Everyone’s buzzing about craft beer. It’s a brew revolution. It’s on-trend. It’s hot … and oh so cool.
Craft beer has been described variously as ten minutes of pleasure, pure happiness in a glass, authentic, archetypical, and an intellectual beverage that is to be savored not swilled. It’s viewed by many as “one of the special things in life that makes the day taste and feel a little better,” according to craftbeer.com and the Brewers Association, which represents craft and home brewers, and other like-minded enthusiasts. “Each glass displays the creativity and passion of its maker and the complexity of its ingredients.” Craft beer is treasured by millions around the world who see it as not merely a fermented beverage, but something artistic to be enjoyed, shared and revered. It is a versatile beverage that not only enhances food when paired, but is often brought into the kitchen as a cooking ingredient.
William Barnhardt, owner of Willaby’s Cafe and Catering in White Stone, is enthusiastic in his exploration and support of craft beer. “The craft brew industry is exploding because people want to enjoy a more flavorful experience,” he said. “Once they open up to the world of craft beer they get excited about it,” he said. “It’s interesting … like an adventure.”
Craft beer has a technical definition, one that distinguishes it from the familiar brands of brew at most local markets. According to the Brewers Association, a craft beer is made by a brewery which is small, independent and traditional. Simply stated, it is a beer which is crafted instead of manufactured.
A small brewery is one with annual production of six million barrels of beer or fewer (approximately three percent of U.S. annual sales). An independent brewer is one in which less than 25 percent of the business is owned or controlled by an alcohol-beverage industry member that is not a craft brewer. A traditional brewer is one which has a majority of its total alcohol-beverage volume in beers with flavor derived from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.
There are more than 100 different styles of beer and each one has its own elements, Barnhardt explained. A craft beer is a reflection of the artistry of the brewer, he added. For example, each brewery maintains a consistent flavor profile from one season to the next, which is a challenge, he said. Then it builds on that profile through experimentation with different types of ingredients — spices, fruits, yeasts, types of grains and hops. “With so many possibilities, it’s often a struggle to define a craft beer as belonging to one style or another,” Barnhardt said. “For instance, when does a painting go from impressionistic to realistic?” He’s certain of one thing though: “If you don’t like craft beer, it’s only because you haven’t found your preferred style yet.”
During the Middle Ages in Europe, water quality was almost never tested or regulated. Plain water was often dangerous to drink (some avoided it like the plague). Beer, on the other hand, provided a safer alternative. It was common practice across all social classes to drink beer with nearly every meal. Since the beginning of time, beer has been brewed from four basic ingredients: malted grains (grains which have been allowed to sprout), hops, yeast and water. Malted grains, usually barley, are the meat and potatoes of beer. They provide the fermentable sugar and are the source of all color in beer. Malt imparts flavors commonly associated with baking — caramel, bread, chocolate, coffee. Hops are the cone-like flowers of the hop vine. Think of them as spice, giving beer some bitterness to balance the sweet sugars. Hops bring out flavors like citrus, hay, herbs or flowers. Yeast produces carbon dioxide and alcohol along with other flavor and aromatic compounds — typically fruity or spicy. Water has a complex influence on beer, either enhancing or lessening the expression of the other ingredients. Certain minerals in water make the hops pop. A bit of sodium boosts the malt. Every beer displays the character of all these ingredients to lesser or greater degrees. Beer styles are determined by the intensity of each ingredient relative to the others. Add spices, honey, fruit, or any additional tools in the brewer’s kit and the possibilities for creating unique beer flavors are endless.
The two basic types of beer are ale and lager. These beers are similar in brewing methods and basic ingredients, but they require different types of yeast to ferment. Ales date back to ancient times. While they are brewed all over the world, ales are known for being widely produced and consumed in England. They tend to be sweet, full-bodied beers and can be pale gold to dark, rich brown in color, depending on the grains used in the brewing process. Ales use what is known as “top-fermenting” yeast, or yeast that rises to the surface of the beer during fermentation. Types of ales can include pale ale, India pale ale, porter, stout and wheat beer, among others. Lagers are known for their crisp, clean taste. This is because of “bottom-fermenting” yeast which settles on the bottom of the fermenter. Lagers ferment at lower temperatures, and as a result, the process takes much longer. When the brew is fermented, it goes through a low-temperature aging process known as “lagering,” which helps create a smoother taste. Most of the mass-produced beers of the world are lagers. Examples are bock, pilsner, dunkel and Oktoberfest/Maerzen.
A common misconception is that flavor intensity corresponds to color: light-colored beers are milder and darker beers are stronger. Color really tells little about the intensity of flavor in a beer. Mild or strong beers come in all colors. Certain Belgian beers look very much like smooth pilsners, but nine percent alcohol and an interesting Belgian yeast make them significantly more intense. The black lagers of Germany are as dark as coffee, but taste more like a pilsner than a stout, with just a dash of roast.
The Crafty Revolution
The revolution in the craft beer market is characteristic of a growing desire by consumers for local flavor. Craft brews reflect the culture and unique qualities of the area in which they are made — the subtle differences among local varieties of ingredients like grains, hops, spices and even water supply, give craft beers infinite diversity and interest, Barnhardt explained. Willaby’s regularly carries a selection of about 22 craft beers on tap (craft draft), about half of which are from Virginia, while the other half represents a travelogue of specialty breweries. Restaurants and retailers are catching on to the notion that varied, interesting and local choices in food and beverages drive consumers’ buying decisions. “I eat where I want to drink,” Barnhardt said. “I’ll drive to wherever there’s a new experience.” Willaby’s encourages customers to taste the variety of craft beers it has on tap. “Taste everything — it’s a part of what we do,” he said. The restaurant also includes beer in many of its recipes (like barbecue sauce and beer batter), and it sponsors an occasional “tap takeover” night, when a brewer and a chef get together to pair food and beer. “If I can inspire someone to a new level of interest, that’s what I’m here for.”
Grocery retailers large and small, and even a few convenience stores, are catching the craft brew buzz. Tri-Star Market in Kilmarnock regularly carries in excess of 100 craft beers. Watts & Sons Supermarket in Miller’s Tavern carries nearly 25 varieties of craft beer, with a focus on Virginia brands, said Pat Hilton, store manager. “I like to go local whenever possible,” he said, although the store carries the most popular national labels as well
Beer by the Numbers
It was only in 2012 that the number of U.S. breweries caught up to the numbers in production at the time of Prohibition. At the turn of the twentieth century there were thousands of local breweries in the nation, each with its own unique flavor profile. With the passage of Prohibition in 1919, the number of legal breweries plummeted to zero. After Prohibition ended, a few gigantic beer corporations dominated the market. In the 1980s, pioneers of the brewing craft began to emerge. Barnhardt was introduced to craft beers in 1987 on a trip to Seattle, Washington. It has taken decades for the rest of the country to catch up to his enthusiasm. The craft beer revolution has seen an average of 115 small breweries open every year since1990.
Today is the best time in the nation’s history to be a beer lover. America now has more beer styles and brands from which to choose than any other market in the world. More than 3,400 breweries are responsible for the beer brands available in the U.S., with 99 percent fitting the Brewers Association’s small and independent craft-brewer definition. In 2014, craft brews held 11 percent volume share of the beer market. Craft brewers produced 22.2 million barrels and saw an 18 percent rise in volume and a 22 percent increase in retail dollar value. Retail dollar value was estimated at $19.6 billion, representing 19.3 percent market share.
“With the total beer market up only 0.5 percent in 2014, craft brewers are key in keeping the overall industry innovative and growing. This steady growth shows that craft brewing is part of a profound shift in American beer culture — a shift that will help craft brewers achieve their ambitious goal of 20 percent market share by 2020,” said Bart Watson, chief economist with the Brewers Association. “Small and independent brewers are deepening their connection to local beer lovers while continuing to create excitement and attract even more appreciators,” he said.
“These small businesses are one of the bright spots in both our economy and culture. Craft brewers are serving their local communities, brewing up jobs and boosting tourism,” Watson said. “Craft brewers are creating high-quality, differentiated beers; new brewers that match this standard will be welcomed in the market with open arms.”
Richmond and the metro area are rich with a surprising number of craft breweries. Virginia Brewery Tours, based in Richmond, offers adventures in craft beer by designing tours highlighting craft brew and food. Guests are immersed in local flavor while learning about and tasting the delicious beers and artisanal food pairings available throughout the Commonwealth. For more information, visit www.virginiabrewerytours.com.