Beer History: Craft Beer Survivors and Vanished Brands

Left: A lost pioneer radiobread on Flickr

After some brief sojourns into more distant beer history, it's time to review a little bit of our more recent—but not always well-remembered—past. As recently as the mid-1990s, American beer was practically a punchline elsewhere in the world, although a number of craft brewing pioneers had been hard at work in various parts of the country. Quite a few of those brands are still going strong today, while many of the early 'rock stars' of the craft beer scene have since disappeared.

Way back in 1995, British beer writer and longtime editor of CAMRA's Good Beer Guide Roger Protz published The Ale Trail. While much of the book is concerned with European breweries, he saved a few words for the USA, Canada and Australia, despite their national reputations as lands of lager and little else.

Protz credited Fritz Maytag of Anchor as one of two driving forces behind the revival of quality beer in America, and he has rightly been lauded as helping kick-start the process; indeed, the continued success of Anchor Steam speaks for itself in that regard. But Protz gave equal time to Bert Grant, who opened America's first post-Prohibition brewpub in 1982.

Grant's long career in the industry led him from working for industrial-scale brewers to opening his Yakima, Washington, business, Grant's Brewery Pub. Grant's beers eventually made it out of the Pacific Northwest and were distributed in more than 25 states at one point. While the kilt-wearing Grant was one of the first 'characters' on the beer scene, the business he built did not long survive his death in 2001; the brewpub closed in 2006. But he is well-remembered in the region—tiny Yakima Craft Brewing Company inherited some of his equipment and is putting it to good use.

Another early craft brand with a (relatively) high profile in the 1990s has only just departed—Pete's Wicked Ale. Launched by homebrewer-made-good Pete Slosberg in 1986, the brand was popular enough to be desired by Gambrinus, whose portfolio now includes Shiner and Trumer Pils. Pete's Wicked Ale was one of the first craft beers to receive distribution nationwide, and Slosberg's marketing know-how and likability was a large part of its success. But the level of competition in the field has grown enormously since then, and as of March 1st, 2011, Pete's Wicked Ale is no more.

How Times Have Changed

In The Ale Trail, Roger Protz name-checks Garrett Oliver (now of Brooklyn Brewery) for brewing a great IPA at the now-defunct Manhattan Brewing Company. Protz notes that in Britain in 1994, 'fewer than a dozen draught beers called IPA' were available, and Worthington White Shield was mentioned as 'the last fragile hold on a once-great style.' Things have certainly changed in that regard—although perhaps more in the US than in Britain.

When Protz published this book, all craft brewers combined made up less than one percent of all beer sales in the US, and there were only around 400 of them. Iconic brands such as Dogfish Head and New Belgium were just getting started, while others such as Rogue, North Coast and Long Trail had some local recognition. Now there are more than 1600 breweries in the US, and they are closer to 7% of the beer market—and they are the only growing segment.

But it's well worth a look back at the recent past—it's easy to forget how fleeting success was for some well-known beers, or that only a few short years ago, ordering something beyond a Bud, Miller, Coors or Bass was nearly impossible.