A UNC alumnus and former senior editor of The New York Observer, Tom Acitelli is the author of “The Audacity of Hops,” which chronicles the history of America’s craft beer revolution.
Staff writer Alex Dixon spoke with Acitelli about the beer industry in North Carolina, a trip to Belgium and his favorite places to drink in Chapel Hill.
Daily Tar Heel: Why did you want to write a book about the history of craft brewing?
Tom Acitelli: I was a business journalist for many years in New York, and I wanted to write a great business story and craft beer fit that story. It’s very much an entrepreneurial story, and the story of business intersecting with several societal trends. And it was just a lot of fun.
DTH: In the book, you discuss how America influenced the craft brewery movement in other countries. Why do you think it started in America and how has it spread?
TA: As recently as 20 years ago, everyone looked to Northern Europe — Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, the Netherlands. Now, because of the craft beer movement in the United States, it’s sort of reversed. And craft beer movements in France, Italy, Argentina, look to the U.S.
DTH: What defines a craft brewery?
TA: Small batch beer made traditionally at an independent brewery.
DTH: In the book, you divide sections up by location, emphasizing centers for craft brewery movements. Does craft brewery spring up in a city and spread outward?
TA: They do tend to spring up in cities and spread outward. You need that customer base and usually you get breaks on industrial space.
I think what’s happening in North Carolina is interesting as far as craft beer goes because the state is encouraging brewers to open up within North Carolina.
North Carolina’s always been the most forward-looking Southern state. It turns out an educated, forward-looking workforce. These are the folks that lead the industries and the folks with the spending money and the tastes. They want good beer.
DTH: Do you think there’s a shift in consumer preferences for craft beers over the “big beers,” like Coors and Budweiser, that you mention in the book?
TA: Anecdotally, yes. You hear more about people pairing craft beers with good food. Statistically, it’s true because the American beer market is shrinking.
Recently, China overtook the United States as the world’s biggest brewing country by volume. While the overall market shrinks, the craft beer segment has been growing steadily now for at least 10 years. So while it represents 7 to 10 percent of the national market, in some areas, like the Pacific Northwest and Asheville and the Triangle in North Carolina, it may represent 15 to 25 percent, and those shares are only getting bigger.
DTH: What’s the best beer you’ve ever tasted?
TA: About two years ago, my wife and I went to six Trappist breweries in Belgium in a week. So I had a lot of Trappist ale right where it was made and that was kind of beautiful.
DTH: Where was your favorite place to drink when you attended UNC?
TA: Linda’s downstairs and He’s Not Here as well. Oh, and the Carolina Brewery is fantastic. They have something called the Frank Porter Graham.
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