I'm just back from watching Beer Wars with a large contingent of the Charlotte Beer Club. As a movie, filmmaker Anat Baron's multi-year project painted a David vs. Goliath canvas that both illustrated the situation and simplified the challenge facing American craft brewers.
On a basic level, if the film is to be believed, all large brewers -- Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors -- are evil and all of their beers are insipid watery swill. Neither is true. But the movie also gave an accurate and clear picture of the challenge small brewers face in gaining distribution and shelf space at retail. The title is accurate; it is a war fought on many fronts on a daily basis. That tap handle is not just handed over to your local brewer because it is the right thing to do.
The movie uses 1978 as a milestone, noting that just 45 brewing companies existed at the time. That year, the Brewers Association and American Homebrewers Association was founded in Boulder, Colorado. It's was the year that a bill legalizing home brewing passed in the U.S. Congress. It was also the year when I sipped my first legal beer having turned 18 in Upstate New York.
While the microbrewery movement would take route along the west coast, some of the few remaining regional brewers were pumping out beer not far from where I grew up. Companies like Genesee Brewing in Rochester, F.X. Matt Brewing in Utica and Fred Koch's Brewery in Dunkirk turned out beers that offered an alternative to the national brands. For the most part they were light lagers or ales. Now there are nearly 1,500 breweries doing business in the United States. An amazing array of beer diversity exists, even if it amounts to just a small percentage of overall beer volume.
The one thing that occurred to me thinking back to the 45 brewing companies that did business in 1978 is that many of them no longer exist. Stroh, Olympia, Schlitz, Christian Schmidt, Hudephol, G. Heileman, F&M Schaefer, Rainier, Latrobe and Dubuque Star were part of the the beer scene in 1978 and they are now gone. Sure some of the brands still pop up from time to time, but the hometown breweries are shuttered. It makes you wonder what might have happened to beer in the U.S. if the craft movement had not taken off.