentation and exploration of ingredients, developing the American style of brewing, which is typically over-the-top.”
That “More is better! Bigger is better!” mentality works surprisingly well when applied to beer. Consider America’s favorite, the IPA. U.S. brewers took the English-originated style and made it “so much stronger and so much more robust, with so much more flavor and bitterness than their English counterparts, that they really can’t be described as the same beer,” says Allred. “That’s how American brewers approach the process: more grain, more alcohol, more hops—more, more, more.”
Epic Brewing goes beyond that “More!” ethos. New breweries are popping up all over the Beehive State, but our tricky liquor laws—namely, the 4-percent ABV limit on draft and grocery store–purchased beer—separate Utah beers from other states’. Utah brewers are somewhat forced to take certain beers, like stouts or full-strength IPAs, and make them smaller, weaker and less authentic.
Epic Brewing, however, decided to play by their own rules and do the exact opposite with their over 40 beers: brew big. “We’re not going to play in the 4-percent draft market,” says Allred. “We’re going to brew big beers. We’re going to brew authentic-style beers. It’s what makes Epic so epic, really.”