It started, as so many things do these days, with a tweet:
When analyzing the history of American craft beer, one of the fascinating qualifiers in recent years has been the description used for longstanding breweries that helped create the path so many have followed. “Heritage” and “legacy” are words thrown around often as adjectives for these businesses that launched so many beer enthusiasts: Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head, Stone, and others.
Yet, none of these breweries have actually been around for that long. Stone opened in 1996! But for many drinkers, they’re old news, only made relevant by the constant churn of new brands released that helps them stay relevant and ratchet up Untappd check-ins.
Modern American craft beer is weird. It’s really not that old, whereas what would qualify as “full flavored” or “non-macro” or whatever non-corporate title style beer elsewhere around the world goes back hundreds of years as the OG option.
The US industry sometimes feels different because in its short lifespan, the combination of American culture, palate and ingenuity has allowed its beer to evolve wildly and rapidly. An easy example might be the country’s defining craft style, IPA, which in just the last 10 years has seen its trendiness shift from malt balance to IBU arms race to moderated bitterness to sweetness and fruit to hazy and juicy. An India Pale Ale that gets a beer geek excited today wouldn’t be recognizable to someone from 2008, and likely vice versa.
And that was the basis for the above tweet. 2018 looks to be the year many of these “heritage” breweries continue their efforts to keep up with their smaller, nimbler craft counterparts. Research and development has always been a huge part of breweries like Sierra Nevada or Boston Beer, it’s just that sometimes it feels like they’re left behind because the younger members of the industry are capable of moving at such a fast pace. These older breweries are showing up to the party late, asking “How do you do, fellow kids?“
This is the basis for the Brewery Assumed Lifetime Formula (ALF for short), a wildly unscientific, inaccurate (but sorta fun!) way to put into context the “age” of these longtime breweries.
Rather than create a formula that simply makes breweries seem old, I’ve focused on the context of US heritage breweries vs. their historic and beloved counter parts around the world. By doing this, the goal is to set a multiplier to apply to a brewery’s actual age vs. a perceived one artificially created by me. The cat (5:1) and dog (7:1) animal-to-human years ratio was a quirky place to start, so why not?
I started with pulling a small collection of historic breweries that represent some of the oldest, if not the oldest, breweries in their respective countries. That list includes:
|Pilsner Urquell||1842||Czech Republic||176|
To create a baseline representative of US craft breweries, I chose Anchor, which was founded in its modern capacity (both the business and its place among modern craft beer) in 1965 and generally regarded as the first American craft brewer. There’s some consideration toward New Albion having that title, for what it’s worth.
Using the ages of the world’s oldest breweries and America’s counterpart, I wanted to put them on an even playing field regarding their age vs. their country’s beer scene. In the same way we have different aging for cats and dogs, I divided the actual age of a foreign brewery by the age of Anchor, which was “born” 53 years ago.
For example, Pilsner Urquell is 176 years old, so in “Czech Beer Years,” a comparison for American beer would be 3.3:1.
The way that then breaks down for the historic breweries in US brewery age vs. foreign brewery age is:
In the final step, I wanted to average all those different ratios to determine one common number to use as our multiplier. Across the above breweries, that left us with an average of 7.7, so that’s what we’ll use.
For those crazy enough to follow along, here’s the “formula”
How “Old” are US Breweries?
All this insanity leads to this. The “comparative” ages of US breweries, put in context of their global counterparts. If modern craft brewing has been around for 53 years, here’s a list of what that looks like in Brewery Assumed Lifetime Formula years:
It’s kind of fun to consider the ages of US breweries and their equivalents, although the tricky part is the foreign breweries are more or less defined by their contributions to one or a few beer styles, whereas in America, all these businesses have had to diversify pretty regularly over their lifespans.
Cherry picking some odd connections, like Pilsner Urquell brought us … pilsner. And the closest in assumed age is Stone, which arguably helped to popularize the style of IPA for many Americans. So pretty much the same thing, right? (I kid)
Yes, This is Silly
This is all clearly for laughs and has no real merit other than an excuse to have killed some time thinking differently on what it means to be a “heritage” brewer in today’s US marketplace. The biggest thing I might consider is simply how different it is for American breweries who are always looking at how trends are shifting while trying to remain true to their own core ethos.
It feels rather strange to think about a brewery that’s 15, 20 or, heaven forbid, 25 years old as part of the “Old Guard,” but the speed of which we’ve added breweries in this country has been rather phenomenal. Since 2000, when the Brewers Association reports we had 1,566 breweries, we’ve since added about 4,500. By that measure, 75% of these businesses have opened in the last 17 years! About 1,500 since 2015 alone! There were 163 when Anchor opened in 1965, hitting a low point of 92 in 1980. It’s pretty much 6,000 new businesses that are currently in operation in just under 40 years.
That’s a lot! And it’s awesome!
So maybe when we talk about Sierra Nevada launching a New England IPA, it’s not that we should feel odd about it (I rather like it) but that the reason for that feeling is because they the brewery has been in our collective beer drinking consciousness for so long. Like, “293” years-worth long.
Now comes the fun part: let me know in the comments below or on Twitter how the formula should be tweaked or how we could otherwise consider the process.
1 thought on “You’re Actually as Old as Your Feel: Introducing ALF, the Brewery Assumed Lifetime Formula”
Good article Bryan, interesting way to look at it. I’ve always understood the crafts’ heritage claims to mean they brew broadly in a traditional manner, similar to the 1800s viz lots of hops, often all-malt, usually no pasteurization, maybe barrel aging, etc.
Old-school brewers also claimed heritage, pre-craft I mean, so maybe it’s all just a formula, but the post 1965 Anchor history does in general reflect a heritage/artisan approach in this sense IMO.
Never a perfect picture though, and of course marketing often plays a role in all this.