Belgium. Germany. The UK. The Czech Republic. When people think of great beer they think of these destinations. However, in the past three decades the US has placed itself firmly on the world map as a beer drinker’s paradise. But unlike other modern American achievements such as the iPhone, the Internet or deep space exploration, America’s craft brew revolution has been a truly grass roots effort.
While previous generations were offered the pretense of false choice by large corporate brewers who essentially offered the same bland suds differentiated merely by marketing campaigns, today’s beer enthusiasts have a truly staggering variety of locally produced, deeply flavorful artisanal styles from which to choose.
The shift in American brewing from corporate commodity to soulful craftsmanship is exciting not only because of its elevation of microbrew to an American art form, but also because it is one of the few community-based growth industries that exists in our depressed economy.
Big corporations line up for bailouts and the federal government continues piling up debt to help them (financed in part by countries like China, while the Federal Reserve electronically creates the rest.) However, America’s craft brew industry is growing organically at 10%-15% a year, something so phenomenal that it is the subject of the upcoming feature documentary Crafting a Nation by Thomas Kolicko. As Kolicko puts it, America’s craft brewers are literally rebuilding our economy “one craft beer at a time.”
For those involved in the craft beer industry, it is more than just an entrepreneurial paycheck. “Many of the brewers we talked to say beer has saved their lives from soulless corporate jobs,” Kolicko tells me. “Craft beer is art meets science… in many ways like great works of art, beer has the ability to enlighten and enrich people’s lives,” he continues.
But it is unquestionably more than just delicious art. Since Jimmy Carter liberalized laws on home- and small-scale brewing in 1979, nearly 2000 microbreweries and brewpubs have opened in hundreds of towns and cities across the US, creating more than an estimated 100,000 jobs. As an example, my hometown of Ithaca, NY with a population of just 30,000 has its own Ithaca Beer Co., who now sells its produce across 10 states.
It was this rapid independent growth of small American businesses that got Kolicko, 25, interested in the topic. In 2011 he released Beer Culture, a documentary that focused on the craft brew movement in his resident state of Colorado. The film was so well received that there was thirst for a national version. Despite tough economic times, he was able to raise money through a variety of channels, including Kickstarter and thus Crafting a Nation was born. “This is a project that I am very passionate about because I believe so much in the story,” Kolicko says to me.
However, as exciting as the American craft beer renaissance is, there exists the lingering fear that the industry will be sucked into the black hole of regulatory capture by our corporatized state. Beyond the litany of IRS and other regulatory headaches that all small business owners must endure, there is always the dark cloud of zealous bi-partisan regulators who may speak publicly of wanting to help small businesses but in reality are anxious to bring them under their bureaucratic control.
At the same time, pushes from big business interests such as the grocery store lobby in Colorado and corrupt organizations like the New York State Liquor Authority mean that small brewers must constantly wage a David vs. Goliath battle in order to keep the cold ones coming.
Then there are the attacks from mega-corporate brewers like multinational Belgian-Brazilian AB InBev that sell brands like Budweiser, but hopes to choke off the microbrew industry by trying to intimidate distributors not to carry local American competition. AB InBev speaks of the need to show “loyalty” to its “American” brands, but as Kolicko explains to me, “Just because the label is red, white, and blue does not make it the great American beer… if people want to support foreign companies trying to bully-out a growth industry responsible for bringing back American manufacturing and new jobs, well than that’s a damn shame.”
However, Americans seem to be voting with their taste buds and for the time being craft brewers are winning – that is not only good news for America’s beer lovers, but also for those desperately seeking a local job in our dire economic times. As for Crafting a Nation, expect to see it released in early 2013.