Micro or craft breweries have adopted a different marketing strategy than large, mass-market breweries, offering products that compete on the basis of quality and diversity, instead of low price and advertising. Their influence has been much greater than their market share (which amounts to only 2% in the UK), indicated by the fact that large commercial breweries have introduced new brands intended to compete for some of the microbrewery market, and when this failed, they have invested in or bought some microbreweries.
In the early twentieth century, Prohibition drove many breweries in the US into bankruptcy because they could not rely on selling "sacramental wine" as wineries of that era did. After several decades of consolidation of breweries, most American commercial beer was produced by a few very large corporations, resulting in a very uniform, mild-tasting lager, of which Budweiser and Miller are well-known examples. Consequently, some beer drinkers craving variety turned to homebrewing and eventually a few started doing so on a slightly larger scale. For inspiration, they turned to Britain, Germany, and Belgium, where a centuries-old tradition of artisan beer and cask ale production had never died out.
The popularity of these products was such that the trend quickly spread, and hundreds of small breweries sprang up, often attached to a bar (known as a "brewpub") where the product could be sold directly. As microbrews proliferated, some became more than microbrews, necessitating the definition of the broader category of craft beer - high quality beer. The largest American craft brewery is Samuel Adams.
American microbreweries typically distribute through a wholesaler in a traditional three-tier system, others act as their own distributor (wholesaler) and sell to retailers and/or directly to the consumer through a tap room, attached restaurant, or off-premise sales. Because alcohol control is left up to the states, there are many state-to-state differences in the laws.
The Association of Brewers reports that in 2007 there were 1,406 regional craft breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs in the United States.
Before the development of large commercial breweries, beer would have been brewed on the premises from which it was sold. Alewives would put out a sign such as an ale-wand to show when their beer was ready. Gradually men became involved in brewing and organised themselves into guilds such as the Brewers Guild in London of 1342 and the Edinburgh Society of Brewers in 1598; as brewing became more organised and reliable many inns and taverns ceased brewing for themselves and bought beer from these early commercial breweries.
However, there were some brewpubs which continued to brew their own beer, such as the Blue Anchor brewpub in Helston, Cornwall, England, which was established in 1400, and is regarded as the oldest brewpub in the British Isles. In Britain during the 20th century most of the traditional pubs which brewed their own beer in the brewhouse round the back of the pub, were bought out by larger breweries and ceased brewing on the premises. By the mid-1970s only four remained, All Nations, The Old Swan, the Three Tuns and the Blue Anchor.
In Germany, the brewpub or brauhaus remained the most common source of beer. However, the trend throughout the rest of the world during the early to mid 20th century was for larger brewing companies.
The trend toward larger brewing companies started to change during the 1970s when the popularity of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA)'s campaign for traditional brewing methods, and the success of Michael Jackson's World Guide to Beer, encouraged brewers in the UK such as Peter Austin to form their own small breweries or brewpubs. In 1979 a chain of UK brewpubs, known as the "Firkin" pubs, started.
Interest spread to America, and in 1982 Grant's Brewery Pub in Yakima, Washington was opened, reviving the American "brewery taverns" of well-known early Americans as William Penn, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry. The growth since then has been considerable: the Association of Brewers reports that in 2006 there were 1,389 regional craft breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs in the United States.
In Dublin, Ireland, as in the UK, there were brewpubs. And, as in the UK, these had closed after large breweries, such as Guinness, were formed. In France a chain of American style brewpubs operate under the name Les 3 Brasseurs.
In Canada, changes in outdated liquor control laws finally allowed "Spinnakers" to open in Victoria, British Columbia in 1984. Legislative changes followed in other provinces and brewpubs quickly sprouted up across the country in the 1980s and 1990s. Standouts include the Brewsters chain operating in Saskatchewan and Alberta, Dieu du Ciel in Montreal, and the multi award-winning Bushwakker Brewpub in Regina, Saskatchewan—the city which boasts the highest brewpub per-capita ratio in Canada at 1:30,000.
Craft beer may refer to the products of brewpubs and smaller breweries, as well as some all-malt beers produced by larger breweries and applicable brews from outside the US. Many craft beers are unfiltered, bottle conditioned or cask conditioned. They generally contain fewer adjuncts than mass-produced beers.
In the United Kingdom, CAMRA use the term "real ale" to refer to unfiltered beers that are not force-carbonated, such as cask ale. In the US, such cask ales are uncommon, and craft beers on draft are mainly served from pressurised kegs, though American bottle conditioned beers are real ales.
The interest in beer styles in the US has increased steadily since Michael Jackson's 1977 book The World Guide to Beer was published in America. Additionally, the enactment of laws clarifying the legality of homebrewing in 1979 encouraged an increase in hobbyists who contributed greatly to the trend. Pioneer breweries such as the reinvigorated Anchor Brewing and newcomers Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada, along with many others which have not survived, brought the concept of craft beer to a wider audience and provided the foundation upon which today's market is based.
The American craft brewing industry was profiled in the feature length documentary American Beer which was released in 2004. Breweries featured in the film include Dogfish Head, Victory Brewing Company, McNeill's Brewery, Climax Brewing, Sierra Nevada Brewing, Anchor Brewing, New Glarus Brewing, New Belgium Brewing, Bell's Brewery and others.