Living in Craft Beer Country

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I’ve been to a lot of concerts in my life. Started in 1978 when my parents were foolish enough to let me attend the KISS concert in Kansas City. Of course, they were the ones who fostered a love of music in me, so they only have themselves to blame. Between that first show 36 years ago and the one I went to last week, I also worked at a trade magazine covering the concert touring industry. So I can’t begin to accurately count the number of concerts I’ve seen.

Linkin Park shares a craft beer with me at Jiffy Lube Live in Northern Virginia.
Linkin Park shares a craft beer with me for my birthday last week at Jiffy Lube Live in NOVA.

However, last week at the show featuring Linkin Park, Thirty Seconds to Mars and AFI, I saw something I’d never seen before — craft beer at an alternative rock concert. I had my choice of the Star Hill Grateful American pale ale, the Sweetwater 420 extra pale ale, or the Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager, winner of the 2012 Gold World Beer Cup and 2009 Great American Beer Festival Silver Medal. Can you guess which one I had? (Did I mention that the Devil’s Backbone is an award winner?)

So why were craft beers available at a Linkin Park concert in suburban D.C.? Is it that Virginia is such a craft beer loving state that any public venue must now carry these carefully made mouth-watering delights in order to cater to public demands? Or is it that the craft beer revolution has taken hold across the entire United States of America, and craft beers are demanded by a beer-guzzling public coast-to-coast?

Since moving to Virginia in 2013, I have first-hand knowledge that this is a craft beer friendly state. Not only was Harrisonburg, the college town in which I live, named best craft beer town in all of Appalachia, but there are four craft breweries within an hour’s drive — the previously mentioned Devil’s Backbone, as well as Blue Mountain Brewery, and Wild Wolf Brewing Company, and the hometown Three Brothers Brewing Co. On top of that, a fifth brewery is scheduled to open in the ‘Burg later this year, and I haven’t even mentioned all the others in nearby Charlottesville and throughout the rest of the state. But according to the Brewers Association, Virginia ranks 15th in total number of craft breweries, and only 30th in breweries per capita, with just 1 per 100,000 people.

Beer MarketThen again, maybe the fact that connoisseurs of crafty concoctions are spread nationwide has contributed to the craft beer boom. The Brewers Association says there were 89 breweries in the United States in 1979, the year after former President Jimmy Cater signed the home brewers law, but by 2013, there were 2,416 breweries in operation (almost 400 more than just the year before), with 98 percent officially labeled craft breweries (which includes local breweries, microbreweries and brew pubs).

While it sounds good that 98 percent of the U.S. breweries are of the craft variety, they have only 7.8 percent of the entire beer market, according to the BA. That means the big three — who shall remain nameless here — still have roughly 80 percent of all beer drinkers swilling their colored water, with imports making up the difference.

Still, the small gains by the craft beer industry have had an impact. Bloomberg news reported earlier this year that the acquisitions of Goose Island, Blue Moon, Lienenkugel, ShockTop, and ZiegenBock by the big three are in response to the inroads made by craft breweries, and at the expense of market share by Bud Light and Miller Lite, their top brands. So craft beers are a threat to the mass brewers, but aren’t taking market share as the big boys simply schlep out their versions of craft brews to unknowing consumers.

What are we, the enlightened craft beer intelligentsia supposed to do? Drink more beer? Well, sure, that’s one option. But at some point we reach personal capacity. The better approach may be to introduce a friend who doesn’t drink good beer to the craft beers we know and love.

For example, earlier this summer I was fortunate enough to be sitting in the Three Brothers taproom with some of the wife’s co-workers. The one immediately to my left said she didn’t know what to order because she was “more of a wine drinker.” My response: “Let’s each get a flight so we can taste several.” Over the next hour she and I tasted six different Three Brothers beers and I imparted as much knowledge about beer as I thought she could take. Turns out, she liked learning about it all, and definitely found out there were at least two styles of beer she liked, and two she definitely didn’t.

Meanwhile, another co-worker sitting at the opposite end of the table had ordered a beer but wasn’t drinking it. When I asked why not she said it was because she didn’t like it (she’d ordered a session beer). I asked her what kinds of flavors she preferred, and after some probing, I recommended the Virginia Dark Ale — a black IPA that hits with plenty of roasted malt up front and finishes with a nice hoppy bite. “I don’t like dark beers,” she said after I’d made my suggestion. “Color has little-to-nothing to do with the flavor of the beer,” I replied with my auto-pilot response, and immediately got her a taste of the Dark Ale. Guess what? She loved it.

So, that’s two converts to craft beer. Now it’s up to the rest of us to continue the effort so that we really do become a craft beer country.

— Eric Van Steenburg

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