The number of breweries across the U.S. has more than doubled in the last five years. The national Brewers Association says Hawai‘i's fourteen craft breweries contributed well over 200 million dollars to the local economy in 2014. As part of her series on craft brews, HPR’s Noe Tanigawa discovered these small local businesses are part of a sea change in American culture.
Beer Lab, on University Avenue in Mō‘ili‘ili is tucked in a former Bank of Hawai‘i, they’ve got brewing vats in the former vaults. Like a lot of the craft breweries in town, this place is handmade by the guys here brewing. Kevin Teruya and Nick Wong are introducing a couple of their beers: the False Crack and the Ollie.
Amazing. A distinct nearly lilikoi flavor is there, imparted only by yeast! According to the national Brewers Association, getting to talk with passionate makers, see the operation, and drink unique creations is the key to the proliferation of craft breweries not just here, but across the U.S. In turn, are those breweries changing the country? Definitely, says historian Maureen Ogle, author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.
Ogle: It could be true of many things, but beer offers a window into thinking about what it means to be an American. It’s an example of our tortured relationship with, not just alcohol, but pleasure. We’ve been good friends with alcohol and beer for maybe 15-20 thousand years. So it goes back a while. Every society would have a different take on how they think about alcohol.
Ogle: Certainly during the colonial period, alcohol was regarded as it had been in Europe for centuries , which is as a normal part of life. But Americans, there was a strong strain of alcohol is not really good for any of us and it’s not good for the country, and long before Prohibition went into effect, a hundred years before that, Americans were already fighting about the role alcohol should play in American culture, and in particular its negative role. Nobody ever had anything good to say about it. It became the crucible for serious conflict in the 1850’s and 1860’s between people who were concerned the country was becoming overrun by immigrants. The one thing the immigrants brought with them was an alcohol culture. Which, again, because Americans didn’t’ really approve of alcohol, by the middle of the 19th century we didn’t have an alcohol culture. Respectable people didn’t do that.
Ogle: When both the Germans and Irish began arriving in the 1840’s and 1850’s, they brought very distinct cultures of alcohol with them. And the Germans in particular moved to monetize that culture. In effect they wanted to reproduce northern European drinking culture into American society.
That became a flashpoint for people who were opposed to having more immigrants come in for may reasons. One being they would take too many people’s jobs. So there was a strong Prohibition movement already. It played itself out during the Civil War but when the war ended, around the middle of the 1870’s, an organized prohibition movement came back with real ferocity. And the modern movement that actually led eventually to constitutional prohibition took shape in the middle of the 1890’s. So the history of opposing alcohol is deeply entrenched and I would say as a historian we are enjoying the most open and amiable relationship with alcohol we have ever had.
Ogle: Even now it's difficult for a person who’s in a position of influence or an elected official to stand up and say, “You know there’s really nothing wrong with alcohol.”
Ogle says alcohol businesses were the only proponents for drinking, until after Prohibition, when in 1933, the great compromise was to nobody who made alcohol would be allowed to distribute it, and it had to go through multiple layers of state and local control.
Ogle: One thing the craft beer movement has done is be the catalyst for opening those laws up. in places like Hawai‘i, all over the country, it was people who wanted to launch small breweries who had to convince local legislators to change laws to make it easier to operate an alcohol business and easier to buy and consume that alcohol. We’re pretty much in a golden age of alcohol consumption in the United States right now, certainly far more open and acceptable than it was even fifty years ago.
Ogle says states have overturned laws that prohibit alcohol sales on Sundays. Until relatively recently in most places you could only buy alcohol from certain government stores, and it was only available certain days of the week, only during certain hours.
Ogle: Nowadays, though it’s a lot easier to keep a business going. Certainly a lot of credit for that has to go to very small beer makers all over the country who battled in one state after another because that’s where the laws had to be changed, at the state level.
Ogle: That’s been the big transformation since about 1980---an amazing transformation in Americans’ attitudes towards alcohol and its place in our daily life. Beer is good for communities, it’s a way to build a community and it contributes to community. It builds jobs.
“I think more people have better taste.” Tom Kearns owns and brews at Big Island Brew Haus in Waimea. He’s the national Brewers Association Contact in Hawai‘i, and has worked on brew friendly legislation since he was brew master at Maui Brewing in the 90’s and 2000’s.
Kearns: The brewing scene in Hawai‘i is alive and well, there are a lot of newer people, creative, talented people eager to make their own mark. From what I can see they’re making some great beer and doing some great things.
Kearns: I’ve also got some longstanding friends who have been at it and are still doing it in the business. We don’t really think about it as competition, at least so far. And I hope that doesn’t change much. I think there’s plenty of room for choices in the market and it makes for better variety and diversity. Consumers appreciate that.
Ogle says America’s in a golden age of alcohol consumption. Hawai‘i brewers are on it! How it’s done, next.