That was when America pulled ahead of Europe in the we’re-the-best-beer-place-on-Earth competition. It wasn’t so much that American craft brewers were doing amazing things—they were—it was also that European nations were going through their own struggles, struggles that would have been familiar in many ways to American craft brewers.
In Great Britain, for instance, as the Birmingham Evening Mail so delicately put it in December 1998, “The once gentlemanly trade of beer making has fallen prey to big business.” One would have needed in the 1990s to look no further than that staple of British lore, the pub. A flurry of deals would by the new century leave the Japanese bank Nomura as the biggest owner of British pubs: more than 5,500, including 988 from the Bass estate acquired in a titanic nine-figure deal in February 2001.
Across the Irish Sea, something similar was happening with pub life, though with a nasty twist: Those faux-Irish pubs that popped up throughout the United States in the 1980s and 1990s now dominated the drinking landscape of Ireland itself; the nation’s National Heritage Trust estimated that by the end of the 1990s there were only 12 to 14 examples of authentic Irish pubs left in the capital and largest city, Dublin. Add to the fates of the pubs the fact that the number of breweries was rapidly decreasing—30 closed in the U.K. in the 1990s—and you had the story of American craft beer in reverse.
And what of Northern Europe, that great bulwark of beer style? During the 1990s, Belgium, the Netherlands, the reconstituted Germany and the emergent Czech Republic all saw their brewing industries consolidate. This was the era of the rise of Interbrew, the precursor to Anheuser-Busch InBev, and SABMiller as well as the expansions of Heineken and Carlsberg. At the same time, the industries’ styles had basically atrophied: Why fix what was never broken?
That left the Americans to reinterpret those centuries-old styles and thereby develop new ones, to blow past the Old World not simply in terms of production volume and number of breweries (though the U.S. did do that, too, in the 1990s) but in terms of innovation. The U.S. was uniquely positioned to do so, due to that animating feature of our history: mass immigration. Here’s how Englishman Michael Jackson put it in a 1988 update to his World Guide to Beer: “Far from lacking in a beer culture, the world’s most cosmopolitan country is enriched by the traditions of all its founding nations. It made almost every type of beer before Prohibition—and is now beginning to do so again.”
That was 25 National Beer Days ago. Cheers.