A microbrew is usually defined as a beer brewed commercially by a small brewery (a microbrewery) using craft brewing methods. Often the brewery makes up part of a brewpub, a brewery attached to a bar or restaurant.
In order to survive, microbreweries have tended to look for niche markets not being supplied by the mega brewers such as Anheuser-Busch and Coors. For example, German-style lagers, Belgian-style fruit flavored beers and Irish-style stout are currently being produced by North American microbreweries.
A Brief North American Beer History
The American and Canadian history of brewing beer predates the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620. The earliest immigrants are believed to have brewed beer from corn soon after they arrived in North America. Two Dutch immigrants, Adrian Block and Hans Christiansen, set up the first commercial brewery on Manhattan Island in what is now New York City in 1612.
Successive generations of settlers found that barley (for malt) and hops flourish in much of the eastern United States. Consequently, small breweries that brewed for local consumption prospered.
Following the Civil War in the 1860s, the growth of cities and the development of the railroad system made beer distribution simpler. The easier methods of distribution coupled with the influx of beer drinkers from Germany and Ireland led to a dramatic expansion in the volume and types of beers produced. By the end of the nineteenth century, brewing German-style lager beers, rather than traditional ales, had become the norm.
Beer History: Prohibition
With the introduction of prohibition in 1919, the brewing industry faced turmoil. Many small and large regional brewers ceased brewing altogether. The larger brewers, including Anheuser-Busch and Pabst, switched to producing near beer: beer containing less than 0.5 percent alcohol.
By the end of prohibition in 1933, the American public had developed a taste for light, insipid, lager beers. As a result, large brewers gained a stranglehold on the mass beer market.
More Recent Beer History
In the second half of the twentieth century, more Americans traveled abroad than ever before. American military personnel and tourists alike discovered the wide variety of tasty, full-bodied lagers and ales available at German beer gardens and in traditional British pubs.
In the early 1980s, a number of pioneering American and Canadian brewers set up microbreweries to reintroduce a choice of high-quality beers to North America. Although setbacks occurred during the early days of craft brewing, the sector is continually growing stronger in the beer market. Microbreweries now supply about three percent of all beer consumed in the United States.
Microbreweries: Where Next?
Microbreweries and brewpubs have come a long way since their difficult rebirth in the 1980s. Every US state and Canadian province now seems to have microbreweries. In addition, longer-established regional brewers, such as Anchor Brewing in San Francisco and Samuel Adams in Boston, have seen a resurgence of interest in their beers due to the growing craft brewing phenomenon.
The growth of microbreweries is not restricted to North America. The globalization and consolidation of the world beer market have encouraged the development of craft brewing and microbreweries in many countries, including Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
Great Britain’s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) reported that 80 new breweries had opened in the year leading up to September 2005. Great Britain is now hosting to about 500 microbreweries, more microbreweries per person than any other country in the world. Beer drinkers around the world have been more than pleased to follow the North American-born trend of the microbrewery!