If you like your beer — that is beer for the taste rather than for the numbing effect of the alcohol — you probably prefer craft beer (or imports). You should probably thank the man who finally made it legal to brew your own and to sell your beer to the public. The craft beer revolution broke out very quickly after that:
There has never been a better time to love beer. Duck into any local sudshouse in any half-horse town, and one is likely to find behind the bar a distinctive tap dispensing Fat Tire Amber Ale, or Shiner Bock, or — at the very least—Samuel Adams Boston Lager. At fashionable metropolitan lounges, the menu is more dizzying: porter and stout, hefeweizen and lambic, ales brown and blonde and pale.
’Twas not always so. Shortly after the repeal of Prohibition, the number of American breweries spiked to more than 800, but thereafter consolidation marked the industry for decades. By the late 1970s, that figure had fallen to fewer than 100. These were the Dark Ages, when selection was nigh nonexistent and “lite” was a selling point. Miller went so far as to brag in the tagline of its commercials: “Everything you always wanted in a beer — and less.”
The best anecdote I have found to help explain these dismal times comes from “Confessions of a Beer Snob,” a 1976 article I stumbled across in the archives of The American Spectator, the magazine where I work. There’s a bit midway through the piece in which the author, a former Nixon speechwriter named Aram Bakshian Jr, describes a beer newly available on the East Coast that had taken Washington, DC, by storm. That beer? Coors.
“What transports of delight the availability of Coors threw certain White House colleagues of mine into. I always suspected that they were more excited by the idea of its being specially flown in from Colorado than by what little taste it — or, for that matter, they — had,” Bakshian wrote. “Today the Coors cult still thrives, its devotees buying it even at the most ridiculous prices, and liquor store windows across the country proudly displaying banners blazoned with the inspiring motto, ‘Coors is here!’”
This was the state of affairs until near the end of the decade, when everything changed, not quite suddenly, but faster than could have been reasonably foreseen. In 1978, Congress and Jimmy Carter officially legalized home brewing, previously a federal crime punishable by prison time, bringing tinkerers and hobbyists aboveboard. The first brewpub since Prohibition opened in Yakima, Washington, in 1982. It was a mad dash to the fermenting tanks from there. Today, somewhere around 3,000 breweries of various sizes operate from sea to shining sea, churning out all manner of hoppy, malty, citrusy concoctions.
The Coors mania was felt as far away as the suburbs of Toronto: driving down to Buffalo to visit their incredibly wide variety of beer and liquor stores (one of my friends always referred to them as “boozaterias”) was eye-opening (and wallet-emptying at the punitive exchange rates of the day) for Ontarians in the late days of the LCBO’s Soviet store era and the grimy Brewers Retail outlets of the 1970s. And Coors, for a while, was the Holy Grail of American beer. Shudder.