If you were of drinking age in the 80’s and 90’s, you probably know that a beer drinker had few options back then (in America, at least, and especially in the AB-dominated Midwest). There certainly weren’t many imports at that time, the craft beer movement had barely taken root, and homebrewing had been legal for only a handful of years. The resulting landscape left the discriminating beer drinker with an unsatisfying question: Budweiser or Old Milwaukee?
Things have changed. Not only has the number of breweries skyrocketed in this country, creativity is at an all time high, establishing the US as the undisputed leader in nearly every aspect of beer innovation and quality. In 1980, we hit rock bottom—there were fewer than 100 breweries left in production. Now, in a relatively short period of time (a mere 30 years), we’ve outpaced pre-prohibition figures. In 1910, there were 1,751 breweries in the US. As of 2010, according to data from the Brewers Association, we’re up to 1,759 and counting. And of those, a whopping 1716 of them were craft breweries.
We’ve taken the India Pale Ale (IPA), for example, to new heights of hoppy delight, even going as far as to engineer new super high-alpha hop varieties, such as Apollo and Bravo, that push our palates to the edge of the known bitter experience. We’ve resurrected recipes from dead presidents (George Washington’s personal porter recipe and Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale are in production once again) and taken samples from 2,700 year old Turkish drinking vessels from the tomb of King Midas to create Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch (using long-forgotten brewing ingredients like honey and saffron). There are freaks of nature that crush the boundaries of what beer has been, like Sam Adam’s Utopias, weighing in at 27% alcohol, a (probably unnecessary, but still interesting) feat that until recently was thought to be impossible. These pursuits are not only innovative for the industry, they embody the distinct American ingenuity, creativity, and spirit that continues to make our beer culture great.
St. Louis, to my delight, is a leader in this brewing renaissance. It’s such a great time to be a beer lover in St. Louis, a city which once had more than 22 brewers and is approaching (and will exceed) that number. In fact, I can think of more than 20 new and soon-to-open breweries that have cropped up in the last few years alone. 4 Hands, Charleville, 2nd Shift, Six Row, Perennial, Civil Life, Square One, Amalgamated, Buffalo, Urban Chestnut, and many others are providing this market with a host of varying flavors and styles. Established craft beer brands like Schlafly have moved well past the stage of scratching and clawing for every tap and have become true leaders in the local (and regional) market with events like the Hop in the City festival, incredible creative collaborations with other local brewers, and the very successful Maplewood Farmers Market at their Bottleworks facility. Classic St. Louis beer brands like Lemp and Griesedieck Bros. are returning to the scene, and for those loyal to Budweiser or Busch, that’s always still an option.
So, yes, we have more choice than we’ve ever had, and that makes me happy as a beer consumer, but as a marketing professional, I understand how stressful the competition can be for the producers. Walk into any nicely stocked beer bar or liquor store and you’re met with a wall of options. The well-educated beer drinker knows a lot of the good brands and brews, but someone less familiar will often choose based on which well-designed beer label, nicely printed container, or unique bottle shape stands out the most on the shelf. Many brewers understand the importance of staying ahead of the curve, and a lot of amazing beer brands definitely get it; their packaging matches the glory that awaits on the inside, and their siren call almost forces you to reach for that 6-pack over all the others. But great brewers who don’t value marketing and design as much as the vigor of their yeast strains and the evaporation rates of their wort run the risk of their amazing fermented creations sitting stagnant on the shelf. That’s what I can’t stand to see, and it’s largely why I work at a food and beverage marketing company. If I can help save one beer brand—amazing new brands, great old brands that need a facelift—I’ve done my part! It’s a great time to be a beer drinker in this country and in this city, and if you share my passion for either beer or beer marketing, contact me so we can drink shop.