Alcohol is neither an amusement nor a commodity—at least, not historically speaking. Technically, of course, it’s a food or even a drug, but historically it might be better described as a utility. However, society does not view it as one.

To understand how cultural attitudes changed so much, and to appreciate the sociological significance of the craft
movement, we need to take a brief look at history—beginning with pre-history.

Anthropologists debate whether the primary driver for the development of agriculture was bread or beer. Patrick McGovern, the “Indiana Jones of alcohol,” favors beer because it is “easier to make, more nutritious, and has a mind-altering effect.” Fermented beverages, he claims, were the impetus behind hunter-gatherers settling down to cultivate grain.

Alcohol is beneficial to humans, particularly the prehistoric.

Alcohol kills harmful bacteria, and our forebears learned that lesson through direct experience. Prehistoric humans saw that the person drinking right out of the stream got sick and died while the guy drinking fermented beverages lived to be much older—and probably happier, too.

In addition to their physiological benefits, fermented beverages also helped overcome significant economic constraints. Stored grain, fruit and vegetables would often spoil prior to being used or before the next growing season. Fermented beverages lasted much longer. Societies that survived and prospered were pragmatic, and it didn’t take them long to recognize the utility of converting a significant portion of their harvest into fermented beverages for storage.

By the time Europeans began settling the American continent, this practice had become highly evolved, but its utilitarian roots remained firmly embedded in daily life. Laborers drank beer for breakfast before heading out to work. Farmers distilled excess grain into whiskey, which greatly extended shelf life and, being value-added, was more profitable. Beverage alcohol was woven into the very fabric of our society, serving a variety of economic, prophylactic and societal needs.

Prohibition virtually severed our connection to this long, and largely positive, cultural history.

The effect of Prohibition on our society is difficult to overestimate. As clean water and advanced food storage techniques became widespread, the understanding of beverage alcohol’s practical ancestry was lost. Drinking became associated with recreation and irresponsibility. Spirits were now considered a superfluous luxury, if not downright wicked and destructive. What was once called the water of life came to be known as the devil’s brew.

A major consequence of Prohibition was consolidation. The 18th Amendment effectively destroyed the country’s production capacity, and while the 21st Amendment repealed outright prohibition, it placed control of alcohol in the hands of the states, many of which erected significant legal and financial barriers to spirits production. A nation that had once had thousands of distilleries scattered across it was now reliant upon a small cartel.

This signaled the end, in America at least, of beverage alcohol’s agricultural heritage. Beer and spirits now came from a factory, like cars and tennis shoes. They weren’t food, much less antimicrobial agents with utility value. And we ceased treating them as such.

Of course, this phenomenon wasn’t only confined to beverage alcohol. After World War II, our entire relationship to food changed. A preponderance of the national cuisine became processed, packaged and pre-prepared. As the rates of obesity and alcohol abuse can attest, it’s difficult to maintain a healthy relationship with anything when we are so far removed from its production. And as our relationship with food grew more estranged, so did our connection to the elements involved in creating it.

Centralization is cost-effective.

It’s interesting to note that the rate of consolidation in farms across the U.S. largely mirrors that of distilleries and breweries. It’s just as interesting that the behavior of both of these curves changes significantly at almost exactly the same time.

In 1973, during the Arab-Israeli War, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries placed an oil embargo on the United States. Prices at the pump skyrocketed, the effects of which rippled through the whole of society. Consumers in search of more fuel-efficient automobiles turned to Japan, opening our eyes to the wealth of inexpensive and high-quality manufactured goods available there. The end of industrial manufacturing as a driving force in America’s labor economy had just begun.

Remarkably, this epoch marked not only the birth of the back-to-land and environmental movements but that of craft brewing as well. At the same time as newly arrived do-it-yourselfers began experimenting with foraged berry wine in the rural outreaches of Vermont and Washington State, their more entrepreneurial urban counterparts were reviving the neighborhood brewpub. With the founding of New Albion Brewery, in 1976, a true renaissance in American beverage alcohol production had begun.

Our modern civilization runs on oil. Generally speaking, when crude hits $100 a barrel, unemployment climbs to 10%. In 1982, the year in which the number of breweries in the U.S. switched from shrinking to increasing, the percentage of unemployed hit 10.8, the highest it had been since the 1930s.

Nothing promotes drinking better than having nothing to do.

When a group of out-of-work friends start tossing back beers together, it doesn’t take long, if they’re at all enterprising, for them to come to the conclusion that they can cut out the middleman, and maybe even make a few bucks, if they simply brew it themselves. Thus we find the impetus behind the meteoric rise in the number of craft breweries, an increase of 6,200% since its low of 93 breweries in 1982. Though somewhat diminished, that drive continues today.

Despite this, distilling spirits remained uniquely taboo. Hobby or home distilling was technically illegal and craft distilling largely unknown. Of course, many in the American South had maintained the tradition of making moonshine, and in pockets of the country’s grape- and apple-growing regions people continued turning excess produce into brandy, deriving greater value from their crops just as their ancestors had. But it wasn’t until the founding of St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA (notably also at the brewery low-tide mark in 1982), that the paradigm in spirits production started slowly to change.

Change is slow…

The Slow Food movement began in Italy as a resistance to the industrialization of Italian cuisine, specifically the 1986 opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Founded by Carlo Petrini and others in 1989 with the signing of the Slow Food Manifesto, it was the first formal expression of a sentiment that had building since the 1960s and the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. This new movement, however, went beyond the very valid concerns surrounding the detrimental effects of widespread chemical use, challenging what its supporters saw as the underlying agent in the decline of our species’ relationship with its environment: Fast Life.

As much as the pace, their concern was with the makeup. Once industrialization and commodification took hold, cultural appropriation and homogenization soon followed. The thinking went that decline in diversity threatened the web of life and ecological resilience along with it.

But it is also boring.

Beverage alcohol also suffered the malaise of centralization. At the height of brewing’s consolidation, the pinnacle of innovation was the 1975 launch of Miller Lite. Pale lagers dominated the American market, the only alternatives being European imports. Spirits followed a similar, if slightly different trend. While quite a few labels graced the shelves in liquor stores and behind bars, the majority of the spirits contained in those bottles were produced by a mere handful of monolithic facilities. Most of the variation in taste was the result of additives and flavorings rather than differences in process or terroir.

Then came the ’90s. With the economy booming, the food movement gaining traction and Americans thirsting for change, craft brewing took off like a rocket. Soon it seemed like there was a brewery in every town, each offering its own diverse expressions of the beverage. While craft’s growth can more aptly be attributed to economic conditions than the evolving palate that many want to credit, it is clear that people were ready to embrace something different.

Then 2008 saw the highest oil prices the world has ever known, reaching $145.61 a barrel for Brent Crude in July. By October 2009, unemployment in the U.S. rose to 10%—and craft distilling exploded.

Between 2008 and 2009, the number of micro-distilleries in the United States nearly doubled. The factors driving this growth were threefold: a wave of changing regulation opened the door, a large number of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers found themselves unemployed, and the high cost of shipping what was essentially water.

Nature favors decentralization.

A distributed network will always outperform a centralized one, unless, as it relates to production, the cost of moving the raw materials in and shipping the product out can be subsidized, either by cheap transportation to market or through efficiencies gained by automation or the division of labor. In the case of beverage alcohol, which is largely water, this is nearly impossible to achieve. As oil prices crept skyward, consumers demanded greater variety, and capital and labor funneled into craft, the old artificial climate of monopoly, protections and cheap diesel propping up the highly centralized beverage alcohol industry began to erode.

In addition to opening America’s eyes to the breadth of character that beer could exhibit, the other effect that the craft brewing boom had was to fundamentally alter our perception of what a drinking establishment could be. Craft breweries had more in common with pubs and restaurants than they did with their larger industrial cousins. Here, finally, beverage alcohol was coming full circle. At the craft brewery, drinking was more about food and community than it had been in generations.

At the local brewery, drinking was more about community than getting drunk.

In traditional cultures, alcohol is consumed with meals or shared among family and friends on special occasions to celebrate an achievement or mark a rite of passage. Beverages are often low in alcohol content and drunkenness largely frowned upon. With the advent of the modern craft brewpub, where consumption was legally constrained and customers intimately associated with the process of turning grain into beer, Americans were suddenly reconnected with this lost heritage.

Craft is about occupation.

This, more than taste or novelty or any other factor, is the purpose of craft and the motivation for its growth. It is not a trend or a segment, it is a reconnection with the very things upon which human civilization was built. It is a process of re-diversification, of creating resilience, of re-instilling our society with the values and skills that first allowed us to rise from the mud. To treat it as a commodity or an industry or a marketing gimmick, or to ignore the factors responsible for its formation and growth, is to miss the point. Craft precedes all of that. It isn’t a qualifier. Craft is a culture. It’s a way of life.