A Week to Celebrate Craft Beer

Small, Independent Breweries Lead the Way

By Julie Johnson
Photos by Matt Williams Photography
and Ginny Williams Photography

If you are a newly-legal beer drinker, you may take it for granted that your local restaurant offers dozens of beers in myriad styles, that you can pick up a New Belgium six-pack at a convenience store, or that an airport bar offers three choices of IPA. This was not always the case. Ask your once-thirsty elders.

This extraordinary diversity represents the triumph of craft beer, a phenomenon of the past three decades. That success is the focus of American Craft Beer Week from May 15th to 21st.

Given that US breweries have grown in number from 50 or so to over 5,000 from 1970 to today, craft beer’s place in our culture seems secure. But in fact, the double-digit annual growth of craft beer has attracted the interest of the big guys of international brewing. Having seen mainstream beer sales stagnate, they are now buying craft companies in part or in whole.

These purchases include craft darlings Goose Island of Chicago and Seattle’s Elysian (two of nine now owned by Anheuser-Busch), Lagunitas (50% owned by Heineken) and Ballast Point (Constellation), among others. This has brought controversy, as both brewers and drinkers argue about what constitutes craft, and which breweries belong in the craft club.

In the Triangle, Raleigh Times and The Flying Saucer will both mark American Craft Beer Week in different ways, with a slightly different audience in mind, and with their own take on what craft beer actually means.

At Raleigh Times, bar manager Bobby Covais has been collecting and aging high-octane stouts for the past year.

“Especially for the beer nerds, anytime they see these huge stouts – a lot of them are quite rare – and when they have that bit of age on them, they become even more special and sought-after,” he says. “The goal is always to bring in new people, but these styles are not really at the introductory level. A lot of people start off with the kölsches and lagers – the more see-through beers, I guess you could call them – and kind of graduate to the stouts.”

The concept of craft as small and specialized is important at Raleigh Times. “We don’t carry any of what people would consider macrobrews – no Budweiser, no Miller Lite, no Coors Light, beers like that.” But he won’t necessarily exclude craft beers from breweries now owned by the big beer companies, so long as the integrity of the beer doesn’t falter. “If that’s something that we start to see, then of course we’ll look in a different direction.”

The Flying Saucer Draught Emporium in Raleigh is one of 16 in a chain founded 22 years ago. The bar was a rare source of non-mainstream beer back when critics wondered if there was room in the market for a specialty beer spot.

“We like to tap a new special beer each day for American Craft Beer Week. We’ll run $3 dollar specials on really good beers,” says general manager Josh Hamilton.

He discusses the beer selection for “the wall” (the tap selection behind the bar) with the chain’s beer director, but the choice is ultimately a local one. “We try to keep our eyes open for the best up-and-coming breweries, because we’ve grown with companies like them over the years,” he says. “There’s always something new to try, and if someone is new to craft beer, their friends will lead them here.”

Hamilton also doesn’t rule out carrying beer from small breweries that have been purchased by the corporate players.

“True craft is definitely our highest priority and they get first dibs on my wall, but I can’t say that an AB-owned beer would never go there,” he says. Some have only become available in the Triangle thanks to the distribution muscle of Anheuser-Busch. “If one or two of those beers is carried, that’s okay. But if we’re carrying nine or 10 beers under the Anheuser-Busch blanket, that’s like having 10 beers from the same brewery at one time.” It also means ten fewer taps for small, independent companies.

For a week in May, support the small independent breweries that have invigorated the beer scene. That’s how your favorite brand, whatever it is, got its start.

Note: For a list of bars and breweries hosting events for American Craft Beer Week, see craftbeer.com/events.