Every year on April 7—aka National Beer Day—a certain segment of society raises a glass to commemorate the anniversary of the Cullen-Harrison Act, a 1933 law that legalized the purchase, sale, and consumption of beer. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law 85 years ago and offered up a toast as he did so, saying, "I think this would be a good time for a beer."
Lager lovers, ale aficionados, and pilsener proponents have been nodding in agreement ever since. In fact, beer is now the third most consumed beverage in the world, trailing only water and tea.
While beer is big from Boise to Boston, California "is without question the king of craft beer," says Jeff Smith, writer/director of the film Craft: The California Beer Documentary. "With close to 1,000 breweries, there is so much beer out there for your pleasure, including every style and tons of experimentation."
The stats don't lie. According to the California Craft Beer Association, which hosts an annual Craft Beer Summit every September in Sacramento, the Golden State's craft beer industry has tripled in size in the last five years. More than 90% of California's 39.5 million residents live within 10 miles of a brewery. In 2016, the state produced 3.3 million barrels of beer—a number that has only gone up since.
Several factors have contributed to the prominence of craft beer in California.
"The industry has benefited from changing consumer tastes and appreciation for locally crafted, high-quality products—reflected in the evolution of coffee, farm-to-fork dining, and craft beer," says Leia Bailey, Managing Director of the California Craft Beer Association. "The craft beer movement began in California and the Golden State continues to lead the nation with creative, innovative beers, passionate brewers, and beer enthusiasts that demand access to fine, full-flavored, full-bodied beers."
Smith's documentary explores craft beer's history and evolution, detailing how the renaissance began in 1971 at Anchor Brewing in San Francisco when owner Fritz Maytag began bottling Anchor Steam Beer. Nine years later Ken Grossman opened Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico and developed a hop-forward Pale Ale that has influenced countless taste buds over the years.
From there the movement spread to San Diego County, where Karl Strauss, Ballast Point, Stone, and many others set up shop and helped establish the West Coast IPA style of intensely bitter, ultra-flavorful beers. Innovation and collaboration triggered entrepreneurship across the state, and now Sacramento, Oakland, Sonoma County, Orange County, and the Central Coast are firmly entrenched as craft beer hubs, with dozens of other communities following suit.
"My biggest takeaway from my travels was learning about the camaraderie that exists between brewers," Smith recalls, noting that he visited 80 California breweries during his monthlong shooting schedule. "In a very competitive market, one would think it would be a cutthroat business. In fact, the brewers share every aspect of their business with all of their 'competitors.' Whether that be the business, production, or the distribution side of things, there are no secrets."
This congenial culture extends to visitors, certainly, and beer tourism has taken off in California in much the same way that wine tourism has taken hold. By going straight to the brewpubs, beer lovers get the freshest beer possible, sample limited-release brews, socialize with fellow enthusiasts, and often get a chance to hobnob with the brewmasters. Also, beer festivals are a huge deal these days you'll find plenty of beer options at the top food-focused celebrations across the state.
So yes, by all means, raise a glass to National Beer Day on April 7. As for those 364 other days of the year, you could do a lot worse than plan a craft beer road trip in California.