“Beer is actually a depressant,” Kurt Vonnegut once observed, “But poor people will never stop hoping otherwise.”

There were a few thousand people fervently hoping otherwise at the World Beer Festival in Durham recently. It seemed to be working out for them, too, even though they were sloshing through about four inches of mud on the old Durham ballpark grounds. The craft-brewing renaissance is driven by a subculture of devoted aficionados, and beer-tasting events like this, offering a virtually unlimited choice of brews, make for a very cheery bunch of hops-heads. These beer drinkers aren’t poor, just poorer than they expected to be. Young college graduates in entry-level jobs account for a major segment of the craft beer market.

These folks were flinging Frisbees, dancing in the muck, balancing folding chairs on their chins and gulping up the suds. They were a shorter, rounder, somewhat shabbier group than your average trendsetters. Friendlier, too. Total strangers would come up and ask if you liked your beer. People were clutching at each other’s brewery T-shirts to read the slogans on the back, T-shirts and baseball caps being the predominant fashion items. One young man was running around in a kilt, his neck draped in many colors of Mardi Gras beads. When asked where he got the beads he replied solemnly, “From another guy in a kilt.” A woman in the bathroom line shrieked happily when she saw him, “Oh my god, don’t you just love that, those Scottish skirts!” Demographically speaking, the line to the men’s room outnumbered the women’s at least three to one all night. Every time a trash can full of bottles crashed into the recycling truck, a whoop went up that crescendoed and spread across the ballpark. People embraced. Drinks were spilled.

One of the keys to surviving a beer festival is keeping in mind that if you don’t like your sample, you don’t have to finish it. As one drinker put it, “There’s something that feels so good about being able to pour beer on the ground.”

You’d feel a little different if you’d just shelled out 12 bucks for that pint of Belgian ale and found it a little odd for your taste. What’s happened to the drink of the proletariat? With taprooms like Raleigh’s Flying Saucer now offering that kind of high-priced gourmet item, you might well wonder. When did beer tastes begin to require a champagne budget? Even in a supermarket, a craft brew may run you twice as much as a standard American beer. Is it worth it?

Well, of course it is.

You might take a look at the history of American brewing to see why. Beer has always been the working-class drink. Unlike wine, beer doesn’t age well; it should be drunk within a few months after brewing to be any good. Wine and liquor have always been shipped, stored, and hoarded by those who could afford them, and those drinks only got better. Before refrigeration, beer was a local product, like bread, and certainly not a status item. Working folks went down to the brew house or pub for a glassful or bucketful. Hank Williams sang, in one of the saddest songs ever written, “My bucket’s got a hole in it, can’t buy no beer.”

When refrigeration was introduced in this country, in the 1880’s, there were more than 2,000 operating breweries. Bottle caps didn’t come around until a decade later. But those new technologies made it possible for a few larger breweries to thrive: Miller, Stroh’s, Anheuser-Busch. When Prohibition was passed, these companies could afford to diversify. They made other products to get them through the dry years, while local breweries went under. The few that survived succumbed to takeovers in the latter half of the 20th century. By 1980, there were only 82 active breweries in the U.S. And, laws across the country prohibited brewers from retailing their own beer, effectively outlawing brew-pubs.

“Basically, a really great tradition in America was lost,” says Tyler Huntington, the proprietor of Tyler’s, a Carrboro restaurant and taproom. A former brewer with Red Hook, Huntington is keenly interested in craft beers, and in bringing more of them to the Triangle. “California was the first to change that law, back in the late ’70s, and other states followed suit. But when Fritz Maytag started Anchor Brewing, people thought he was crazy, throwing away his money like that.” Instead, Anchor Steam gained itself a following and the craft beer renaissance began.

Huntington always figured he would start a brew-pub of his own. But living in the West Coast micro-brew scene changed his mind about that, and made him a fan of taprooms.

“I really loved the variety you could get going into taprooms,” he says, “They push the envelope a lot more out there. You’ve got a lot of very intelligent people who have fun with this art, like chefs.” When he came back to North Carolina, friends told him a taproom wouldn’t succeed here. He opened one anyway, and did well enough to expand into a separate barroom he calls the Speakeasy.

“A big goal with taprooms is the education of the consumer,” Huntington says. “Whenever I enter a city when I’m traveling, I love to find a taproom. You get to try all these local beers you’d never have gotten otherwise. Sometimes it’s swill, but sometimes it’s like finding a diamond in a thrift store.”

Taprooms are a boon for small breweries, who find it hard to compete for shelf space with the larger companies. Tyler’s keeps 32 different beers on tap, rotating one or two every week to bring in more variety. Flying Saucer, part of a national chain of taprooms, offers double that number, not to mention another 100 or so in bottles. Can there really be that much difference among some 200 beers? The educated drinker thinks so.

“It’s like making soup,” says brewer Brad Wynn. “We use probably seven to 10 different hops.” Wynn is one of four brewers at Rock Creek, a craft brewery that moved down to Raleigh from Pennsylvania last year. Knowing your hops varieties is key to the art of brewing, according to Wynn. The hops flower, one of the main ingredients in beer, grows on a vine like grapes. Just as grape varieties and growing conditions affect wine-making, so the variety of hops used makes a beer distinct.

At Rock Creek, as at other craft breweries, the hops used are fresh, and selected for their particular flavors. By contrast, Wynn says, the makers of standard American beers, the Buds and Millers, buy hops in large quantities, mix them all together, then actually age them for more than a year. “Budweiser’s like McDonald’s hamburgers, they’re the same everywhere every time,” Wynn says. In essence, the reason mainstream beers are bland is that they use flavorless hops on purpose. In addition, some beer manufacturers use cheaper ingredients like rice or corn in their brewing. This is anathema to craft brewers, who follow the sacred standard, set by ancient German law, that beer should contain only water, yeast, hops and malted barley.

Rock Creek, considered a small to mid-size brewery, puts out about 50 barrels a day, or enough for 50 kegs. The company relocated here when it outgrew its Pennsylvania facility. Wynn says North Carolina has proved a good market for Rock Creek. “Our sales in other states are growing at a normal rate; our sales in North Carolina are growing at an astronomical rate.” Rock Creek plans to open a pub featuring its beers at the brewery on Wicker Drive this fall.

North Carolina has developed an impressive list of small breweries, considering how far it is from the beer-drinker’s paradise of the hops-growing West Coast. Cottonwood Brewery, in Boone, makes national award-winning beers. Greensboro’s Red Oak and Asheville’s Highland Brewing have strong followings, as does Carolina Brewing Company in Holly Springs. A host of brew-pubs, which sell their beers on their premises but do not bottle, have sprung up across the state. But several brewers have gone under, as well. Rock Creek bought its current facilities from the foundering Tomcat Brewery. Pennington Brewing, in Kernersville, made it less than a year before closing. “There’s a great market in used brewing equipment,” Tyler Huntington quips.

“There have been too many people trying to do it. Very largely, they haven’t got the experience,” says John Withey, the brewmaster at Top of the Hill, a restaurant and brew-pub in Chapel Hill. Top of the Hill puts out about 1,600 barrels annually, full capacity for its small facility. “Only the good ones are surviving.”

Withey speaks from considerable experience. He’s been brewing beer, he says, “all my life.” An English transplant, he’s earned several degrees in his field. He acknowledges Top of the Hill’s built-in advantage of being walking distance from a major university. “The college students, they drink a lot,” he points out. But also, “People are fed up with the sort of ordinary bland flavors. They’re looking for something a little bit special, and they’re willing to pay for it.”

Withey is proud of his beer recipes. “You’d have to go a long way to find a better IPA [India Pale Ale] than ours,” he boasts. But, he says, two things place constraints on brewing in North Carolina. The first is the state law that limits the alcohol content in beers to 6 percent. “That excludes a lot of beer.” Specialty brews, like seasonal barleywines, can measure as much as 10 percent alcohol. States that have no such limitation can sell a wider variety of beers.

Carolina beer geeks share Withey’s frustration with the 6 percent law, some of them driving to Virginia to buy the forbidden brews. But they might take issue with Withey’s other perceived limitation. He says Southern drinkers aren’t really ready for very flavorful beers.

“In Oregon, for example, they’ve educated the public to want and expect a very hoppy beer. Whereas here that same beer would be considered poisonously bitter.” He sees part of his job as educating the public gradually toward more pungent brews.

Tyler Huntington says toning down their flavors is a mistake many brewers make. “They’re scared and they underestimate the palate of the population.” He points out the success of Cottonwood’s Endo IPA, an extremely hoppy beer. “It’s rockin’. It’s one of our most popular beers.” Cottonwood has followed that success with a cask-conditioned version of the same beer. Tyler’s features one of the Triangle’s few hand-pump beer machines, devices for dispensing cask-conditioned ales.

The cask-conditioned beer may mark the full-circle return to the golden age of American brewing. Unfiltered and carbonated only by natural yeast action, these beers are never bottled. And since cask beers are kept at close to room temperature, to the uninitiated, they may taste warm and flat–at an extra buck a pint. But to the connoisseur, this is beer the way it should be, beer the way it was before refrigeration, before pasteurization and bottling: live beer. “There are a lot more flavors coming from a naturally processed beer,” says Rock Creek’s Wynn. “The beer never falls below 45 degrees, so there’s a lot of yeast still alive in there.” Huntington says, “You really have to like beer to like cask-conditioned ales.”

The combination of old-time brewing craft and modern transportation can be a staggering phenomenon. You could get a cask-conditioned beer or two at the World Beer Festival. You could also get beers from Germany, Belgium, Spain, China and even Colorado. (But you couldn’t get that Colorado Fat Tire beer that folks have been raving about. It’s over 6 percent.) “You don’t have to even drink to get drunk here,” one guy said, drunkenly. “You could just stand in here and it would get you drunk.”

By the end of the evening, even the festival volunteer crew seemed to have caught the buzz. Not that they were drunk, but a few here and there were spraying each other with half-empty bottles of foaming micro-brew. And bumping and grinding to the band.

The depressant part of it all must have come later. Someone had to clean up the ballpark. EndBlock