What are Microbreweries? (And Why Are They Becoming so Popular?)

craft beersAre you familiar with the phrase, “go big or go home?” That might be true in some arenas, but not in the world of brewing. Microbreweries are proof you can go small and still rule the day. But what defines a microbrewery, and why are these joints so popular?

For an official definition of “microbrewery,” let’s start with the Miriam Webster Online Dictionary. This well-known source of important language-related information defines the microbrewery as a small brewing operation with limited output. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

What is considered limited output?

In the United States the term “craft brewery” is now applied to microbrewing operations; most likely because it sounds a bit more upscale and classy. But both terms describe the same type of operation: a brewery that produces fewer than six million barrels per year.

We know, “micro” and “six million” seldom go together in the same sentence when you’re sober. But remember, we’re talking about beer and the institution of brewing said beverage.

According to the Brewers Association, a brewery must also be independent to be considered part of the category. Independence is defined as being less than 25% owned or controlled by another brewery classified outside of the category.

If that all sounds a bit confusing, it might be because those who came up the qualifications may have done so at the end of a long day of taste testing. To make it as simple as possible, a microbrewery produces a lot less beer than a conglomerate and cannot be owned by one of the big boys.

Where did microbreweries start?

The history of microbrewing is a matter of debate; a sometimes loud and drunken debate. But the general consensus suggests it dates back to the early 1970s and the U.K. Apparently, there was a sudden demand among the British for something known as “cask beer”; a beer that couldn’t be created properly by large-scale operations.

In addition, tax laws were favorable to breweries making smaller quantities of product. That gave rise to plenty of entrepreneurial brewmasters who decided to open their own establishments. But, lo and behold, the friendly tax situation didn’t last long. As soon as the tax man figured out how much beer was flowing, he wanted his share.

About the same time, the homebrewing hobby in the U.S. really began to take off. A handful of microbrewery operations sprung up to fill in the gap between the brewing giants and those willing to mix anything at home and call it beer. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, microbreweries continued to plug along despite constant criticism and mockery.

Why do people love microbreweries so much?

Trying to figure out why Americans love their microbreweries is not an easy task. Our first guess is that the American beer drinker has grown up. In other words, we’ve had enough of the bland, one-size-fits-all brews coming out of corporations lacking in both imagination and flair. Bikini-clad models can only do so much for marketing.

Another way to think of it is in terms of choices. When a corporate brewery offers a standard pale beer and a watering down light version as their main products, where are you going? You might just as well flush your money down the urinal and get rid of the middleman.

We suspect another reason that people like microbreweries is the fact that they tend to attach themselves to brewpubs or local bars. Not surgically attach, mind you, but attach in terms of building a mutually beneficial business relationship.

When a microbrewery makes its products available at local brew pub or bar, they are able to foster customer loyalty and a measure of exclusivity. They’ve been so successful in this endeavor that they’ve managed to cultivate an entire generation of snooty, self-absorbed beer drinkers who wouldn’t dare be caught dead drinking anything but a signature ale with a very hip name.

We don’t mean to be critical, but when your brewpub begins to look like a certain sofa-heavy coffee shop from a 1990s sitcom, there’s a problem. It’s fortunate such establishments aren’t the norm for microbreweries and brewpubs.

One last possible reason for the popularity of microbreweries might be the natural independent streak running in the blood of most Americans. We’ve long been an anti-corporate culture that views conglomerates with suspicion. For all intents and purposes, a microbrewery is to the corporate brewing industry what the local mom-and-pop diner is to the world of chain restaurants.

Is the number of microbreweries in the U.S. growing?

Snooty, self-absorbed beer drinkers aside, the microbrewery industry continues to grow at an astonishing pace. According to WLUC TV6 in Negaunee, Michigan, roughly 100 new microbreweries open in the U.S. every year. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula alone there are eight of them. You can find them in large cities, small towns, and even rural areas all across the country.

The best thing about the microbrewery industry is that they’re not under the same oppressive federal regulations to which distilleries are subject. That means a lot more beer production by a lot more microbreweries. What’s more, there is a unique American flavor that makes our microbrewery industry distinctly different from what you find in Europe.

There’s no better time to be a beer drinker in the U.S. than right now. So raise your glasses to your favorite brewer and the lager of the month. Then lustily shout your favorite beer drinking cheer and down the hatch she goes!