In Defense of Brewpubs, Not that they Need It

Last Spring when the Brewer’s Association — the national trade organization that collectively represents craft brewers — released its quarterly assessment of the state of beer in America, many a pint glass were clinked in celebration. Since Prohibition, the overall national demand for beer has grown rapidly for various reasons, from changing tastes to changing demographics, yet for almost a century, the total number of independent brewers operating nationally had steadily declined. Ask someone over the age of 40 about Schlitz or Stroh and they might wax poetic about their younger days. The benefits of a growing industry were increasingly being collected in fewer and fewer coffers, and based on the rate of closings and acquisitions, many thought American beer had stagnated. But the present would beg to differ: in 2012, a brisk (sarcasm) 79 years after Prohibition had ended, the total number of operating brewers in the US had returned to a pre-Greatest Experiment high — around 1,900.

Regardless of how embarrassingly long it took for this trend to reverse itself, the future of American beer looks bright. Craft revenues are up double-digits and new brewers are popping up everyday — and at the forefront of this Second Wave are your friendly neighborhood brewpubs, the foot soldiers of the craft movement.

If you break down the numbers, over 1,000 of the magic 1,900 are brewpubs — bars, or more often restaurants — that brew their owns suds right where they serve them. Though to some this seems like a novel idea, a part of the growing national love of eating and spending locally, it is more a return to the past than a groundbreaking innovation.

In the days before Big Beer, like the early to mid-19th century when Anheuser-Busch was still shipping beer on wagons, towns in the American Northeast and Midwest had breweries like we have Starbucks now. Though it is easy to glamorize this as some sort of halcyon era of quality, locally-made and diverse beer, the hard material facts are much simpler. Before the Big Man, Adololphus Busch, pioneered refrigerated railcar transportation, most beer was produced and sold locally because it had to be. No refrigeration meant that beer could spoil in a matter of days in warmer temperatures and limited transportation technology meant that business was always done around the corner. Moreover, more breweries did not equate to more choices for drinkers; often, the local brewer made exactly one, maybe two, kinds of beer and, regardless of its quality or taste, it was what you were stuck with. Though the modern tapestry of American beer resembles its 19th century ancestor in appearance, it is cut from much different (and in my opinion better) cloth.

Those readers familiar with the wonderful offerings of the tantalizingly close Media have probably heard of Iron Hill. From the exterior alone one can tell that it is different than your run of the mill steakhouse. The large plate-glass windows reveal not just happy diners but massive cylindrical steel brewing and fermenting vessels. Iron Hill Media is actually one of six locations in the Iron Hill family, a family-owned business spread across Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. Though bigger than most brewpubs, which generally never move off the block, its list of credentials and awards shows that growth did not come at the expense of quality. Iron Hill has taken numerous Gold and Silver medals at the Great American Beer Festival, held each spring in Colorado, with special distinction given to the Media Location.

Though all Iron Hill locations offer a solid list of six year-round “House” offerings, Media highlights one of the many advantages of brewpubs — the ability to experiment. Under the direction of Brewmaster Bob Barrar, Media has installed a 10-gallon “pilot system.” To put this in perspective, that is roughly the amount that your average home brewer makes in his or her garage.

This small scale allows IH Media to innovate and experiment with styles, ingredients and techniques — like the recent Dark Humor Rising wild-fermented porter brewed in Mr. Barrar’s honor — that would make even medium sized plants like Victory shudder. Small batches mean small overhead; if the brew comes out nasty, the wasted resources amount to very little. Instead, it can be dumped down a drain with little risk to the brewer. Some more risk-taking brewers like Troegs also use this model with their “Scratch Beer” series of one-off, one-time-only releases, but it is the standard model for most brewpubs. In addition to your normal rotation of seasonal styles (such as a wheat or blonde ale in summer), you can hope to see something like a bourbon-barrel aged kolsch, or a traditional German beer from Cologne, to make up a wonderful-sounding example, show up once and a while as well.

Other than purely for epicurean variety, brewpubs bring a lot to the experience of going out for a drink. In addition to enjoying (hopefully, more often than not) a well-made beer, the five dollars you put down at somewhere like Nodding Head or Dark Horse in Philly, supports a local business — one owned and operated by the people that live right down the street from you. Most people like where they come from or currently reside, unless you are like Anthony Bourdain and myself, who are reluctant to talk about New Jersey unless served with a shade of self-awareness. You’re probably going to be in a bar full of “regular” faces anyway, so why not keep all that money local?

So, in summary, brew pubs continue the tradition of the saloon without all the back-room activity and spittoons, replacing six-shooters and horse-drawn kegs with locally made, lovingly crafted beer. You’ll be hard pressed to find the kind of daring antics going down right around the corner anywhere else, so take the time to do a quick Google search and discover something awesome — maybe this weekend.

Cheers, and happy drinking!

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