Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review: The Audacity of Hops by Tom Acitelli
Everything You Wanted to Know About Craft Beer (But We’re Afraid to Ask)

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Tom Acitelli’s The Audacity of Hops is, forgive me, a truly audacious book. To capture the whole history of the American craft beer movement, with its dizzying array of names, breweries, beers, organizations, and trends, is not an easy task. Acitelli has done it with impeccable research, and more than a little panache. It’s a very successful attempt to capture the rise, fall and rise again of the American craft beer movement – a movement that (to the shock of anyone whose image of American beer is formed by Budweiser or Miller Lite) has come to lead the world.

It's a remarkably fast-moving story, covering almost 50 years in dozens of punchy chapters that read like blog posts. (If I have a complaint about the book, it’s that the structure of very short chapters left me occasionally confused or frustrated as I’d want to continue to read about a particular brewery, rather than having to pick up that story five, six, seven chapters later. It’s a kind of “brewus interruptus”!

He starts with Fritz Maytag (yes, from that Maytag family) who, in 1965, found himself at the Anchor Brewing Co. – the only craft brewery in America at the time – in San Francisco, and ended up walking away with a controlling interest, for just the price of a used car at the time. On the flip side of Maytag (who by taking a slow, organic growth strategy, managed to avoid the late-1990s excesses that took many of the original craft breweries down) was Jack McAuliffe, who launched New Albion, the first new craft brewery in the U.S., in 1977 – and then folded, and left the microbrewery business altogether, a few years later.

The names stream after Maytag and McAuliffe: Fred Eckhardt, the man who published the first serious treatise about home brewing; Michael Lewis, the first professor of brewing in the U.S.; Michael Jackson, the crusty Brit who became the world’s foremost beer champion, and a huge supporter of the American craft beer movement. And so it built, a collection of quirky characters from all walks of life who came together through various lucky accidents to turn American beer from the United States of Bland Taste-a-like Lagers, to the most diverse beer market on the planet.

Virtually every trend in craft beer is covered here. Want to know where the move to higher alcohol beers came? It’s here. (Lagunitas is the source.) Want to know where the extreme beer trend started? It’s here. (Dogfish Head!) Curious where the use of cans came from? It’s here. (Oskar Blues has this honor.) What about contract brewing? It’s also here. (And it’s not Boston Beer Co. The Old New York Brewing Co., now defunct, can claim this first.)

Acitelli doesn’t just focus on the many strong personalities involved. He does a good job of looking at other trends that helped launch the craft beer movement, from legislative changes that allowed home brewing (many of the pioneers in the craft beer movement – indeed, many of today’s craft brewers – got their start brewing at home, something that was technical illegal in most state well into the ‘90s) to tax exemptions.

One slightly weak area is it's coverage of the late 1990s meltdown in the craft brew industry. This was a period of time when more craft breweries were going under then were opening. Aside from "expanding too fast” or "not spending enough on marketing and sales," there's not as much substance here as I’d like. And, of course, I would love Acitelli’s take on the recent phenomenal expansion of microbreweries – and whether the current enormous crop (over 2000 at present) will survive into the future.


If you have the remotest interest in the craft beer phenomena, then you need to pick up this book. Easy to read, crammed with detail and trivia, it’s a great addition to the canon of beer books.

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