After weeks of painstakingly thorough research and dedicating my body to the noble profession of journalism by acting as my own guinea pig, I have come to the following conclusion: Beer is awesome.
From its humble beginning as a brewmaster’s hazy notion until that sweet moment when it hits your lips, your brewski may be part of a master plan to bring you an environmentally friendly, carefully sourced, community minded, local-economy-driving, happiness-inducing good time. (That is, unless you’re drinking Coors. They want your money but they don’t really care if you have a good time.)
But not all beers are created equal, so in the name of fearless truth-telling, I spoke to brewers and beer experts from across the country, traveled to a distant land known as Soho, and of course, drank plenty of beer. I did all of this in hopes that you, the public, might be better equipped in evaluating the virtuousness of your brew.
The basics: Craft beer vs. everything else
Let’s start with the basics. In the world of beer, there are two main categories: craft and everything else. Under Brewers Association standards, to be a “craft brewer,” you need to meet three requirements. First, you must be small — meaning you produce 6 million barrels of beer or less. (That might sound like a lot, but compared to the nearly 100 million barrels produced by Anheuser Busch in 2012, even the 858,000 barrels produced by Sierra Nevada, the pioneer of craft brewing, looks meager.) Second, you need to be independent: No more than 25 percent of the business can be owned or controlled by a non-craft member of the beer industry. Third, you have to be “traditional.” In this case, that’s defined as brewing “either an all malt flagship” beer “or at least 50 percent” of your volume in all-malt beers. This is really a nice way of saying you can’t water down your beer with additives like rice or corn. On the taste scale, this is what separates your standard craft beer from the mass-produced behemoths like Budweiser, which uses a lot of rice, or Coors, which uses corn, wheat, and other “cereal grains” in its recipes.
Those may be the only technical requirements, but it turns out that craft-brewing guys (and a growing group of gals) have a bit of an overachievement problem. You see, they are really into beer. Like, really into beer. As Dave McLean, brewmaster and owner of San Francisco’s Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery, put it, “Most brewers are simply motivated by the challenge of making great beer.” Some will even break federal laws to do it: Chris Cuzme, the brewer at New York’s 508 GastroBrewery, for example, confessed to smuggling (and not declaring!) chamomile all the way back from Istanbul to make his Sea Witch Wit.
And in addition to being dedicated to the art of beer, some of these brewers also tend to be major environmentalists (not to mention mensches — read on to find out how). As McLean puts it, “Whether they think or articulate it this way, [craft brewers strive to brew] in a way that is good, clean, and fair.”
Ingredients: You are what you drink
At its core, beer is an agricultural product, and the basic recipe is deceptively simple: barley, hops, yeast, and water. But craft brewers go out of their way to carefully source their ingredients, though their relatively long shelf lives means that shipping doesn’t compromise their quality, even if it ups the brewery’s carbon footprint. “It’s not imperative to the quality of the beer that the ingredients come locally or seasonally,” says Megan Flynn, publisher and editor-in-chief of Beer West magazine. “But,” she adds, “there is a movement towards brewing beer with local ingredients where it can be sourced.”
While finding local hops outside of Oregon and Washington continues to be a challenge, a “beer-to-farm” movement, as Jimmy Carbone, owner of New York’s restaurant and beer bar Jimmy’s No. 43 and the co-founder of the city’s Good Beer Seal, calls it, is emerging. “Breweries are realizing they want to have more local hop growers to make beer from and they are building a mini-local beer economy,” he says. The new demand for local hops is bringing the crop back to some of its old stomping grounds. One New York farmer raised more than $30,000 on Kickstarter to import a German hops-harvesting machine, which he plans to make available to any local farmer who wants to use it. Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Boonville, Calif., began growing hops in the beer garden as an ornamental homage to the region’s history as home to a formerly bustling hops economy. “Then we decided to grow enough to brew a batch of beer, then two batches,” Brewmaster Fal Allen told me, “and now we have about two acres of hop fields in production.”
Sourcing local malted barley is another challenge that craft brewers are meeting head-on. “There are a few big ‘malt houses’ that most of the breweries order from,” Flynn says, both in the U.S. and abroad. “But there’s also a big movement going on right now for artisan malting, or maltsters as they call themselves,” she adds. While there’s no official count on the number of maltsters in the country, Beer West writer Adrienne So reports that they are popping up all over the country, and counts Colorado Malting in Alamosa, Colo., and Valley Malt in Hadley, Mass., as the most prominent. “Malterie Frontenac in Quebec is at the forefront of the movement and helping a lot of people out with equipment and knowledge and the like,” she adds, proving once again that maybe Canada isn’t so bad after all.
Even breweries that aren’t sourcing their main ingredients locally are finding ways to incorporate regional flavors. Brooklyn Brewery infused European malts and Belgian dark sugar with raw wildflower honey from New York for its bomber-sized, cork-finished Local 2, making it an immediate favorite for a certain person who may or may not be drinking it right at this moment.
And considering beer is really just delicious, alcoholic water, brewers care a lot about the quality of their water supply, too. In response to the fracking threat in New York, local brewers have been unequivocal in their opposition. Brooklyn Brewery founder Steve Hindy calls fracking’s potential danger to New York’s water system “criminal,” and in February, Larry Bennett, the operator of Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y., told NBC that he’d sooner close down his operation than brew with tainted water. (Attention Game of Thrones fans: If you’re looking to party like a Westerosi, make sure you try the brewery’s Limited Edition Iron Throne, which combines the blonde sex appeal of a Lannister with the thoughtful complexity of a Stark, making what I like to call the perfect man pale ale.)
What about using organic ingredients?
Despite some well-intentioned efforts to brew and sell organic beer, the overall reaction from both consumers and brewers has been pretty meh. “There’s not yet a super well-developed organic ingredient pipeline,” says McLean. “And one can always argue that there are farmers throughout the food community who do good work on the sustainability front without necessarily being certified as organic.” Flynn is a little less diplomatic on the topic, noting that some brewers have shipped organic hops all the way in from New Zealand, and the results were hardly noticeable. “There isn’t a discernible taste difference in organic beer versus non-organic. Some of the organic breweries would probably kill me for saying that, but there just isn’t,” she adds.
Factor in the added cost of organic ingredients, and the market just hasn’t really sustained an organic beer industry. New Belgium Brewery, a leading craft brewer in Fort Collins, Colo., learned this lesson the hard way when it had to cancel its gold medal-winning, certified-organic Mothership Wit because, according to its website, “consumers didn’t want to pay more for the increased cost.”
Keeping it clean: Craft breweries take sustainability to the next level
It’s not enough that these brewers are breathing new life into the art of beer and reviving lost agricultural traditions. Environmentalism apparently goes hand in hand with the art of beer making — from the very top of the beer industry all the way down to the bottom.
Somewhere between the time Budweiser pioneered turning leftover grains into animal feed in 1899 — still common practice among brewers, from the small Bridge and Tunnel Brewery in Queens to the expansive McMenamins in Oregon — and Alaskan Brewing Co. announcing it had turned those same grains into “beer powered beer” in February 2013, sustainability has become a hallmark of beer makers large and small. (Except for Coors, which, despite efforts to change its image, has a history of not giving a shit about the environment.) Most of these guys go all out: Sierra Nevada is the only brewery using hydrogen fuel cells onsite, and methane harvested from wastewater supplies New Belgium with 15 percent of its electricity needs. Both breweries also publicly keep track of their efforts.
It should also be noted that Anheuser Busch, despite a long, award-winning history of sustainability, still wants to keep the door open to pollution — in 2010, it spent millions of dollars supporting California’s Prop 26, a pro-polluter ballot initiative.
Giving back: Brewers heart their local communities
But beyond the big picture, breweries excel at spreading their focus on craft and quality in their local communities as well. “Community is where things really, truly shine,” McLean says. “Craft breweries employ local workers, keep money in their communities, and foster a sense of local awareness and pride.” This is true on both ends of the size spectrum: While a large brewery like New Belgium holds the Tour de Fat, raising more than $2 million for local nonprofits, the much smaller Keegan Ales in Kingston, N.Y., for example, hosts community events like free concerts showcasing local musicians. (The brewery’s Mother’s Milk, by the way, is so worth writing home about.)
Drink responsibly: Go local
With more than 2,100 craft breweries in the U.S., the Brewers Association estimates that almost every American lives within 10 miles of one (good news for Toby Keith, who might just have a soulmate in every town). Even cocktail-loving New York City has loads (my personal favorite: The aforementioned 508 GastroBrewery, home of rotating beers with wonderful names, like Spray Tan Pale Ale and the bacon-flavored Hamber). Even if a craft brewery isn’t using local hops and barley, drinking its beers means you’re pumping money back into your community’s economy instead of relying on greenhouse gases to truck in your booze. So whether you’re drinking in a brewery, a bar, or by yourself on the couch, look for something made nearby. You’ll be toasting to the health of your town — and the planet’s.