A view into the US beer scene – chatting with American beer expert Julie Johnson

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Julie Johnson may not be a household name in Britain, but she is well known across the Atlantic for her contribution to the beer world as former Editor and part-owner of All About Beer magazine. A zoologist turned beer expert, Julie tells me about beer in America, sexism in brewing and the importance of Britain’s pub culture.  

I first heard Julie Johnson’s name when she was described to me as “one of those writers who when you read her work you wish you could write as well.” High praise indeed from none other than the beer-guru himself, Roger Protz!

Julie started her career in Zoology, where she originally studied baboon behaviour. “Please don’t make any jokes about beer drinkers being the natural progression from baboons,” she tells me – “I’ve heard them all!”

I wouldn’t dream of it. But I am interested to hear how someone ends up trading baboons for pints. Julie says she would love to tell me “I had my first sip of beer and the scales fell from my eyes – but it wasn’t like that.”

In fact, it was love that first introduced Julie to the beer world. Julie spent a few years living in the UK as a graduate student before returning to the states and marrying Daniel Bradford, who was then the Director of the Great American Beer Festival and involved in the Association of Brewers.

Julie tells me that one of their first dates involved meeting the famous beer writer Michael Jackson. “I started from the top!” she laughs. She took over as Editor of All About Beer magazine in the early 90s. Since then, Julie has been involved in numerous beer festivals and events in the sector, and has a wealth of experience and stories to tell.

 The explosion of American craft beer

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Image copyright to the Brewers Association

“The good guys won,” Julie exclaims, “a decade ago there were around 10 breweries in North Carolina – now there are over 200!”

It’s a similar story to the UK; where the number of independent breweries has skyrocketed to just shy of 2,000 in a few short years. On both sides of the Atlantic there has been a significant shift in focus from global, mass-produced beers to independent brewers.

“People are simply fascinated by local products,” Julie tells me, “especially ones that give you the opportunity to meet the person who made it. At the same time, local beers from another area hold sway for collectors who like to hunt down rare or hard-to-find bottles. It’s a big contradiction for a beer consumer.”

Julie explains that this trend presents a difficult choice for brewers. “As soon as a brewer scales up the real beer geeks will turn away from them – a bit like when your favourite band suddenly becomes mainstream. Some people will be happy for their success but many like the exclusive identification.”

Global brewers are no strangers to this phenomenon. Many are now aggressively buying up small breweries and re-marketing their products as “local” and “artisan”, posing a huge threat to beer consumers. A telling example no available in the UK is Goose Island, an American brewery that was acquired by AB-Inbev, largest brewing company in the world”. So what’s next in the beer world? There is still some room for growth, but that it will be slower than before. “Education is incredibly important” Julie tells me, “a customer’s first visit to a bottle shop can be overwhelming due to the sheer choice available. We need to be able to help customers make choices and build education into the experience of tasting and discovering new flavours to keep feeding that demand for new products.”

Beer culture in the US versus Britain

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Image copyright to the Brewers Association

Both Julie and I are in the unique position of having lived both in the States and Great Britain, and it was pretty easy to agree on the differences between the two countries.

“The closest thing we have to a pub in North Carolina is a brewery tap room,” Julie tells me. “Sports bars are common here, but they are not comparable to a British pub. At least a tap room has a bit of a community spirit; otherwise we’d having nothing over here. It would be a real shame if Britain’s pubs disappeared.”

I completely agree – while Boston is probably the city most blessed with pubs in the States, they aren’t prevalent enough to counter the puritanical views on alcohol. Most do not welcome children inside, and alcohol is restricted to those aged 21 and over. Julie sees this as cementing America’s perspective of alcohol as a “sin”, explaining that “it’s incredibly important to set an example for youngsters to learn about where beer fits into life – it shouldn’t be something shut away for adults only but part of a good day out.”

Yet there is still hope for the States. Julie tells me that craft beer has role to play in challenging these perceptions. “Craft beer isn’t just appealing to people because it is alcoholic – it’s flavourful and attracts those of us interested in its culinary qualities. It moves beer from the ‘sin’ category to ‘food’ and ‘experience’!”

Furthermore, tap rooms help to make beer drinking an experiential day out. “Our local tap room will set up outside with a food vendor and bands to put on events that are fun for the whole family,” Julie explains. “That helps make beer accessible to all.”

Sexism in the beer industry

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Image copyright to the Brewers Association

Julie tells me she has seen some significant changes in the beer industry over the last two decades. When she first took over the editorship of All About Beer it was rare enough that it was remarked on. “More than a few letters to the editor came expressing doubts upon seeing a woman in the Editor’s column!”

She had similar experiences in Britain in the early 90s – “I remember that sitting alone drinking beer in a pub in London was cause for comment from three men across the pub!”

We’ve come some way since then, but craft beer is still largely associated with “lad culture”. In fact, Julie explains that the States struggles even more than Britain in terms of marketing adverts and labels that stray into objectionable territory.

“The big brewers have always tried to appeal to men with sports references and girls in bikinis,” Julie says, “but small new brewers have the chance to do things differently. Some blow it spectacularly, but many are progressive, and women as consumers respond well to that.”

While the Brewers’ Association has been applauded for coming down on sexist labelling in America this year, Julie tells me they were put in a position where they simply “had to say something”. A tipping point we seem to be hurtling towards here in the UK.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think the general consumer hears much about this debate,” Julie says. “In America, even more than in Britain, beer is usually bought for home consumption and in many cases the primary household shopper is a woman. Brewers are not only missing out on potential customers but also alienating women who may be picking up a brew for a partner. They need to get it into their heads that women simply cannot be ignored.”

“Within brewing as well, women still face a number of obstacles by taking on what is usually considered a very physical and macho job. But we are starting to see changes – there is a group here called the Pink Boot Society which is doing wonders to support women in the brewing industry.”

America’s craft beer movement may be a few steps ahead of Britain, but we are facing similar challenges on both sides of the Atlantic. From sexist labelling, a puritanical anti-alcohol movement to the decline in drinking venues and challenges to small brewers, there is certainly a lot of overlap between the two countries.

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