During the long, hot summer just ahead, the intrepid American beer drinker will beat the heat with some 20 million barrels of Budweiser, 14 million barrels of Miller, 6 million barrels of Coors and about 0.03 barrels of Rocky Raccoon Honey Crystal Lager.
"Well, yeah, the megabrewers are ahead of us right now," concedes a cheerful Charlie Papazian, the bearded 34-year-old beer buff who cooks up the Rocky Raccoon brew--and assorted other beers, including cherry, chocolate and whole wheat flavors--in his basement.
"But the trend is moving, there's no doubt. There's just a growing interest in quality beer, distinctive beer. That's what we're into. And anyway, our people have history on their side."
Papazian's people--the 3,000 members of the American Homebrewers Association, which held its annual convention and Great American Beer Festival in this college town last week--never fail to cite the illustrious history of brewing in the United States.
According to a two-volume registry on sale at the convention, there have been more than 11,000 American brewers in the last hundred years. Eighty years ago there were 120 beermakers in New York City alone, and scores more in every other major city. Today, Papazian noted, there's a grand total of 43 brewing companies from coast to coast, and three giant firms, producing nearly indistinguishable brews, dominate a single homogenized national market.
"Basically, the whole idea of home-brewing and microbrewing is a reaction against the Budweiserization of America," said Steve Harrison, of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., a tiny (2,000 barrels per year) 2-year-old California outfit that makes a rich, thick, caramely pale ale and a licorice-black stout.
"There's nothing wrong with Budweiser beer. There's nothing wrong with McDonald's hamburgers or Holiday Inns either. It's just that every beer today tastes exactly like Bud, and every hotel looks exactly like a Holiday Inn.
"Microbrewing is taking off because people are thirsty for something distinctive.
"We did a survey to find out why people bother to make their own beer," said Papazian, a former kindergarten teacher here who founded the home-brewers group five years ago. "Some people do it to save money, because our members spend a lot on beer. But the main reason is quality. People are attracted to beer that actually has lasting flavor."
Federal law permits an individual to brew up to 100 gallons of beer for home use each year. Papazian says more than a million Americans try it annually, throwing various combinations of malt, hops, yeast, water and flavorings into a kettle--copper is nice, but a plastic trash can will do--and cooking until the broth ferments into brew.
The basement brewer can draw inspiration and recipes from a plethora of publications including "Beer Digest" and "Listen to Your Beer." For the truly committed, beermaking can be as challenging and complex as anything else in our high-tech society. Those attending the convention here jammed seminars on advanced methods of wort-krausening and the relative merits of Hallertauer, Spalt and Tettnanger hops.
The most interesting commercial offshoot of the home-brew renaissance has been the birth, in the last three years, of a dozen brand-new brewers hoping to reverse the Budweiserization of the U.S. market. These firms, known as "microbrewers," typically produce between 2,000 and 10,000 barrels annually; Budweiser, in contrast, will brew more than 40 million barrels this year.
Characteristic of the breed is Jim Schlueter, the bearded, beer-barrel-shaped 28-year-old founder of Sacramento's River City Brewing Co. Schlueter, who sets his priorities clearly at first meeting ("Nice to know you. Drunk yet?"), is straightforward about his passion. "Beer's my life," he says.
Schlueter was browsing through the catalogue during his freshman year at the University of California at Davis when he spotted a course called "Fermentation Science." He majored in brewing, went to work for Schlitz, and eventually decided "I'd rather brew beer by tongue than by computer." He scratched together $350,000 in private and government loans and began making beer two years ago in a converted upholstery shop. This year, he will make about 3,000 barrels of River City Gold, a strong, nicely bitter German lager, and River City Dark, a luscious, creamy black potion that hits the tongue like a small charge of TNT. Both brews sell for $2.99 a four-pack.
A half-dozen microbrewers and about 30 regional brewers, such as Yuengling, Genesee and Latrobe, showed off their wares here Saturday in the convention's grand finale, the second annual Great American Beer Festival. About 5,000 devoted drinkers braved torrential rain and tornado warnings to sip and savor under a huge tent while the Boulder Philharmonic played Wagner overtures.
In the interest of science, your correspondent diligently worked his way through all 40 of the different brews on hand. Unfortunately, his careful notes turned illegible somewhere between Leinenkugel Pilsener and Killian's Irish Red, but on the whole each of the brews sampled came through as sharply more powerful and memorable than the light, mild beers offered by the American megabrewers.
And that is the central point of the home-brew phenomenon. "Just try one glass of my beer," exuded Matthew Reich, a 32-year-old New Yorker who turns out New Amsterdam Amber beer, a bright orange concoction with a stinging sharpness. "This is not your case-a-day Schlitz light. One bottle of mine and you know you've had a beer."