Craft beer produced in small breweries is on the rise. The Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as someone who produces small amounts of innovative beer using traditional ingredients and methods, with the occasional odd ingredient for creativity. These craft breweries, also referred to as Micro Breweries, have sprouted up in the Bay Area, and not just in San Francisco. But this is nothing new.
Small breweries were once the norm in this country. Immigrants from Europe were bringing with them their desire and know-how for making good beer. At one point, most cities and many smaller towns had their own breweries. According to craftbeer.com, the number of breweries in 1810 was around 132, with a per capita consumption of less than one gallon. By 1873 the number of breweries had risen to an all time high of 4,131, and consumption was up to 20 gallons per capita, which is actually slightly less than the 21.5 gallons today. It was in this time period that Benicia got it’s first brewery.
The Benicia Brewery was the product of Swiss born immigrant John Rueger. Having learned his craft in his homeland, Rueger decided to journey to America, lured in part by the excitement of the Gold Rush. According to the Benicia Historical Museum, Rueger opened his first brewery in Marysville, but in 1855 decided to move his business to Benicia, which was quickly becoming a prominent city in the region. Rueger converted the California House on West H Street to a brewery, which remained in business until it burned in 1945. By that time the brewery had been renamed to the Benicia Brewery and Soda Works. For nearly 50 years Benicia had no breweries within the City. It was not until the mid 1990s that Benicia saw the return of breweries, when Devil Mountain and Huttenhain’s Brew Pub opened. Sadly they only lasted a couple of years.
Prohibition had taken its toll on breweries, but after it was repealed in 1933, the number of breweries quickly rose to 756 nationwide. Competition from big breweries squeezed out the smaller breweries, and by 1950 there were only slightly over 400. By 1980 there were only 80 breweries being run by 51 independent companies nationwide. But the tide was changing and a revolution was brewing.
Slowly, in the late 1970s, home brewing began to catch on and beer drinkers were introduced to beer that they hadn’t been able to buy for years. These new types of beer caught on and some home brewers went on to open small breweries, the birth of the modern micro brewery. Today there are over 1,800 small and independent craft brewers in the U.S. and the number is still growing. California added 108 small breweries in 2013, bringing the total to 480. This is more than any other state.
The good news is that it’s easy to find good beer, especially here in Benicia. Most of the establishments serving beer have craft beer on tap or in the bottle. With the number of craft brewers in the area beer lists change often, and special seasonal beers are offered for only a short time. And beer isn’t just for hot dogs and pretzels anymore. With the popularity and variety of craft beers available, beer and food pairing events have become more common. For an idea of pairing combinations go to craftbeer.com/food/pairing/pairing-chart.
As a salute to the Emerald Isle and craft beer, Benicia Main Street will be hosting a St Patrick’s Day Beer Crawl on Saturday, March 14. Participating business will be pouring craft beer from 2pm to 6pm in Benicia’s downtown. For more information go to beniciamainstreet.org/benicia-events.