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Four milestones that made the U.S. the world's craft beer champ

  • Art's Place, in Rohnert Park, has a variety of beers on tap. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

The Brewers Association, the main trade group for U.S. beer-makers, announced June 20 that the number of American breweries had surpassed 2,500, more than at any time since at least the 1880s and more than in any other nation.

The vast majority (more than 2,300) are craft breweries, independently owned companies that make beer on a small scale using traditional ingredients. There are also, according to the association, as many as 1,559 breweries in the planning stages, most of them craft.

This growth shouldn't be surprising, given that craft beer's share of the $99 billion U.S. beer market increased to $10.2 billion in 2012, from $8.7 billion in 2011.

European beer was once considered the world's best. Brewers there didn't produce in the same volume as Anheuser-Busch, but their products were regarded as higher quality. That perception began to change in the 1990s, as U.S. craft beer makers racked up successive years of double-digit growth.

By the new century, many critics recognized U.S. beer for its excellence. American brewers had redefined age-old styles and created new ones; and their consumers were increasingly savvy.

There were four important milestones in the development of the industry.

Anchor: In 1965, the home-appliance heir Fritz Maytag saved San Francisco's Anchor Brewing Co., the last craft brewery in the U<WC>nited States. <WC1>Anchor's beer was pretty bad, and so Maytag decided to make it better. In so doing, he set benchmarks for future makers of craft beer.

First, Maytag decided that his brewery would remain small and wouldn't follow the trend in American brewing of increasing volume and expanding distribution. Second, it would remain independently owned, no matter how much money it lost (and it lost plenty, well into the 1970s).

Most importantly, Maytag used only traditional ingredients. No more adjuncts such as corn syrup or rice <WC>—<WC1> only hops, malted grains such as barley, and yeast and water.

New Albion: In late 1966, Jack McAuliffe, a U.S. Navy mechanic stationed in Scotland, visited a Boots drug store in Glasgow. Hoping to recreate the rich European beers he knew he wouldn't be able to get in the United States, he bought a home-brewing kit.

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