Good beer was hard to come by in Los Angeles during the 1970s. If you wanted something with a bit more flavour and character than a glass of fizzy water, you were out of luck – unless, of course, you made your own. Not that it was legal to make home brew in the US at the time but, this being America, there was someone prepared to take on the law. That man was Doug Odell, who began brewing at his home in Southern California.
"It was a very unusual thing to do," says Odell, now the founder and owner of his eponymous brewery in Colorado. "It was hard, too. We lived in this huge city but I had to drive 30 miles to get to the nearest shop where I could buy home-brewing equipment. The ingredients were really basic – you'd buy a bag of hops but it wouldn't tell you what they were, how strong they were. The beers were pretty bad but I stuck with it."
He wasn't alone. Dozens of Americans set out on the same trail, desperate to recreate a brewing culture killed almost stone dead by prohibition. Some 35 years on, they have succeeded in dramatic fashion. American brewing is now widely acknowledged to be the most exciting and innovative in the world. "The best beers in the world are being made over there," says Alastair Hook, one of England's most respected brewers, who runs Meantime in south London. An acknowledgement of this reality is the fact that the Great British Beer Festival (which takes place at Earl's Court in London next week) will be offering 180 American beers this year, more than twice as many as they've had before. At the great fête of British beer, American ales are set to be the centrepiece.
How exactly has this happened? To find out, you have to go back to 1978, when there were just 42 brewing companies in the US. Now there are more than 1,600. Today's great strength stems directly from that weakness in the 1970s, says Odell.
"What really opened it up for us was that the US brewing business was in rapid consolidation, starting from the end of the Sixties," he said. "They all made the same kind of beer – that American lager. There was an opening. It started with entrepreneurs, home-brewers whose friends told them they were making pretty good beer so they decided to go commercial. I was one of those."
In the Eighties and Nineties, these American brewers forged a new movement, taking European styles, such as pale ale and porter from England, and putting a new-world twist on them. It was – and is – a movement driven by passion, says Bob Pease, the vice president at the Brewers Association, an organisation roughly analogous to the Campaign for Real Ale in this country.
"Authenticity is the key to our movement's success," he states. "Consumers want a product that they can feel good about purchasing. The people that are behind craft-brewing in the US are as authentic, as real and as passionate as you get. And that really comes across."
That's fine as far as it goes, but American craft-brewing would not have established such a reputation around the world had it not been for the innovative nature of their beers. As the years have gone by, American beer has got more and more interesting.
"We have evolved because we're an inquisitive lot and we're always trying new things," says Odell. "We also want to brew what we like so there's a lot of innovation going on here in the States – now you can find beer styles that didn't exist 10 years ago, renditions of traditional styles that are unrecognisable."
Garrett Oliver, the brewer at the Brooklyn Brewery says nous picked up over the years has fuelled this innovative spirit. "Our craft movement has been going for 20 years; in that time, American brewers have developed considerable skill," he says. "Now we're able to create beers with not only interesting flavours, but also of very high quality on a consistent basis."
This lust for novelty is what sets the American brewing scene apart from the traditional big-hitters of the European beer world (Belgium being the notable exception). "The Reinheitsgebot [the German beer purity law that governs what may be used in beer] is great, but Americans could never be so constrained," says Pease. "Look at all the ingredients [the microbrewery from Maryland] Dogfish Head uses, for example."
Britain does not come off well when compared to the Americans. The Great British Beer Festival judges beers in eight categories; at the equivalent Stateside, the Great American Beer Festival (which was dreamt up in part by the late lamented beer writer and former Independent correspondent Michael Jackson) there are 79.
The UK has a great tradition but that isn't necessarily an advantage, says Odell. "In the UK, I think craft-brewers are at a bit of a disadvantage because the larger, older breweries that they're trying to compete with often make cask beer that has got some flavour," he says. "The profile difference between a craft-brewed 3.8 per cent bitter and a Marston's 3.8 bitter is not so distinct, not compared to an Odell IPA and a Bud Light."
One man who thinks the British brewing scene is dull compared to its American equivalent is Oliver. "The American brewing scene is much more varied generally than the British one," he says. "I was in London recently, and I was talking to importers. They were talking about how the British brewers are still just making the same three or four beers. Here's our ordinary bitter, our winter warmer or something – they're not really branching out and being influenced by other countries. That provides an instant limitation. I'm surprised to see that, to this day, so few British brewers are brewing Weiss beer, for example."
Despite that, plenty of ideas are crossing the Atlantic, as well as beers (the UK is the second-biggest market for American craft-brewers, after Sweden). The likes of Meantime, Thornbridge in Derbyshire and Brew Dog in Aberdeenshire are based along American craft-brewing lines.
"We call that the full-circle effect," says Pease. "Thirty years ago there was no good beer here, so American brewers started trying to imitate the styles of the UK, Belgium and Germany. We've now established ourselves as making some of the best beer in the world. Now you see small brewers popping up all over the world trying to imitate American craft-brewers. We're for that. We're all about better beer."
For all the positivity around the American scene, not everything is perfect. Craft-brewers still account for less than 5 per cent of sales in the domestic market. The likes of Budweiser and Miller dwarf even the mightiest craft-brewery – but that is changing, says Pease, because even in the recession there are Americans who want quality.
"Consumers over here are finally clueing in to what Europeans have known for generations," he says. "That is that fresh, local, independent producers are better for you, and their stuff tastes better. In Europe it's been part of everyday life. Going to the market – that's not how most Americans were raised. It's changing. People want to spend their money at local, independent businesses."
Not all American craft beers are necessarily to everyone's taste, though. It has become fashionable to make beers as bitter as possible by using a vast quantity of hops. It's an approach that Oliver is on record as disliking. "The hoppiest beer?" Garrett said to the New York Times. "It's a fairly idiotic pursuit, like a chef saying, 'This is the saltiest dish.' Anyone can toss hops in a pot, but can you make it beautiful?"
But even given this macho posturing, the American scene is in great shape. Oliver is convinced the future is bright. "People keep saying that at some point this fad is going to be over, it's going to slow down – but what they don't quite grasp is that it's not a trend or a fad. It's a return to normality. We used to have 4,000 breweries in the US.
"We used to have every kind of beer brewed in Europe and we used to have a really wonderful food culture made up of all the various immigrant groups that we have. This is not a fad – I like to think we are in recovery."
Modern American classics
* Brooklyn Lager
Apparently this is how good American beer could be before Prohibition – if so, it's no wonder hatchet-faced puritans took such a dislike to drinking. A fantastic balance of bitterness and mellow malt character, this is a long way from Budweiser.
* Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
For craft brewers in the US and elsewhere, this beer – first brewed in 1980 – is an icon. No wonder, since it's the ale that launched a thousand microbreweries by showing how Yanks could thrive with a British style. Sophisticated and complex.
* Odell 90 Shilling Ale
A Scottish style, this is the first beer that the Colorado brewery made in 1989. Light, smooth and moreish.
* Sierra Nevada Porter
Porter pretty much died out in England after the Second World War but American craft brewers helped to revive this lighter cousin of stout. Numerous breweries make it both sides of the Atlantic now, but this is one of the best.
* Goose Island IPA
IPA was first brewed for the British in India, but its spiritual home is now the US. Americans love big, bitter hop character and American IPAs deliver that in spades. Goose Island is not necessarily the most bitter – far from it – but it would hard to find one that was more drinkable.
Brewing's New World
A country more famous for its wine has been making waves with its beer of late. Toccalmatto, based in Fidenza near Parma, is one of the most respected: their Zona Cesarini, brewed with hops from Japan and New Zealand, will be available at the Great British Beer Festival.
Outside of the US, Denmark has perhaps the most exciting brewing culture – and it's one that has emerged at lightning speed. There are about 150 craft breweries in this nation today – compared to six in 2003. One of the most exciting is Copenhagen's Mikkeler, which brews a mind-blowing variety of beers.