Last Updated: 08 August 2013

Microbreweries, part 1: How the trend started

The microbrewery trend has simply exploded during the last decade, but the official beginning of microbrewing was as early as 1975. That was when brewmaster Bill Urquhart started his small-scale Litchborough Brewery in Northamptonshire and became Britain's first independent brewer for decades.

But Bill's bold initiative didn't immediately create a wave of new breweries. Only a few new small producers appeared on the scene in Britain during the following years. It was only when America's curiosity was ignited that the idea started to ferment in the brewery world.

In the USA of the eighties, as in many other countries, there were a few large brewery giants dominating the market. But there were dedicated beer connoisseurs here as well. With renewed inspiration from the UK, as well as Germany and Belgium, brewpubs, a combination of a microbrewery and a pub, started to appear here and there across the country.

From the USA, the microbrewery trend spread to New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and even Japan. Two common factors were noticeable in all of these countries: the domestic market was previously controlled by large groups of companies; and the state gradually eased regulations on the production of alcoholic beverages.

Volume and attitude

As the trend of microbreweries has grown, the term itself has become increasingly difficult to use. The definition usually involves a limitation on how much beer the brewery is allowed to produce. However, many successful companies which started as small-scale breweries are now exceeding these volumes.

While the attitude and methods used have become cornerstones for the breweries' good name and their sales. Now, these brewery operations are sometimes referred to as "craft breweries", a broader and perhaps fairer term.

Acquisitions and start-ups

In the USA alone, there are around 800 microbreweries, 1200 brewpubs and 90 regional craft breweries. Germany can boast over 900 craft breweries – and new companies are emerging around the world all of the time. Locally produced beer has almost become a popular movement that major brewery groups have reluctantly been forced to match.

At first, many beer giants tried to make new varieties of their existing products, where more taste and a more genuine handicraft were promised. The acquisition of small breweries or the creation of their own under a new brand are now more common.

The bottle says who you are

Of course, craft-brewed beer is usually more expensive than standard lager, sometimes considerably so. But something has changed for consumers. Maybe it's like anything else; we look to the USA and then react accordingly. Craft brewed beer represents one tenth of all beer sales there.

Add to this our increased efforts to express our personality with the produce we consume, and suddenly it is natural to choose a special beer. We are all unique individuals.

Breweries like to give their products unexpected and ambiguous names to further emphasize their uniqueness. One Swedish brewery called its beers Narren (Joker) and Bödeln (Executioner), another offers a beer called Vrak (Wreck). A further example would be the Norwegian festive beer, Underlig jul (Weird Christmas). Other breweries connect to traditional craftmanship and give their label a clearly historical design.

Some have also chosen to play on attitude. "Say goodbye to the corporate beer whores crazy for power and world domination", Scottish Brewdog declares on their website. If you are as successful as Brewdog, this cocky attitude may well be justified.

Brewdog started in 2007 as a two-man firm and in one year became Scotland's largest independent brewery. Thanks to the vivid language on its label, Punk IPA quickly became a bestseller in Scandinavia. Today the brewery has around 130 employees and, according to their own data, produces 3.6 million liters of beer a year. 

To be continued...

In part 2 of this article we will be examining the reality of microbrewing and visiting a successful Swedish craft brewery.

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