If you aren’t immersed in it, it may seem like the rise of craft brewing is a fairly recent trend. But, take a look at the founding date of many of your favorite breweries and you’ll realize that it’s taken decades to get to where we are today. Yuengling might be the oldest brewery in the US (tracing its roots back to 1829), but it’s far from a craft brewing operation with a production volume of over three million barrels per year.
Anchor Brewing was founded in 1965. This seems insane when you realize that pretty much all the beer made in the US at that time was brewed by the likes of Coors, Pabst and the other big boys. Samuel Adams was founded in 1984 by beer pioneer Jim Koch.
Sierra Nevada might not seem like a craft brewery because you can pretty much find it at every convenience store in America. But, the brewers of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Torpedo Extra IPA have been making tasty brews since 1981 (the year I was born).
In recent years, Michigan’s Bell’s Brewing has become one of the most respected craft breweries in America. But, you might be surprised to know that the makers of Two Hearted and Oberon have been in production since 1985, the same year Michael J. Fox was starring in Teen Wolf.
Oregon’s Widmer Brothers has been producing high-quality beer since 1984. The brewery that made wheat beers accessible to everyone was founded by brothers (obviously) Kurt and Rob Widmer.
Even though many of the most respected craft breweries were founded thirty or more years ago, the class of ’96 was pretty impressive itself. The likes of Victory, Elysian, Ballast Point, Founders and Troegs are celebrating their 20th anniversary in 2016.
In the last twenty years, the craft brewing industry has changed dramatically. “We brewers have seduced a whole generation of consumers and wholesalers to love craft beer when most were not aware of its existence or virtues,” says Bill Covaleski, brewmaster and co-founder of Victory Brewing Company. “Today, there’s an intrinsic understanding and an appreciation – it’s a given that when you walk into most bars there will be craft beer on tap.” He says that it wasn’t always like this. Craft brewers spent years finding their place in a (literally) saturated beer marketplace. “There is now light, where there was mostly darkness.”
Even though so much has changed, Covaleski says that the passion of hard-working brew masters to create amazing, delicious, unique beer has stayed the same. “Brewers are liberated to follow their muse in creating new offerings that captivate their audience.”
The general beer drinker is a creature of habit. They have no problem drinking the same beer for decades and are extremely stubborn when it comes to trying something new. “Consumers are fiercely loyal to their favorite brewers and have always been vocal about it.” Especially if they have spent years drinking nothing but Coors and are all of a sudden handed an IPA. If it’s not the flavor they are used to, many drinkers are unwilling to try something new. Lucky for Covaleski and other brewers, reaching new drinkers has gotten easier in the last few decades. This is because sampling as many different craft beers as possible has become a cultural phenomenon.
The days of brand loyalty are dead. It’s now cool to download an app on your phone so that you can tag the different beers you’ve tried. It’s also popular to post Instagram photos of a new beer you’ve tried. “Now they have even more ways to communicate,” says Covaleski. “When we announced our partnership with Southern Tier earlier this month Victory fans took to social media to voice their support and congratulations.”
Victory is celebrating its 20th anniversary by releasing a pair of beers while bringing back a few popular brews from past years. “We’re always trying to keep those loyal fans happy while we attract even more Victory drinkers,” says Covaleski. “We have two great anniversary beers out until April.” Recently, they launched their Blackboard Series in early 2016. “We’re working on new ways to package old favorites and listening to our consumers, bringing back some smash hits from 2015 like Kirsch Gose and Sour Monkey.”
When Covaleski thinks back on the last twenty years, he immediately thinks about the beginning. “It is true that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, from our perspective.” He adds, “Ron (Barchet) and I took a small leap of faith in 1996 and our audience has always encouraged us to venture further, powering the growth of Victory.” It’s been a fun and humbling journey for Covaleski and Barchet. “I’m grateful everyday to do what I do and look forward to another twenty victorious years.”
To make things extra exciting, there are two anniversary beers. Anniversary XX is the large format bottle that Victory releases every year on their anniversary and it is available until April. It’s a classic, traditional Imperial Pilsner that highlights one of Victory’s great strengths, brewing great German-style beers. The other special beer, Anniversary 20, highlights the other end of the spectrum of Victory’s success: experimentation with new and exciting brewing practices. It’s an IPA brewed with a new hop variety harvested in Idaho that is just beginning to be used by brewers. It’s available in standard size bottles and on tap until April.
The list of “class of 96” brewers is below. It runs the spectrum from nationally distributed labels to regional brewpubs that sell locally.
- Ballast Point Brewing Company
- Elysian Brewing Company
- Firestone Walker Brewing Company
- Florida Beer Company (previously Indian River Brewing Company)
- Flying Fish Brewing Company
- Founders Brewing Company
- New Holland Brewing Company
- Real Ale Brewing Company
- Shmaltz Brewing Company
- Silver City Brewery
- Stone Brewing
- Third Street Aleworks
- Three Floyds Brewing
- Troegs Brewing Company
- Two Brothers Brewing Company
- Victory Brewing Company