Thursday, May 23, 2013

Books on beer: The Audacity of Hops by Tom Acitelli

 Image credit:  Chicago Review Press
Were someone to hand you a book on the history of craft beer, you'd expect it to focus on the beer and breweries that had a hand in shaping our craft beer culture.  Yet, as author Tom Acitelli shows us in The Audacity of Hops: The History of America's Craft Beer Revolution, the success of the industry isn't just about barley and hops. It's also about local pride and the efforts of those who support craft beer through education, promotion and other forms of advocacy.

Certainly, beer and brewers are the focal point, but if it weren't for people like Dr. Michael Lewis, Michael Jackson and Charlie Papazian, there might not be much of a story to tell.  One is an educator, one was a writer and one is the industry's greatest advocate.  Their individual contributions are among the most important, and each supported craft beer from its very beginning.

Then again, after the first hundred pages of Acitelli's book, it's a wonder craft beer lasted long enough for anyone to support it in the first place.  Pioneers of the movement like Jack McAuliffe, at his New Albion Brewery, took up the fight for better beer with no money, no specialized equipment, and in some cases little or no brewing experience.  Not only that, but homebrewing at the time was 100% illegal. Thank goodness nobody cared.

In telling his tale, Acitelli's narrative follows a timeline of brewery startups, success stories and eventual failures.  One day its tinkerers and trash can test batches, the next it's Ivy League MBAs, multi-million dollar IPOs and Big Beer buyouts.  Inevitably, craft beer rises and craft beer falls.  When it rises again, the question is posed as to whether contract breweries like Boston Beer and Pete's Brewing Company should be looked upon as saviors of the industry.  Both delivered beer to the masses, but some would say that craft beer isn't brewed by contract.

As you follow along, for every familiar name you read, there's one or more you've never heard of who's not around anymore.  Their stories are important too, for as the saying goes "you can't know where you're going, if you don't know where you've been".  Quotes from industry stalwarts, especially some regarding growth and expansion from Fritz Maytag (formerly of Anchor) and Alaskan's Geoff Larsen, provide insight into the reasons some failed and why maybe they didn't have to.  Many were borne of the shakeout in the mid-90s, and should be required reading for both current and aspiring brewery owners.  A particular favorite from F. X. Matt II of the Matt Brewing Company in Utica, New York, reads like this, "If you brew beer, you represent the entire industry. Brew the best beer you can."

What's better advice than that?

The Audacity of Hops: The History of America's Craft Beer Revolution is available on the Kindle at, as a Nook Book from Barnes & Noble, or in paperback at these and other retailers.  Read it and you'll learn about craft beer and community, two words which are one in the same.

Review copy furnished courtesy of Chicago Review Press.

* Originally published on

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