Feb 03, 2023

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American Beer Month
The next generation of American brewing

by Stan Hieronymus

They began showing up at Washington liquor stores in July, and at grocery stores, and convenient stores, looking like they were preparing for a beer run a la Smokey and the Bandit. One man bought 22 cases of Olympia stubbies.

He didn't get them to peddle on after the public's supply was gone. He bought them to drink. "He was adamant that he wanted his favorite beer to last another year," said Sarah Edenstrom, wine and beer manager at Ralph's in Tumwater, where Olympia beer was brewed and packaged until June.

The brand lives on - like Ballantine, Lone Star, Lucky Lager, Schlitz, Natty Bo and so many others that survived the death of the breweries where they were made - but with production moving to a Miller Brewing plant in Irwindale, Calif., there'll be no more stubbies. Those oddly shaped bottles would only slow the production lines. Olympia will be sold in cans and possibly longneck bottles.

There are sadder parts to the story. Until near the end, the brewery employed about 400, with an annual payroll of $26 million. Because a ripple effect created an estimated 2.4 jobs for each employee, Thurston County's economy will take an even harder hit. Residents hope that another manufacturing company will buy the sprawling complex from Miller for the $15 million price tag, but they hold little hope it will be another brewing operation.

Built in 1896, the plant was known nationally for producing Olympia, brewed beside waterfalls on the Deschutes River, making the slogan "It's the water" famous. But it was a dinosaur that still would have been judged woefully inefficient had it approached its 4 million-barrel-per-year capacity, instead of the 1.7 million barrels brewed in 2002.

With the closing of Rainier in Seattle, Blitz-Weinhard in Portland and the Tumwater plant, the Northwest has lost all its old regional breweries. That makes the Redhook Ale Brewery in Washington, a microbrewery started just 21 years ago and now producing 226,000 barrels a year, the largest in the region.

"A lot of capacity has been removed," said Redhook founder Paul Shipman, talking about more than the Tumwater brewery. In fact, about 18 million barrels of brewing capacity at old line brewers has been eliminated since 1997. "I'm sorry for the people who lost their jobs. I regret the loss of pieces of history and tradition. At the same time there wasn't room for them. This sets the stage for something good to happen, specifically for microbreweries."

Grown up, but still growing
What's good for the brewers of American specialty beers generally is good for American drinkers of specialty beers. Just think back to when there were almost none of the former.

A mere 21 years ago, Michael Jackson wrote in his first Pocket Guide to Beer: "The overwhelming majority of beers produced in the U.S. are of but one style: they are pale lager beers vaguely of the pilsener style but lighter in body, notably lacking hop character, and generally bland in palate. They do not all taste exactly the same but the differences between them are often of minor consequence." Quite simply, breweries - whether they were small regionals, large regionals or wannabe nationals - that tried to compete based not on the beer in the bottle but on price, efficient distribution and marketing during the second half of the 20th century were steamrolled. Yet most went down selling that same basic American pale lager.

Breweries, most but not all of them new, that have since risen to the top of brewing operations not knows as Anheuser-Busch, Miller or Coors sell something different. In the process, they've given America back a diverse beer culture. Many have grown steadily for 10 years or more, and grown up as businesses. While stories about breweries stitched together from old dairy tanks and other found materials make great reading, today's not-so-micro-breweries are some of the most modern brewing operations in the world, no matter the size.

Understand that big is a relative term - Sierra Nevada brewed 10 times the beer that Great Divide Brewing (Denver) made in 2002, while Anheuser-Busch's production was180-fold Sierra Nevada's - but it is the big little guys who put most of the beer in our collective specialty beer fridge. They've broadened our choices not only with what they produce but by building the ballroom in which all brewers - including the ones using small and sometimes funky systems - can dance.

New Belgium Brewing co-founder Kim Jordan made that point earlier this year in a rousing keynote speech at the Craft Brewers Conference in New Orleans. "It seems clear to me that we are all part of a single industry, and we must work together to thrive. Just as each of us stewards brands within our breweries, we have a collective brand, the Craft Brewers of America," said. "Whether a brewery is a leader, a surging upstart, a niche player or even one struggling, everyone pulls the same amount of benefit from a strong category."

Jordan's speech provoked plenty of discussion within the industry, particularly when she challenged its members to triple their share (now 3.4 percent) of the American beer market. "Four years ago at this conference in Phoenix I was on a panel. Our topic was 'How can we achieve 10 percent nationwide market share?' We said we can't," she said. "I look back on that and I am amazed at myself. That is contrary to everything I believe. Because I think that in order to be great, you have to aspire to greatness. If we, as an industry, want to achieve 10 percent market share, we need to see that as our destination, plan what we're each going to do to support making that happen and then get after it."

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