20 Years in Craft Beer

Deep Thoughts with Dave Hoops offers a master brewer’s reflections on a two-decade career in craft beer.

By Dave Hoops

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Greetings! I’m Dave Hoops, Master Brewer at Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth, MN. This issue I’m going to talk about the amazing ride I’ve enjoyed over two decades as a maker of beer.

I began my career in Northern California’s Bay Area. In the early 1990s, Northern California was the center of the craft beer universe. It was home to the first two craft breweries in America. Anchor Steam, reborn in 1965 under one of my brewing heroes, Fritz Maytag, was located in San Francisco. And The New Albion Brewery was reborn in 1976 under Jack McAuliffe and was located in Sonoma. These pioneers of our industry provided vision for others like Sierra Nevada, Bear Republic, Mendocino Brewing, Anderson Valley, Marin Brewing, Mad River, and Drakes, which all began in 1989 or before in Northern California. Being around these breweries and their brewers on a consistent basis definitely made an impression on me.

At that time, the brewing world was much smaller. Brewers got their start by begging and pestering existing brewers with offers of free labor in exchange for experience. Brewing schools were expensive but didn’t have waiting lists. And the founding fathers and sisters of our industry were more than willing to offer help and advice. If you wanted to attend brewing school, you either went to the University of California at Davis to learn from one of the world’s greatest brewing minds, Dr. Michael Lewis. Or you could attend the Siebel Institute in Chicago, led by Bill Siebel and a host of accomplished veteran brewers who could really teach a fledgling brewer how to work at a regional brewery.

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I went with both options, finishing with an internship at Goose Island in Chicago. My time in Chicago at Goose Island with Siebel really gave me a solid background to work at a larger regional brewery. When I returned to the Bay Area, I sent resumes to all 40+ Bay Area breweries and started showing up at my favorites each week to beg for a chance. During this time I found myself heading to Steelhead Brewery at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco almost daily to bug head brewer Shaun O’ Sullivan about job opportunities and brewery scuttlebutt. Shaun went on to open 21st Amendment Brewery and to this day has been one of my best friends and mentors in our industry.

My dream was to secure an entry-level position at Anchor Steam, and though it didn’t happen, I was fortunate to be hired by John Chamberlin, Head Brewer at the spanking new Pyramid Brewery in Berkeley. We had one of the very first über-cool German manufactured Steinecker brewhouses, and I was very excited. At that time Pyramid was a large craft beer player producing 180,000 barrels per year at two breweries. The first was in Berkeley and the second, in Seattle, boasted the number one selling hefeweizen in America, competing hard against Widmer from Portland.

The mid-90s were the first big growth period in the craft world. In 1994, 537 breweries were open, but many were undercapitalized. It was sad to witness a stretch between 1996 and 2000 when 300 breweries closed as the market cratered due to a flood of inferior product and fickle consumer tastes. This was a time of real concern for young brewers like me.

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We Bay Area brewers would hang out at MBAA meetings or just meet up over pints and talk about it. Things started to shift when the macro breweries started buying craft breweries. Red Hook was first as Budweiser purchased a share of the brewery. Now this is common and looked at very differently, but back then I had friends switching brewing jobs because of the hatred of the thought of working for a macro. At Pyramid, we faced daily rumors about eminent take over and consolidation of our brewery. As craft sales slowed down, we left our East Coast markets and by late 1999, when I moved to Minnesota, Pyramid was producing just 108,000 barrels per year. Scary times.

Then a funny thing happened. In 2013, in the U.S., 2,360 breweries were open with 1,500 still in development. To put that in perspective, 1,500 breweries in development is more than the total breweries that opened up in the years between 1996 and 2012. Clearly, the new owners had capital, brewers were getting better, and most importantly, the public had embraced us and developed a taste for good beer. What a wonderful time to be a brewer!

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