Finding America's Best Beers: Q&A with "The Audacity of Hops" Author Tom Acitelli
By Matt Haber
The next time you find yourself enjoying a finely crafted beer, you might want to ask yourself what it took to bring that drink to your lips. Tom Acitelli, author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America's Craft Beer Revolution (Chicago Review Press) did more than wonder about it: He went off across America in search of the stories behind the suds.
Acitelli, the founding editor of Curbed Boston, and a contributor to The New York Times and other publications, answered a few of our questions about where to find the best beers, how Europe is catching onto America's craft movement, and what it's like drinking brews infused with St. John's Wort or hot peppers.
Here are some of his insights:
Where is the heart of the American craft brewing scene?
Tom Acitelli: There are now more than 2,300 breweries in the United States, the most since the 1880s, so pinpointing a definite geographic heart might be a tad difficult. Spiritually, however, the American craft beer movement indisputably pivots on Northern California—specifically, the San Francisco Bay Area. The oldest craft brewery still in operation (Anchor Brewery, famous for its steam beer) is in an old coffee roastery in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood. The first startup craft brewery since Prohibition (New Albion Brewery, which went out of business in 1983) was also nearby, in Sonoma County wine country; and the nation's second- and third-oldest brewpubs, Mendocino Brewing and Buffalo Bill's, started just outside of San Francisco.
If someone wanted to plan a vacation entirely around tasting craft beers, where would you recommend they go?
Wonderful idea! I would recommend three locales. The first would be the San Francisco Bay Area, because of the aforementioned history and the decent public transit within the metro region. The second would be Asheville, N.C., which has been called "San Francisco East," in no small part due to the explosive growth in craft breweries—and many of these craft breweries are plucky startups that adore visitors. (I should note: most every craft brewery has samples for guests and they're usually free.) The final one would be Vermont. There are 27 craft breweries in the state of barely 600,000 souls—small area, beautiful environment, lots of choices.
Are you seeing small breweries catching on in other countries? Where's the next big beer scene?
It's very interesting: The two biggest European wine countries, France and Italy, have the two fast-growing craft beer scenes. And doubly interesting: They are taking their cues from the United States and not from traditional beer powerhouses (and fellow Europeans) Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Germany. Just about every beer style we know today—pilsner, pale ale, IPA, etc.—originated in Northern Europe, but French and Italian brewers seem especially curious about the interpretations of those styles done by American brewers. I can distinctly remember visiting the Brasserie De Saint-Sylvestre, a family-owned craft brewery in a tiny town near France's border with Belgium; the grandson in charge quizzed me about American brewers and Americans' taste in beers. He didn’t care about my recent trip to Belgium.
How many beers do you think you tasted during the course of writing this book? What was the strangest, what was the best?
Believe it or not, I stayed stone sober for large portions of researching and writing this book. Part of it was for energy and part of it was because I did not want to fall in love with a particular brewery's beer and lose a sense of objectivity. I will say this, though: I gained a new appreciation for milder, lower-alcohol beers, the kinds you can sip largely without consequence. On the other hand, I encountered plenty of so-called "extreme beers," which can be made from all sorts of ingredients beyond the traditional barley, yeast, water and hops (I had one made with St. John's Wort, another with hot peppers, and one that had been aged in an oak barrel with several gallons of zinfandel wine)—and they pack a huge kick that can render the next morning rather unproductive.
Be honest: You wrote this book just so you could travel around drink beer for a few years, right?
No comment. Seriously, though, if you can work it out so you don't have to drive after visiting the breweries and brewpubs, arranging a trip around craft beer, American or otherwise, can be fantastically relaxing. Just as I was getting the idea for the book, my wife and I spent a week driving around Belgium visiting breweries. We'd stay at inns (or, in one case, a monastery that made its own beer) in walking distance of the breweries. Very quiet, very tasty.