Hank Standridge believes a revolution is brewing, and the United States government has made it official.
Today marks the end of “National Craft Beer Week,” which, according to a proclamation in Congress, declares American craft brewers to be a “vibrant affirmation and expression of American entrepreneurial traditions ...” However to the novice, the term “craft beer” might be unfamiliar if not downright contradictory. After all, beer is beer, right?
As brewmaster for the Cannon Brew Pub in downtown Columbus, Standridge aims to educate the palates of the thirsty masses one frothy pint at a time. And he’s earned the framed degrees to prove it.
In 2008, Standridge mortgaged his home for tuition to attend what he jokingly calls “Beer College,” the renowned Seibel Institute of Technology in Chicago and Doemens Brewing Academy in Munich, Germany, where he earned the World Brewing Academy International Diploma in Brewing Technology. His efforts were acknowledged locally when Columbus Mayor Jim Wetherington proclaimed Feb. 3, 2009 to be “Hank Standridge Day.”
Such accolades and world travels have strengthened Standridge’s resolve to share his passion for beers with a greater complexity and intensity of taste than the familiar convenience store fodder.
Collectively, they’re known as “craft beers,” an umbrella term for small brewers who produce less than 2 million barrels per year, are independent and stick to using traditional ingredients such as malted barley while also using non-traditional ingredients such as coffee, honey and various spices.
“Basically craft beers are about quality over quantity,” Standridge says. “Craft beer is all about taking risks, knowing you’re creating a unique and distinctive product that not everyone is going to appreciate. With beer — good beer — there are so many varieties that no one can honestly say, ‘I don’t like beer’ because there will inevitably be a style that fits them.”
And he’s been doing just that since 2003. Having cleared up a bit of licensing confusion, Standridge is back and brewing with familiar favorites on tap like Red Jacket Ale and City Mills Wheat, while The Special Ops IPA, the Ironclad Stout and the Golden’s Foundry will be on tap soon.
“My job is to find the beer that fits their particular tastes,” he says.
With more than 34 billion gallons consumed annually, beer is by far the most popular alcoholic beverage in the world. More than 150 breweries are responsible for the beer made in the United States, with more than 90 percent of those defined as craft beers. And yet, as of 2008, U.S. craft breweries represented only 6.3 percent of overall beer sales in the U.S.
But that is quietly changing. The number of craft brewers has gone from eight in 1980 to 537 in 1994 to 1,501 in 2008. Craft brewers operate in 344 congressional districts and the majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a brewery, according to the Brewers Association.
“I believe that we are in the midst of a craft beer revolution,” says Standridge, sitting at a table near the bar as the Cannon’s lively lunch crowd thinned out. “Craft beer is becoming more mainstream and is getting more media attention. While it still remains under the radar, it’s building steam.”
Standridge isn’t speaking just of breweries in the Northwest, where Portland, for example, has more breweries than any other city in the world and was nicknamed “Beervana” by the Oregon tourism industry.
“We’re a little slow to catch up, but the South has become the new frontier for this revolution,” he says, grinning proudly. “We are the least developed craft beer region; however we are the fastest, growing at a clip of about 20-30 percent annually.”
With 16 total breweries, Georgia ranks 44th in breweries per capita, placing it above Arkansas with four, Alabama with five, Louisiana with four and Mississippi with one — all of which are at the bottom of the national list.
Joe Conard, owner of Homebrew of Columbus, admits to being both a wine and beer snob, and for good reason.
“You couldn’t hand me a Budweiser if I were on fire,” he says, sitting in a worn recliner as a nearby radio plays softly in the background. “It’s the difference between homemade bread and Wonder Bread. Beer and wine are both food. You decide how well you’re going to eat.”
In the world of craft brewing, there’s nothing more independent than home-brewing beer. It’s also where many brewmasters like Hank Standridge got their start.
Standridge grew up washing bottles for his father, Don, learning the art of home-brewing until he reached legal age. He started working at the Cannon for free in early 2000 before finally getting the position of brewmaster. He even brought some of his homebrews into the job interview.
“A lot of people don’t think this is a real job … that I actually make beer for a living,” says Standridge, looking over his shoulder to the hulking brewhouse vats and tanks looming in a loft above the bar. “But this is a very labor-intensive process. It takes so much from chemistry and physics to microbiology.
“It’s always a learning process … plus you get to drink your mistakes.”
Whether created in an effort to save money or simply out of curiosity for the process, with the purchase of a beginner’s brewing kit for around $40 and a hearty dose of patience anyone can brew beer in his or her kitchen.
And just as it is with craft beers pulled from a cooler, the recipe options for homebrews are limited only by imagination, Conard says.
“There are only four ingredients in beer — water, malt, hops and yeast,” he says. “Of course, that’s like saying there’s only eight notes in music.”
An education in every sip
Beer has gotten a bad reputation over the years, mostly from wine snobs who consider it a lower-class beverage. But craft beers are every bit as refined as wine, explains Daniel Thomas, owner’s assistant at Columbus Beverage Company.
“You get a lot more complexity in your craft beers because they’re trying new things and experimenting with different ingredients that can place more on the palate,” he says. “The average wine has around 140 cell units your palate picks up versus the more than 480 in a quality craft beer.”
From the right glass to the technique of the perfect pour and finally its complementary pairings with food, beer — good beer — deserves to be savored and not chugged, he says.
“It’s like the difference between getting a box of wine or a $100 cabernet,” he says, leaning against a display of single pint bottles hailing from Belgium to Delaware. “It’s all over the spectrum in terms of taste. But if you’re looking to drink 30 beers … craft beers aren’t going to work.”
The difference being that craft beers are made with a greater emphasis placed on flavor and general brewing process. The major beer distributors simply cannot compete because it’s not cost effective to have a product that’s labor intensive and generally lacks a mass-market appeal, he says, whereas craft brewers aim for those with a more selective palate.
“Just like with jug wine, they squeeze the grapes, put the juice in the bottle and call it wine when really it’s not,” Thomas says. “That’s the same with beer. There’s a difference between hitting a button and making beer and having a brewmaster climb in the vat and knowing just by smell that something’s off and deciding to start all over.
“Craft beer is about making something extraordinary.”
Beer, just like wine, offers an education in every sip.
“I take a lot of chances in introducing a new style to people because they generally haven’t experienced it before,” Standridge says. “I get to introduce someone to something new. Whether they like it or not isn’t the point. The fact is that I helped open their minds to form an opinion. That’s how the revolution grows.”
But with popularity comes the fear that mainstream acceptance will somehow taint the integrity and independence that makes craft beer unique.
“I hope it keeps growing but not to the point where everybody is doing it and exploits or bastardizes it,” Thomas says. “Craft beers should always be about taste, not sales.”
Brett Buckner is an independent correspondent and can be contacted at email@example.com