Beer and brewing have been part of American history since the first arrival of English, and later Dutch, settlers in the Northeast. (Few beer writers can resist quoting the log of the Mayflower, which landed in Massachusetts rather than heading on to Virginia, “our victuals being much spente, especially our beere.”) Along with cider and rum, beer was one of the standard beverages in colonial America, with much of it made in the home; commercial brewing was limited to cities and larger towns.

Well into the 19th century, virtually all American beer was ale, just as in the Old World. The introduction of lager brewing from Europe in the 1840s led to a revolution in both the style and quantity of American beer. As the United States expanded westward, lager brewers, almost all of them German, set up shop wherever they could find good water, a source of ice (a necessity until the invention of mechanical refrigeration and ice-making in the 1880s), and a thirsty population. The latter half of the 19th century saw the rise of the pale, golden, effervescent style of lager and the brewing companies (among them Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Schlitz, Pabst, Coors, and in the Northwest, Blitz-Weinhard, Rainier and Olympia) that would define American beer for the next 100 years.

Consolidation of the brewing industry was well under way when the U.S. adopted a national ban on the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” in 1920. The 18th Amendment was preceded by many years of increasing local, county, and state restrictions, including statewide prohibition in Oregon and Washington starting in 1916.

Many smaller breweries never reopened after Prohibition, and the consolidation of the industry continued through the middle third of the 20th century. By the 1970s, it looked like there would soon be nothing but three or four look-alike, taste-alike beers left, and beer drinkers in search of something more distinctive or flavorful looked mainly to imported beers. Most began with Heineken, available just about everywhere and having a sharper touch of bitterness than American lager. Better-stocked stores and bars carried some other European lagers like Löwenbräu (still coming from Munich then), the Danish Carlsberg and Tuborg, and genuine Pilsner Urquell from Czechoslovakia.

Those who had been to England came back talking about pints of amber-colored ale, rich in taste even if they were mysteriously served warm and flat. Back home they would seek out Bass Ale in bottles, or on tap in British-style pubs. The ultimate beer in those days was Guinness Stout, so flavorful it was sold in packages of four bottles where other beers came in six-packs.

There were a few local beers that offered distinctive flavor. Seattle’s Rainier Ale, known to its loyal fans and detractors alike as “the Green Death,” was a pale amber beer with good body, a noticeable hop bite, and a perception of great strength. Anchor Steam Beer, a San Francisco brand revived in the 1960s, was a copper-colored beer as hoppy and rich as an English bitter.

Frustrated beer drinkers get to work

From time to time beginning in the early 1970s, the major brewers would test more flavorful beers on European models or resurrect some defunct local brand name, but most of these experiments either faded back into bland sameness or disappeared. Meanwhile, a growing number of frustrated beer drinkers (especially in northern California and the Pacific Northwest) turned to brewing their own beers and ales, using older recipes and considerably more malt and hops than the big commercial breweries. Home brewing was an underground phenomenon until it was officially legalized in 1976, after which homebrew clubs and shops mushroomed. Some of these home brewers eventually turned their efforts to small-scale commercial brewing, and the “microbrewery” revolution was born.

The first “micro” in the country, New Albion in Sonoma, Calif., opened in 1976 and lasted only until 1980. Within a couple of years of its  demise, other pioneering micros, including Sierra Nevada, Bert Grant’s Yakima Brewing & Malting, Buffalo Bill’s Brewpub, and Mendocino  Brewing (the last using some of New Albion’s equipment), had begun operations, and they were soon joined by Redhook of Seattle and others.

By 1991, the third edition of Michael Jackson’s PocketGuide to Beer listed more than 80 small to medium-sized breweries in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska, and another 30 or so in other Western states and provinces.

With few exceptions, the West Coast homebrew and microbrew boom has been dominated by ale brewing. Ales in general are easier to produce, requiring less time and space than slower-fermenting lagers. Many West Coast brewers were also influenced by the British CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) movement of the 1970s, which worked to maintain and revive traditional ale styles against the increasing standardization of British beers (and the growing popularity of lager). However, there have always been some craft brewers who looked to Germany rather than the British Isles for models, and Thomas Kemper in Washington (now a brand of Pyramid) and Sudwerk and Gordon Biersch in California have bucked the trend by concentrating on lagers. Belgian ale styles continue to grow in popularity; Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing has a Belgian brewer and a full product line based on Belgian styles, while many other breweries have dabbled in Belgian-style brews.

The birth of the brewpub

At the beginning of the microbrewery movement, federal and state laws did not allow businesses to both brew beer and serve it, so early microbreweries generally sold all their beer in kegs to be served on draft in local pubs or bottled it for sale through local wholesale channels (sometimes both). However, a change in the law in 1982 allowed the birth of the brewpub, a place that serves beer brewed on the premises, usually with food as well.

By the early 1990s, the brewpub concept was crossing over into higher-ticket restaurants, and for a while it seemed that a six-barrel brewing system was as much a requisite for a new restaurant as a mesquite grill or a wood-burning pizza oven. Some of these were individual operators, lured by the promise of turnkey systems that could convert a few cents’ worth of ingredients into a $3 pint of beer, and many have gone by the wayside. Chain and franchise operations based on solid business plans have proven more reliable, and there are several such groups operating around the country.

Of course, the vast majority of restaurants are not brewing their own beer, but by and large the restaurant world has woken up to the fact that some diners prefer beer, even in a white-tablecloth setting. While few offer a beer list with anywhere near the depth of their wine lists, most are realizing that their beer-drinking customers won’t settle for just one or two obvious choices. Chances are they have a tap or two serving craft- brewed (preferably locally brewed) beers.

Specialty and microbrew beers have also become more common in small ethnic restaurants. It used to be that the choice with Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean or other ethnic cuisine was limited to a couple of beers from the home country plus Heineken, Bud and a “light” beer; but in recent years the distributors of regional craft brewers like Sierra Nevada, Anchor and Redhook have made major inroads into the small restaurant market, and some also feature genuine microbrews from local breweries.

Eleven years ago, in my previous book on this subject, I wrote, “There has never been a better time than now to be a beer lover, especially in America.” That is even more true today, especially here on the Pacific Coast, and I see no reason why it won’t continue to improve in the years to come.

Also from The Microbrew Lover's Cookbook

• Brewing in the West

• The Brewing Process and glossary of terms

• Beer at the Table

• From the Beer Belt (includes recipes)

• Pizza and Beyond (recipes)

• From the Spice Bazaar (recipes)

• Malt and Hops, Meet Ginger and Soy (recipes)

• From the Home of the Chile Pepper (recipes)

• Beer in the Melting Pot (recipes)

The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook 

Find the book at Amazon

From The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook, Copyright © 2002 by Jay Harlow. Used by arrangement with Jay Harlow.