THE annual Great American Beer Festival is scheduled in Denver next month, so it's time again to take stock of the craft brewing industry. That's the term for the smaller breweries that produce the more painstakingly brewed, richly flavored beers and ales. They are still a tiny proportion of the brewing business in this country -- a little over 1 million barrels out of more than 180 million barrels produced -- but growing fast. It was once said that a microbrewery produced less than Anheuser-Busch spilled in a day, but no longer.
Some of the craft beers have been so successful they no longer qualify as microbreweries, which produce no more than 15,000 barrels a year. They're not up with the majors, like Anheuser, Miller and Coors, and never will be. But breweries like Boston Beer Co., which produces the Samuel Adams family of beers and ales, and the granddaddy, Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco, are now ranked as regional breweries. Sam Adams is now sold in every state, though not all over each one.
There were 286 microbreweries and brewpubs in the country last year, according to the craft brewers' trade group, the Association of Brewers, compared with 250 a year earlier. One measure of the industry's startling growth in the past decade is the 24 breweries which entered 45 beers in the first festival in 1983. This year they expect 800 entries from 200 breweries.
Maryland is doing its share to provide quality beers and ales, in contrast with the pallid stuff produced by the giants. There are three brewpubs (bars that produce their own beers) in Baltimore: Sisson's, the Baltimore Brewing Co. (which now qualify legally as microbreweries, which permits them to sell their products off premises) and the Wharf Rat.
Oxford Brewing Co. and Wild Goose Brewery are full-fledged microbreweries which bottle their wares. Brewpubs are legal but not yet operating in some other areas.
It's now possible to get locally brewed, lovingly crafted beers and ales in virtually any urban area of the country. Brewpubs and microbreweries proliferate on the West Coast, especially the Northwest, but even previously barren Alabama has one now.
If this Bud's not for you, just look around.