Vintners and industrial-scale brewers (those that produce over 30,000 gallons of beer per day) have been enjoying a virtual monopoly in the legal production and sale of alcohol for nearly one hundred years. But it wasn’t always this way. In this paper, we’ll briefly discuss the roots of brewing beer in small batches (often referred to as family brewing, or more recently micro-brewing), review the current landscape, and conclude by looking at the opportunities and challenges for micro-brewers and micro-distillers today.
The Original American Spirit: Moonshine
Moonshine (aka hooch, white lightening, Tennessee white whiskey, and mountain dew), a term dating back to the Prohibition era (when Appalachian distillers who produced and distributed it, often did so by the light of the moon), generally refers to any high-proof spirit made in an “unlicensed still”. But that’s changing. Moonshine has become legitimate, with stores from Wal-Mart to Sam’s Club selling the stuff (often in authentic-looking Mason jars) right out in the open. The other name for Moonshine, Tennessee white whiskey, refers to the lack of color that characterises moonshine (along with Tennessee’s reputation as a central place for traditional moonshine production), which is essentially bourbon, or rum, or whiskey that is un-aged (aging in barrels is what gives spirits their signature amber hue).
The production and distribution of moonshine (typically made from sugar, corn, grains, or fruit) could be likened to a thriving cottage-industry, once upon a time. Even before the adoption of the Coffee still (sometime after the 1830s), legal distilleries in the United States numbered in the tens of thousands; the number of craft (or micro-) distillers and brewers peaked at 8,000 +/- during the 1880s. Larger producers began to chip away at the micro-brewing and micro-distilling industries before Prohibition, and after the onset of Prohibition (1920 to 1933) the small distillery market began a precipitous decline that lasted over a century.
Though legal small-scale distilling languished, illegal operations (bootlegging) continued. “Moonshine played a huge part in our history,” according to Georgia native Casey Teague, the manager at Mac McGee’s Irish Pub in Decatur, GA, “After the Civil War and Prohibition, it saved a lot of families. It put money in pockets and food on the table, especially in the South.”
And, like other notable American institutions and novelties of bygone eras, moonshine is making a comeback. In part because of the fascination with all things artisanal and local, and in part because of its economic potential. As one modern-day moonshiner put it, “When you think about it, there are not a lot of authentic American spirits: there’s Bourbon and there’s moonshine.”
For family producers during the Great Depression, micro-brewing/ distilling and distribution of moonshine was the sole thing standing between them and utter destitution, and as we’ll see later on, many states have begun to revoke anti-moonshine laws in the hopes that the influx of tourism and tax revenues it may generate will aid their ailing economies.
The U.S. craft distilling industry (another term for micro-distilling) renaissance got its’ start in California in 1982, with the start of micro-brewing operations at Jaxon Keys Winery (also known as Jepson Spirits) and Germain-Robin. Unlike California’s gold rush, craft brewing growth inched along and many years saw no new entrants. Eighteen years later, the field had grown to 12 states with operating craft distilleries. And today, a little over a decade later, craft distilleries operate in 45 states. The number of identifiable craft distilleries in production has gone from 24 in 2000, to 52 in 2005, to 234 by the end of 2011, and shows no signs of abating.
The chief determinant in a state’s development of a micro-brewing/distilling economy has been its revocation of the laws prohibitively restricting the legal sale and/or promotion of spirits by micro-brewers/distillers. And as the laws that affected these limitations have changed, the domino effect is a rapid escalation of micro-brewing/distilling operations in that state. A prime example is that of New York. After its passage of the Farm Distillery Act in 2007 (which eased the process for establishing a distillery), the number of craft distillers in New York grew from five in 2007 to over 20 in 2011.
Money in Moonshine
Business Time reported that in 2011, craft breweries contributed $3 billion to California’s economy (a substantial achievement given that California’s Napa Valley, with substantially more winemaking operations [391 wineries, more than 10 times the number of micro-brewing operations, has a $9.5 billion economic impact on the state). In New York, breweries support approximately 3,000 jobs, and according to a recent report, the craft brewing industry “footprint” accounts for over 100,000 employees nationwide.
Variety Is the Spice of Life
The variety of offerings among craft distillers has flowered during the renaissance, going beyond traditionals, such as gin, whiskey, rum, and brandy, to a host of specialty eau de vies, cordials, and liqueurs (i.e., Asian Pear based Eau de Vies, Arak & Ouzo, and honey-based “Bee Vodka”).