Recently, I was sent a copy of Tom Acitelli’s new book, The Audacity Of Hops, for review purposes. I finished it last week and I can tell you that it’s well worth reading. The prose is engaging and the story that it tells of craft beer’s rise to prominence is thoroughly well researched and entertaining. It’s not exactly a page turner, but for a book that has 40 pages of notes and bibliographical references, he’s done a great job of keeping it factually dense without having it become a slog.
It’s a book that has become necessary, especially since we’re now well into a third generation of people for whom craft beer is relatively normal. If you were born in Ontario in 1994, you can now drink. I see people in their early 20’s for whom locally made IPAs have always been around. That’s progress.
The problem is that without a proper chronicle of the good old days, like Acitelli’s book, it can be difficult to understand that this wasn’t always the case. It must seem inevitable if you are just now starting to drink beer that craft beer will continue to grow and expand in infinite ways. It has, in other words, become commonplace.
The Audacity Of Hops is really best compared to something like The Right Stuff. It wasn’t inevitable that Gordon Cooper was going to spend a whole day orbiting the earth. I don’t mean to suggest that craft beer is as important as manned space travel. What I mean to suggest is that the narrative structure is the same.
The analogy might not stand up indefinitely, so I won’t push it too far. Suffice it to say that when Chuck Yeager was flying test planes it was about pushing the envelope and seeing what was possible. It was the Wild West in terms of aeronautics. At the beginning of the exploration of space you had the Mercury Seven astronauts. You had a small number of people capable of doing a difficult and demanding thing. The public knew them and loved them. They were personalities as much as they were pilots and astronauts.
In any endeavor, there’s a brief period of time when it is associated with the personalities that excelled at the beginning. Whether they succeed or fail, there’s a tendency to impose upon their stories, if you’re reporting on them, a sense of dramatic struggle.
This is where Acitelli succeeds. He makes Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe, Ken Grossman, Charlie Papazian, Michael Jackson and Jim Koch look as though they were all taking on the world from the same angle, all intentionally cahooting. You’ve got independent brewers and people running semi-legal homebrewing shops and people writing about beer, and all of these folks are pushing the envelope of what’s possible. It may not have resulted in the International Space Station and the Mars Rover, but heck, we’ve gotten some pretty good beer out of it.
The book kind of slows down towards the modern day. This is interesting, since there’s more information about more breweries and more brands of beer and more writers than ever there were before. Is it informational glut? Is it simply that it’s hard to put together a comprehensive history of two years ago if you’re attempting to thread a narrative through to the future?
This is a problem that craft beer faces, and it’s similar to the issues NASA faced following the moon landing. The initial narrative has more or less run its course.
The main issue with having legendary exemplars of an industry like Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe and the others is that they’re by nature iconoclastic figures. These are, by and large, highly intelligent people who didn’t like what they were doing and chose a new career. Jim Koch ran against Mitt Romney for the presidency of their Harvard Business School class, for God’s sake. He probably could have done anything, but he chose beer.
I’ve mentioned before, probably in the context of the sale of Goose Island to AB In-Bev, that this iconoclasm tends to be a mixed blessing for the craft brewing industry. Without a certain amount of gumption, we wouldn’t be where we are today. The fact that people took risks on an unproven industry in the late 70’s and early 80’s is the only reason we’re experiencing this renaissance of locally produced beer. In some ways, it’s a good thing.
There are downsides, though. Because it’s one person’s dream, it’s not necessarily a generational, familial type of business. Eventually, the people who started the earlier breweries find themselves to be of a certain age and begin to think about retiring. Breweries are huge businesses with a lot of equity sunk into equipment and branding and it soon becomes evident that you have to sell the whole thing as a going concern. Depending on who you sell to, the public might get fickle. Goose Island got blowback on their sale. Someone like Peter McAuslan, who recently sold his St. Ambroise to Brasseurs RJ, was simply wished well.
At some point, the rest of the pioneers involved at the beginning of craft beer will also fade out of the narrative structure of craft beer. Fritz Maytag is retired. Michael Jackson (who I increasingly wish I had gotten to meet) passed away a few years ago and is already part of a new iconography. Jim Koch turned 64 the other day. Charlie Papazian is 67. These folks will eventually want to (or have to) retire.
The problem is this: You never get the power of the original narrative back. Yes, there are now more craft breweries than ever. Yes, it’s an increasingly global fascination. However, there are now more voices than ever and its becoming increasingly unlikely that they will all continue to sing from the same hymnal.
You can probably name all three of the astronauts involved in the first moon landing. It was a momentous event. If pressed, you might be able to name two astronauts from the 1980’s. You probably can’t tell me the names of the people on the ISS at the moment. Sometimes, NASA lucks out and gets personalities like Commander Hadfield and they manage to bring attention to space exploration. That’s about as good as they’re going to be able to do because you can’t be the first man on the moon twice.
Craft beer is going to be like that. Acitelli chronicles the deeds of Greg Koch, Tony Magee, Kim Jordan, Sam Calagione and Garrett Oliver. The problem is that despite the fact that they’re excellent spokespeople for the industry, the industry is now so large that I’m not sure there can reliably be one spokesperson for any aspect of it.
The milestone Acitelli chooses to end the historical narrative on is the fact that there are now more breweries than there were a century ago, before prohibition. A very reasonable question to ask, and one that Craft Beer should be asking itself far more frequently is “now what?”