"This isn't one of those fake holidays. No, this is officially sanctioned by Congress, as of 2006. Which in my book makes it the equal to the separation of church and state." —Steven Colbert
It may seem a little silly to print out and sign a "Declaration of Beer Independence," like that provided by the Brewery Association, organizers of American Craft Beer Week (May 17-23, americancraftbeerweek.org). But take a look at the not-so-fine print on the faux-aged PDF and you'll find a lot that makes sense, even beyond the realm of hops and suds.
Like, "I declare the beer I choose is not a commodity, but more importantly an artistic creation of living liquid history made from passionate innovators." A bit florid, sure, and with grammar that might have you scratching your head (the beer is made from the brewers?), but the sentiment is powerful. There are over 1,400 craft brewers in the U.S., most operated by people who got into the business not because they expected to make a lot of cash, but because they loved beer.
And what a thing to love! From such a simple four-letter word comes a huge number of different styles, each with the potential for almost infinite variety. Geography plays a part, the brewer has a role, and the biological necessity of fermentation handles the rest, producing a bubbling glass of something special each and every time.
You might expect me to knock good old American macro-brews here for their simple flavors and dumbed-down marketing schemes, but the truth is I feel that we serious beer drinkers — and craft brewers, as well — owe the big boys a debt of gratitude. If it wasn't for them, many Americans wouldn't be drinking the good stuff.
Take wine, as an example. Although a lot like beer in many ways — with complexities and flavors determined by geography, winemaker and style — wine has not been able to entice the average American consumer in the past few generations. Most folks see wine as an arcane, even pompous beverage. They're frightened of it.
But thanks to people like Adolf Coors and Adolphus Busch, beer is the vital juice that sloshes in the heart of the American drinking psyche. It's accessible, even if you might not grasp the subtleties of hop variety or the intricacy of malt percentages, and even the most expensive brands are priced well within the range of the average consumer. Graduate from Michelob to Amber Bock and you're a short hop away from America's incredible array of varied craft brews. And people are making that leap.
Overall, U.S. beer sales were down by 2.2 percent in 2009. American craft brew sales, however, were up by 7.2 percent, and rose by 5.9 percent the year before. Leap, my macro-brew brothers, leap.
Here in the Bay area, we have even more to feel happy about. There are a half-dozen commercial outfits that brew their own beer, from a brewpub like Tampa Bay Brewing Company to the tiny warehouse-brewery Saint Somewhere in Tarpon Springs. 2009 was also the first full year of operation for Tampa's Cigar City Brewing, which brought home a gold medal from the Great American Beer Festival for its Humidor Series IPA. Even better, we have a rich selection of serious beer bars pouring great brews, scattered across every corner of the Bay area.
There's no need to print the American Craft Beer Week's silly pledge, because — hopefully — you already live it. Not only will you support the hard-working people who pour their hearts and souls into each bottle of brew this week, you'll do it all year long.
Although maybe you can drink a little more of the good stuff this week. Special occasion and all.
BREW GARDEN 904 N McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater, 727-797-6622 or thebrewgarden.com. Brew Garden sets itself apart from many of the local beer bars by specializing in European imports. You'll still find some American craft-brews on tap and in bottles, but the focus is definitely on Belgian classics.
CIDER HOUSE 1752 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-822-7400 or ciderhouse.us. This cozy pub is just a few blocks from Tropicana Field, with 80 beers that make it a no-brainer for brew-loving Rays fans who want a change from the usual stadium-adjacent sports bars.
CIGAR CITY BREWING 3924 West Spruce St., Tampa, 813-348-6363 x206 or cigarcitybrewing.com. You probably won't want to hang out for hours in the somewhat sterile setting of Cigar City's tasting room, but it's well worth taking a set and downing a few pints of one of Tampa's (and the world's) best beer when you come in to fill your growler.
DATZ DELICATESSEN 2616 S Macdill Ave., Tampa, 813-831-7000 or datzdeli.com. Although Datz still suffers from multiple personality disorder — is it a deli, or a restaurant, or a bar? — the beer program here fits into whatever guise the place has on at the moment. There's a healthy selection of interesting beer by the bottle, sold at prices more geared to the retail market than bar consumption.