Tom Acitelli

1997: A NYC Brewpub Closes

Beer history guy Tom Acitelli takes us back 20 years, to when the Zip City brewpub in Manhattan closed its doors. Its cause of death was heavy competition.

Zip City, named for a fictional town invented by Sinclair Lewis, opened in late 1991. At the time, there were no brewpubs in New York City. For a while, Zip City had the city to itself. Then came the brewpub bubble of the late 1990s. In July 1996, an event called the New York City Brewpub Crawl Marathon stopped at 12 establishments. At the same time, a flood of microbrewed beer arrived on store shelves in New York. This at a time when craft had a tiny share of the nation’s beer market.

After Zip City’s demise, some in the media were ready to write off brewpubs—and even craft beer—as a passing fad. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the sector’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Iowa’s First Craft Brewery

It’s caucus day in Iowa, a perfect time to pass along a story from beer historian Tom Acitelli. It’s about Millstream Brewing Company, located in Iowa’s Amana Colonies.

Millstream was founded in 1985 by Carroll Zuber, who wanted to replicate the beers he’d enjoyed in Germany, and James and Dennis Roeming, who owned a restaurant in Amana. At the time, craft beer was a novelty in the nation’s midsection and a new brewery’s prospects in that region were dicey. Case in point: the Dubuque Star Brewery, which Joseph Pickett, Sr., bought in the 1970s. He upgraded Star’s equipment and released innovative beers—including one made with Iowa corn—but couldn’t survive industry consolidation.

But Pickett’s influence lived in through Millstream. He helped design both the brewery and its beers. Millstream took a big risk, specializing in lagers; Schild Brau (“Schild” is German for shield, an amber lager), remains the flagship of the brewery’s 15-beer lineup.

Millstream changed ownership in 2000, a year during which craft brewing endured a shakeout. The current owners—spouses Tom and Teresa Albert and Chris Priebe, a former Dubuque Star brewer and Millstream’s brewmaster—recently celebrated 30 years in business, and invited the former owners to join in the celebration.

Less Filling, Tastes Great

Can you believe that Miller Lite turns 40 next year? The beer’s big birthday prompted author Tom Acitelli to tell the story of its origin. One stop on the journey was Munich, where George Weissman, the chairman of Philip Morris–which had recently bought the Miller Brewing Company—asked his waiter to recommend a non-filling beer. The waiter suggested a Diat pilsner.

If you know about German beer, Diat isn’t a low-calorie beer, it’s a low-sugar lager brewed for people with diabetes. Weissman liked the beer, and so did his dinner guest, Miller Brewing’s new president, John Murphy. They decided that America was ready for a light beer.

As it turned out, Miller’s assets included the recipe for a light beer, which originated at the Rheingold Brewery in New York. It was marketed as Gablinger’s Diet Beer, which flopped badly. Meister Brau, which acquired the recipe from Rheingold, marketed it as Meister Brau Lite. That, too, was a failure.

Murphy got the message: “diet beer” doesn’t sell. Instead, he advertised it as “Everything You Wanted in a Beer. And Less.” And, of course, “Great Taste. Less Filling.” He also recruited retired athletes to endorse the beer. Miller Lite became one of the biggest successes in brewing history, and every major brewery responded by rolling out its own light beer.

The “light” movement spread far beyond beer. The makers of everything from soft drinks to barbecue sauce offered lower-calorie versions of their products. Some, such as Coca-Cola, even used the word “diet” in the new products’ names.

As for Miller Lite, one of its recent commercials claims that the beer “changed everything” by making beer drinkers more svelte and thus more attractive. Maybe diet beer sells after all, at least if the dreaded D-word doesn’t appear in the ads.

The Friday Mash (Seven Years’ War Edition)

On this day in 1756, Prussia’s king Frederick the Great attacked Saxony, beginning the Seven Years’ War. The conflict, which took place on five continents and involved most of the world’s powers, is better known to English-speaking North Americans as the French and Indian War.

And now…The Mash!

We begin in Germany, where the Mallersdorf Abbey’s Sister Doris has been a master brewer for nearly 40 years. She’s one of Bavaria’s few “ladies who lager”–and Europe’s last beer-brewing nun.

Beer historian Tom Acitelli credits a 2002 cut in the excise tax for the profusion of small breweries in Great Britain. He also credits a 1976 beer tax cut for America’s small-brewery boom.

NASCAR’s Jeff Gordon is a wine lover, but he also has a taste for good beer. Gordon recently showed up at Dogfish Head Artisan Ales, whose 61 Minute IPA really impressed him.

For years, Mexico’s brewing industry had been dominated by two large corporations, but change is slowly coming, thanks to the federal government’s efforts to curb monopolies in key industries.

Iowa officials are pondering what to do with the 150-year-old beer caves underneath I-380 in Cedar Rapids. The forgotten caves were exposed by this summer’s heavy rains.

Barrel-aged beer is becoming more popular, and brewers are looking beyond traditional bourbon barrels. Now they’re starting to age their beer in barrels once used for Scotch, rum, and wine.

Finally, the growth of microbreweries might give rise to a new breed of wholesalers. Yarmouth, Maine-based Vacationland Distributors specializes in craft breweries, especially those that have grown beyond the state’s maximum for self-distribution rights.

Duvel to Acquire Boulevard Brewing

The recent news that Duvel Moortgat, a Belgian brewery, will acquire majority ownership of Boulevard Brewing Company has rattled the craft beer community. Brad Tuttle of Time magazine suggests there’s a double standard at work here. In most industries, when an entrepreneur builds a business over many years, then sells it for tens of millions, it’s cause for celebration. However, when a craft brewer like Boulevard’s John McDonald cashes out, for an estimated $100 million no less, he’s made the proverbial deal with the devil.

Tuttle notes that McDonald will continue to be involved with the brewery, and that no recipes will be changed under the new ownership. His article also points out that Boulevard is more the exception than the rule. It quotes author Tom Acitelli, who asserts that owning a craft brewery “is not now and never has been a traditional path to wealth creation,” and goes on to warn that it’s much easier to start a brewery than to keep one going.

Another Beer Myth Gets Canned

It’s commonly believed that the first craft brewery to can its beer was Oskar Blues Brewing Company. Not so fast, beer writer Tom Acitelli warns us.

In All About Beer magazine, Aciteilli notes that the distinction belongs to Chief Oshkosh Red Lager. That brand was revived by Jeff Fulbright, the founder and president of Mid-Coast Brewing. Fulbright thought that Chief Oshkosh would become a heartland competitor to Anchor Steam and Sam Adams. But his brand, which debuted in 1991, couldn’t compete with the national brands.

Acitelli also notes that the first craft beer to be canned in North America was Yukon Gold, which first appeared in Canada’s Yukon Territory in 2001. He adds that four other canned craft beers–Pete’s Summer Brew, Capital Brewery’s Wisconsin Amber, Brewski Brewing’s Brewski Beer, and James Page Brewing’s Iron Range Amber Ale—all hit the shelves ahead of Dale’s Pale Ale. However, all of the American crafts that canned their beer in those days went out of business.

But back to Oskar Blues, In 1999, Calgary, Alberta-based Cask Brewing Systems introduced a small, manual machine that could fill two 12-ounce cans at one time. It cost $10,000, far less than the price tag for used canning machines on the aftermarket. Cask’s machine was originally aimed at brew-on-premises retailers but, when that trend fizzled, the company turned to craft brewers.

Oskar Blues was Cask’s first American client. For that, it deserves recognition.

Milestones in American Craft Beer History

Many of us plan to celebrate Independence Day with an American craft beer–something that, just a generation ago, barely existed. Tom Acitelli, the author of The Audacity of Hops, identifies four milestones that made America’s craft brewing industry what it is today.

First, there’s Fritz Maytag’s decision in 1965 to buy Anchor Brewing Company, the nation’s last surviving craft brewery, and improve what was then a very bad product. Maytag insisted on high quality and independent ownership, and suffered big financial losses for years before his brewery became a national icon.

Second, in 1966, Jack McAuliffe, a U.S. Navy mechanic stationed in Scotland, bought a home-brewing kit at a local drugstore and discovered he could brew a very good pale ale. His own attempt at commercial brewing, the New Albion Brewing Company, eventually failed–but not before it encouraged other homebrewers to go commercial.

Third, and you might not have known this, Coors Brewing Company tested a new hop variety, the Cascade hop, which was the first American-grown variety considered good enough to use as an aroma hop. Maytag used it in his Liberty Ale, released in 1975 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s famous ride. Liberty Ale led the way to modern India pale ale, the most popular style of American craft beer.

Finally, a 1976 act of Congress lowered the federal excise tax on the first 60,000 barrels of beer. After the tax cut took effect, the number of craft breweries in America grew rapidly. Many of them, including Jim Koch and Pete Slosberg, decided to rent the equipment and subcontract the labor at one of many under-capacity regional breweries being squeezed by industry consolidation.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The Audacity of Hops

Journalist and beer enthusiast Tom Acitelli has published a new book, The Audacity of Hops, which explores the craft beer revolution. The author, recently interviewed by Cassandra Garrison of Metro magazine, said that he initially approached the craft beer industry as a business story.

Acitelli said that he discovered craft beer had intersected with a number of culinary trends, and with cities’ economies. Asked what sparked the “craft beer revolution,” he pointed to a 1976 law that gave small brewers a break on federal excise tax and, of course, the legalization of homebrewing two years later. Along with that came a shift in public opinion away from homogenized beer and toward locally-sourced products.

Powered by WordPress