By almost any objective measure, we are living and drinking in the midst of a golden age of brewing. Whether it’s the record number of American breweries (4,269), the diversity of beer styles recognized by the Association of Brewers (151), or craft beer’s percentage of domestic sales (16%), American beer drinkers have never had it so good.
But here’s an even more significant statistic: 5.6/6.9/9.6. That’s the ABV “slash line” representing the average strength of today’s pale ales, IPAs, and double, or imperial, IPAs. I have chosen to ignore the other 148 styles because it was American pale ale, after all, that launched the craft brewing revolution nearly four decades ago; American IPA that is currently its most popular style; and double IPA that is the most powerful expression of our present obsession with hop-forward beer. Together, these three styles form the backbone of nearly every American brewery’s portfolio.
Now, compare our current slash line with the slash line of the lager era that preceded the craft brewing renaissance: 4.2/5.0/6.3 (the average ABVs for light beer, premium beer, and malt liquor, respectively). Throughout most of the 20th century, everyday beer in America ranged from cheap, or “budget,” beer, characterized by a high percentage of adjunct grains and low alcohol content (4.0–4.5% ABV), to premium beer with a lower percentage of corn grits or rice and somewhat greater strength (4.5–5.0%). When the economy was good, more people drank premium beer, while recessions increased consumption of cheap beer. But towards the end of the century, the big industrial brewers figured out how to charge a premium price for lower-gravity beer: by calling it “light” (or Lite). This may have been a golden age for the ad agencies who crafted the illusion, but by most objective measures, like competition (just 38 brewing companies in the late 1970s) and diversity (one style, two strengths), it was a historic nadir for the craft of brewing.
Things began to change in 1980 when Sierra Nevada introduced a pale ale seasoned with Cascades hops, a revolutionary new strain developed by researchers at Oregon State University. (The short-lived New Albion brewery, in 1976, was the first to use Cascades commercially.) Sierra founder Ken Grossman felt his new beer needed a greater percentage of malt—and higher ABV—to balance the exuberance of these homegrown hops. Five-point-six percent seemed about right, establishing a new benchmark for everyday beer in the U.S. that is still the standard for American pale ales.
Five years earlier, the Anchor Brewing Co. had showcased the Cascade hop with an even bigger malt base when it introduced Liberty Ale at 5.9% ABV. The first modern IPA since Prohibition, Liberty Ale set the standard for IPAs until 1994, when Vinnie Cilurzo brewed an Inaugural Ale at the Blind Pig brewery in Temecula, CA, that weighed in somewhere between 6.5 and 7.0% ABV, ushering in the age of double IPAs. Today, 7.5% is generally viewed as the dividing line between single and double IPAs.
The slash line of our current era closely resembles that of the last golden age in brewing, in Victorian England. Thanks to the widespread application of new brewing tools such as the thermometer, hydrometer, and steam engine—as well as beer-friendly tax rates and government policies—English ale was the most consistent, potent, and affordable in the world, the envy of all brewing nations (much as American craft beer is today). Most of the beer consumed in working class Victorian pubs was called “X” or four-ale (because it cost four pence a quart), later known as mild. More affluent patrons in the upstairs saloon drank “XX,” a predecessor of pale ale, or bitter. Strong beer, typically aged for a year or more, was known as “XXXX” or stock ale. At its peak, around mid-century, the slash line for X, XX, and XXXX was 6.5/8.2/10.4, according to brewing records compiled by Ronald Pattinson. By the time Congress passed the Volstead Act in the U.S., increased taxes, temperance sentiment, and a world war had reduced Britain’s slash line to 2.3/3.6/6.1. Four-ale, which by the 1910s cost four pence a pint, was not even remotely intoxicating, and Burton and stock ales were less potent than mild had once been. The strength of English ales recovered somewhat during the 1920s, but would never come close to the ABVs of the 19th century.
A higher alcohol content doesn’t necessarily make beer better—malt liquor proved that in the 1980s and 90s—but it does present the brewer with a broader canvas on which to create more vivid flavors, more dramatic contrasts, and more complex blends of flavors. During a golden age such as this one, every batch of beer has the potential to be a work of art.