From about the early 1930s until the mid 1990s beer was quite boring. It was produced much like any other commercial industrialized product: on a large scale, for the least overhead as possible, and with little concern for the quality of the final product.
This was the Age of the Macro Lagers. Before this age beer production was too small and decentralized to be industrialized, and after this time consumers finally snapped out of the spell of slick marketing.
This age was a period of beer production focused on a product so lifeless, so completely devoid of flavour that eventually all the other lagers out there got upset, had a meeting, and kicked the macros into a oft-ignored sub-category: Pale Lager.
Actual Pale Lagers then said “The fuck?!” and promptedly re-kicked macros into the newly minted American-style Pale Lager category and there they’ve been stuck ever since.
But all that’s over, right? Starting in the mid-80s, and really getting steam in the mid-90s, Craft Beer has emerged and we’re done with macros! The 60-odd years of Macro Dominance will be remembered as a curiosity, as a short period when humanity didn’t like good beer for whatever reason.
No, not really. Good beer is only just starting the process of waking up. The problem is that we just don’t grasp how huge the macros were, and how huge they remain today. They didn’t just reshape beer and the population’s attitude towards beer, but they reshaped the entire process of brewing beer itself.
When craft brewers had finally had enough, and wanted to produce something different, they had a problem. The only products available on the market to make beer with were focused on making huge vats of pale, insipid lager. I’m not just talking equipment, either.
Barley and Hops had also become a manufactured product focused on lager production. If you were a barley producer in 1960s you had a choice: grow beautiful barley that maybe the bakery down the might buy, but no one else, or plant a specific version of crappy barley you could sell to the brewery all in one go. Coincidentally bakeries started sucking around this time too.
In fact, because they bought so much product, the macros controled barley and hops production to such a large degree that even today many commericially available blends of both bear the name “Coors” or “Anheuser Busch.” Yes, they had so much buying power that farmers bred out the flavour to impress the macros (or more specifically, bred out certain enzymes so the macros could use more corn… seriously. How messed is that?).
Thus enters our inteprid craft brewer in the summer of 1984. He opens a brewing catelogue to order product for his amazing beer and it quickly becomes apparant that all he can make on a commercial scale is maybe a decent pale ale. Or perhaps a bitter, which is basically a pale ale with more hops.
And that’s what we got: better made, and definitely hoppier, beer but even this slight difference changed things. Hops suppliers noticed this minor increase in demand for their product (which was not exactly ordered by the tonne by macros), and they started playing around. They started planting older varieties that the macros wouldn’t buy. They started importing new varieties that had never been grown here. They even started cross breeding new varieties that had never existed before.
This caused the hops explosion of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and we’re still reaping the benefits today (mostly because it’s still the early 2000s). New and fantastic hop strains are streaming into the market, and today’s newer hoppy beers bear very little ressemblence to the “same thing, just bitter-er” ales of even just ten years ago.
Barley growers have alse taken notice of this trend (but also of the steadily increasing price of high grade barley), and now we’re starting to see the emergence of barley farms growing malting barley specifically for the craft brewing industry, and on a large scale.
This is only a recent development, and I suspect it will be some time before we start seeing the high-quality malt-forward ales that will be the natural result of such a trend, but trust me, they’re coming. This might take a while, though, because high-proof malty ales are exactly the sort of thing you want to stick in a barrel for a few years before releasing in your fancy cork & wiretop bottles, but when they show up I’ll be the first in line to buy ‘em.
As I tell anyone who will listen: this is an exciting time to be a craft beer fan. The industry is changing rapidly, and thanks to the exponential growth of the craft beer-drinking consumer base, the rate of change will only accelerate.
The craft beer we have today has little resemblence to the craft beer we had ten years ago–it’s much better and more varied. I can only believe this will continue.