Book Review: Steve Hindy's 'The Craft Beer Revolution'
Over the last few decades, much has changed across the American beer landscape. The rows of beer at my neighborhood liquor store have morphed from a few American lagers into a dizzying array of IPAs, stouts, sours, and more IPAs. To be fair I am not old enough to remember quite how bleak the beer landscape once was, but Steve Hindy is and he has wrapped up these changes in his new book The Craft Beer Revolution. From the title, and the inside slip of the dust cover, you might have the impression this book is about “craft” beer. I don’t think that is the case. This is the story of last 40 years of American beer. While Hindy focuses tightly on the many people and breweries who went after the big guys it’s important to note the Goliaths’ also have a role in this revolution.
Hindy uses much of his own personal experience in the beer world to shape and guide his work. From co-founding the Brooklyn Brewery to serving on the board of a few beer trade organizations Hindy has no lack of firsthand knowledge and personal anecdotes. Hindy also served as a journalist for the Associated Press which no doubt helped in ability to chronicle this story of American beer. The strongest aspects of The Craft Beer Revolution come from Hindy's personal touches and when he delves into the people who make beer. My personal favorite is a story about Jim Koch of Sam Adams yelling at Hindy in a hallway. I won't spoil the whole encounter here but that fight it's a telling moment in the history of American beer about how small breweries haven't always worked together to fight the big guys.
The “Class of ‘88” chapter sets the scene of what the craft beer of the late eighties looked like. Of the eleven breweries Hindy covers in the chapter most of them started as brewpubs. This is quite a bit different from the beer scene today, especially in places like my city of Denver where breweries are simply tap rooms with maybe a food truck nearby (in fact I am working on this review in one of those taprooms as this very moment). What's best about this chapter is the interesting personalities and the breweries that developed out of the passion of those brewers and owners. Hindy repeats this approach in later chapters as he divides breweries into the “Second Generation: Innovation,” and the “Third Generation: Many Models Emerge.”
A distinction that can be made about the Craft Beer Revolution is that the story told here is about the business of beer. This makes the book an essential read for anyone who wants to be in the business of making and selling beer. Several reflections throughout the book point out the struggles of starting and running a brewery. Important note, opening a brewery probably won't make you rich. From distribution, contract brewing, and working within the beer community there is much to be learned. Another important note, ultimately breweries are businesses. I found this to be particularly illuminating when looking at the sale of Goose Island to Anheuser-Busch. While "selling out" might appear to be an evil option for some craft beer geeks the truth is it can be hard to get cash out of a business. Most breweries need investors to get started and one day they will want their money back. Hindy makes the reality of this clear: "for many founders a sale is the only way to get any cash out of the business." Brewers owe much to the people who help them get their mash tun full of grain. Since there is so much on the business side in the Craft Beer Revolution there isn’t much about the actual beer. There are occasional stories like the crappy yeast that Red Hook used in their first few batches, or the patchwork gear that made New Albion brewhouse, but not much beyond that. I do think that an opportunity to talk about the beer itself and what went into making good beer could have added a little more depth—especially for the casual beer fan.
As far as the business side goes, Hindy makes one point that I think is worth emphasizing: "the lack of unity between large and small brewers is a problem for the US beer industry. There also are divisions among small brewers. Some of the new generation of local craft brewers regard the nationally distributed craft brands as their main competition. These divisions make the industry vulnerable to its enemies.” Much of The Craft Beer Revolution adds up to this point. If you learn anything from this book this should be it. In fact if you want to learn anything from this review this should be it. Personally, I think the community that exists between brewers is one of the most honorable and admirable aspects of American beer.
There is one terribly boring part of The Craft Beer Revolution: trade associations. While an essential part to the brewing community, trade associations are super boring. I could care less about all the different groups and the political workings of these organizations. It’s hard to relate to these stories as an outsider. Because these organizations have evolved and merged and disappeared it can also be a pain to follow who is who throughout the text. Wait, who's the BAA? Oh, is that the BOA? Or is it the BAIRABFJDKJREKJ? Oh, god another acronym I don't know! You'll either need to be in the industry or a super beer geek to really appreciate ALL of the material covered about these organizations.
Should you buy this book? Yes, if you are a fan of craft beer and want to better understand the business behind beer. This book puts the history of craft beer in perspective and helps lay down the challenges of the future. I also strongly suggest this book for people who either are in or want to be in the beer world. If this sounds like you should just go buy the book.