Before we savour the Next Beer Thing let’s pause to salute trail-blazing brewers

PINTS by Jason Foster


Craft beer drinkers are being barraged with new beer as all sorts of new breweries pop up to bring creative new beer to tantalize our palates. It’s great — it seems there’s no end of new things to appreciate.

But lingering in the background are a handful of breweries who have been at this a long time. Their names are familiar to us. Maybe our first tastes of craft beer came from products they made. We remember them fondly.

But do we drink their beer anymore?

These days when I mention one of the pioneers of craft brewing, either Canadian or American, I often get a surprisingly tepid response. I find myself wondering, why? It’s not as if these breweries suddenly don’t know how to make quality beer, or that their product is hard to find. So what’s up with the apparent quiet drift away from them?

Let me take a step back. I’m specifically talking about those first breweries to jump into the craft beer breach. In the U.S., that includes Anchor, Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer Company, Red Hook, Goose Island and others. In Canada, we would look to Granville Island, Big Rock, Amsterdam and Okanagan Springs. These are some of the breweries that got it all going and blazed the trail hundreds of breweries now follow.

(There are, of course, many others that are no longer with us, who died fighting the good fight. We should remember them, but for practical reasons they’re not really a part of this discussion.)

So how do you react to that list of names? When was the last time you had a beer from one of them? These days the response I frequently get is, “not recently.”

Well, why is that?

Clearly lots and lots of people are drinking those beers (more than ever before), so I’m really speaking to the narrower range of consumers that are fully engaged in the craft beer scene and pride themselves for staying on the cutting edge. Among many in that crowd, I think the reaction to those craft beer classics is closer to “meh” than “marvelous”.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m certain most craft aficionados have utmost respect for what these breweries have accomplished. I just don’t think they take their beer seriously anymore. And I think there are three factors that lead drinkers to dismiss these noble pioneers in favour of something newer.

First, palates have evolved. What was boundary pushing 25 years ago is commonplace today. When it was released in 1980, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale blew people’s minds with how hoppy it was. Big Rock had the nerve to sell a brown beer, for goodness sakes. The first generation of craft brewers embraced unimagined styles and flavours. Today, though, everyone has a pale ale, while brown ales seem almost pedestrian and the range of flavours available is staggering.

Second, we have to recognize these beer have been around a long time. Brand fatigue is bound to set in, especially when a new shiny bauble is just around the corner. Big Rock Traditional was the first craft beer for thousands of western Canadians. Today? I suspect hard-core beer fans rarely drink it. Anchor Steam continues to be the exemplar of its style, but it’s been around so long it fades into the background when a beer enthusiast ponders their next pint.

It’s a double-edged sword when brands become familiar. They become reliable, meaning they reach a level of trust a new brand would die for. However, they also become so comfortable they get taken for granted.

Third, the reality is the surviving pioneers have, for the most part, gotten quite big. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is the second-best-selling pale ale in the U.S. Some of these brewers have been bought out by the big boys, making them part of the establishment craft brewers were rebelling against. This hits craft beer aficionados in a couple of ways. First, it elicits an instinctive reaction to avoid it — every time an established craft brewery is bought out, the Internet is aflame with proclamations it will never again touch their lips. The criticism is often unfair, but it’s reality.

But more importantly, I think craft beer fans have a soft spot for the little guy. Even if we still respect the old trailblazers, I think many of us drift toward something newer — and thus, smaller — as a way to feel better about our purchasing choices.

I’m far from criticizing that instinct — I possess it myself. It’s part of what helps craft beer grow. Plus, if we asked, I imagine most of the pioneers would be just fine knowing we’re not buying their beer anymore because we’ve shifted to some small local brewery. They see part of their job as fostering a broader craft community.

I guess my goal is to remind craft beer fans that those pioneers still make great beer, are still active members of the craft beer world, and deserve a refreshed look once in a while.

A little less “meh” and more “marvelous” is in order.