The U.S. craft beer industry is exploding. Although two companies – Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors – have produced more than 75 percent of all beer consumed in the United States for decades, America now has more craft breweries than at any time in recorded history.
Private investment firms are pouring money into small breweries as though they were Silicon Valley startups. Towns looking to revitalize are offering economic incentives for people willing to start up craft breweries in their areas.
To our collective detriment, there is little sociology research on the subject of craft beer, even though this industry is built on the kinds of social connections that we and our colleagues have long studied in other contexts. So we decided to do a bit of our own research.
After analyzing in-depth interviews with 18 New England craft brewers, we have found that they are creating a regional industry here with the kind of local roots that many people associate more readily with wine than beer. By fostering social, economic and historic connections, craft brewers are thriving in a region that produces little hops or barley.
The terroir of beer
The concept of terroir, meaning the environmental factors that influence how a food tastes, has been primarily used to link wine production with specific places. The production ecologies of wine, champagne and cheese all consider factors including soil, topography and microclimate. Terroir often refers to ecological and cultural conditions that create a sense of group identity by engaging with and consuming particular products – especially food.
Increasingly, craft brewers also are speaking of their product’s terroir and the interplay of place, cultural traditions, ecology and science that create an idea of beer. The turn to terroir in brewing is rooted in various movements, including slow food, back-to-the-land, and locavorism. All of these movements stress a strong relationship between food, practices and place.
Most macro beer from large producers like Miller, Budweiser and Coors is homogeneous. It tastes the same whether it is made in St. Louis or New Hampshire, or whether it is consumed in Austin or San Diego.
In contrast, craft beer often reflects local styles or ingredients. A craft brewed India pale ale from Throwback Brewery in North Hampton, New Hampshire will not taste the same as an IPA from Revival in Cranston, Rhode Island. In fact, both breweries will most likely produce several different versions of IPA.
Dan, a co-founder of Maine Beer Co., told us that Maine Beer did not sell its beer beyond a certain geographic boundary because they wanted it to retain its connection to Maine. Craft beer tourists now travel to specific locales in New England just to taste craft beers, such as an authentic New England IPA, developed earlier this decade, which they cannot find, taste or purchase where they live.
Cultivating local roots
New England craft brewers also are redefining the concept of terroir itself. They have no choice: Grain, the chief ingredient of beer, is not grown here in large enough quantities to make a place-specific product. Other components of beer, such as hops, are just beginning to show up on local farms.