The Revenge of (Good) American Beer

New York Beer Lithograph, 1800s. New York Historical Society.

New York Beer Lithograph, 1800s. New York Historical Society.

Americans like to think that they invented everything, including the eternal elixir of the gods: beer. Of course, Americans didn’t invent beer, in fact, the malty beverage’s existence goes back at least to ancient Sumeria. One thing Americans did succeed in, however, is establishing an astonishing number of independent breweries by the mid-19th century. Unfortunately, American craft brewing fell prey to that quality-sucking colossus: industrial capitalism. As Natasha Geiling notes in a post for Smithsonian.com, the American brewing boom peaked in 1873 with over 3,700 breweries. As the 20th century closed in, however, a corporate onslaught, coupled with a healthy dose of German immigrants, government meddling, and technological advances diluted (pun intended) the overall number and quality of Americans beers, sending the tradition of American independent brewing into a long dormancy from which it has only recently started to stir. As Geiling writes:

The death of the American brewery can be attributed — at least in part — to the heartbreak of loving something too much: when beer became popular, it became profitable, opening itself up to large-scale corporate control and consolidation.

Before 1810, production statistics for beer are widely unavailable, speaking to its lack of standing in the American beverage rotation. Toward the mid-1850s, however, a number of social and technological advancements made beer an appealing option for drinkers. For one, an influx of immigrants from Britain, Germany and Ireland contributed to the idea of a beer-drinking culture. Additionally, wages were on the rise, affording workers the economic means to knock back a cold one after work. Substantive improvements in technology — such as refrigeration and pasteurization — also contributed to beer becoming more widely available. In 1865, per capita consumption of beer in the United States was 3.4 gallons — by the end of the 19th century, that number had nearly quadrupled.

The explosion in the number of urban working class laborers in 19th century cities like Milwaukee and Cincinnati, fueled by European immigration, not only drove beer’s rising popularity, but also made the malty brew ripe for mass production. Further, those immigrant workers, especially the Germans, liked their beers in the lager and pilsner styles, two styles that eventually became synonymous with “American beer.” In a historical turn that would prove detrimental to those who preferred darker ales, most urban workers preferred lighter lagers and pilsners: beers that use a bottom fermenting yeast and pour with a lighter golden to clear color.* As Geiling observes, when lager’s growing popularity coincided with technological advancements in the production, transportation, and storage of beer and a pious dose of government activism, independent breweries were hit hard:

As thirst for the malty beverage increased, a new dynamic pitted big business against small craftsmanship. In 1870, 3,286 breweries produced, on average, 2,009 barrels of beer per year. By 1915, only 1,345 breweries remained, but these were prodigious in their production, cranking out 44,461 barrels per year. “Brewery declines in the 1870s were related to refrigerated and iced rail cars allowing breweries to extend their reach, pushing consolidation and closure of small, local brewers,” says Gatza.

It wasn’t until after Prohibition, however, that these large scale “shipping breweries” began to truly outwit the smaller craft breweries — which, though outnumbered, had been able to sustain their business by supplying small batch brews to their immediate local markets. With the passing of the 21st amendment, a measure was put in place that banned brewers from owning bars or saloons, requiring a middleman to go between bar owners and beer manufactures. Such a step drove up cost for small breweries, making their model economically unfeasible. “After Prohibition, over 700 breweries opened, but consolidation of smaller brewers by larger brewers started quickly and continued to around 1980,” Gatza says. “The post-Prohibition low point was 89 breweries owned by 42 companies in the late-1970s.” A combination of factors began to make beer — especially craft beer — less appealing to the American public. Marketing campaigns effectively dictated that the industry center around pale lagers, and diet crazes proselytized the light beer above all. The bell was tolling for the American brewery: experts projected that by the 1980s, there would be five brewing companies left in the United States.

The presence of the distributer middle-man helped proliferate the expansion of lager production, but it also had the effect of diluting the quality of even the best lagers. This resulted in a decades-long plague of watery, factory-farmed ales that descended over the American landscape like malted barbarian beer hordes, flooding the market with tasteless abominations like “light” beers that you could buy in massive, cheap “cubes” at your local grocery store or enjoy for $20 a cup at the latest Eagles reunion tour. Thankfully, the Corporate Beer hordes’ grip on Malted Rome is starting to slip thanks to a contemporary renaissance in American craft breweries. As Reuters and other outlets reported in July:

The steady and sustained growth of American craft brewing continued during the first half of 2013, according to mid-year data released by the Brewers Association (BA). The not-for-profit trade association, which represents the majority of U.S. breweries, announced that during the first six months of 2013, American craft beer dollar sales and volume were up 15 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Over the same period last year, dollar sales jumped 14 percent and volume increased 12 percent.

During the first half of 2013, approximately 7.3 million barrels of beer were sold by small and independent1craft brewers, up from 6.4 million barrels over the first half of 2012. American craft beer continues to grow despite decreased overall beer sales, which were down two percent through the first six months of the year.

“Demand for beer produced by small and independent brewers has never been higher, as evidenced by increased production and the hundreds of new breweries joining the playing field each year,” said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association. “Beer drinkers nationwide are responding positively to high-quality, full-flavored, diverse offerings from American craft brewing companies that continue to innovate and push the envelope.”

The history of American beer has changed over the last two centuries. Through their undying love of lager ales, a steady influx of German immigrants who came to America’s cities in the 19th century revolutionized the production and consumption of American beer. Their arrival coincided with new advances in brewing technology and the rise of Prohibition. This confluence of circumstances helped beer rise in popularity, but it also spelled the death knell of independent brewers.

"Antietam Ale," part of The Sesquicentennial Series of Beers, a joint project between the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Brewer’s Alley Restaurant, and Monocacy Bottling Company.

“Antietam Ale,” part of The Sesquicentennial Series of Beers, a joint project between the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Brewer’s Alley Restaurant, and Monocacy Bottling Company.

The power of the Big Brewers would remain largely unchallenged until relatively recently, when a long untapped market for quality artisan ales unleashed an entrepreneurial brewing movement that is on the verge of crowning the U.S. the new world leader in microbrewed ales. This beer renaissance promises to return American brewing to its quality, independent historical roots. So the next time you’re at the local beer merchant, instead of reaching for a cube of the newest lime-flavored floor cleaner, check out the ever-increasing craft brew options and experience the outer limits of beer snob wonderment.

* For more detailed information on American brewing, see Martin H. Stack, “A Concise History of America’s Brewing Industry.”

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