A Brief History of Beer in the US

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic recently wrote about the evolving drinking habits of Americans. We are drinking more bottled water, wine, spirits and tea and less of just about everything else.

What Americans drink 2001-2011

Beer seems to be way out but it really depends on which type of beer you’re talking about. While the traditional light American lager is in decline, stronger, more flavorful microbrews are experiencing a sort of boom right now. This isn’t new however. If anything, we are rediscovering the American beer heritage that was destroyed by prohibition.

From early colonial times all the way up until the mid-19th century, American beers were mostly styled after British ales. German style lagers (Budweiser, Miller and Coors are modern light versions of this) became popular because they lasted longer on shelves and offered economies of scale that ales could not compete with.

Not all ales are dark and not all lagers are light, but generally, in the US especially, it's a good way to tell them apart.
Ales are dark and lagers are light – not a rule but generally true for commercial brews.

These dark, heavy ales and light crisp lagers coexisted for almost a century. And then in 1919, the US government banned alcohol. Hard alcohol, unlike beer, was potent enough to offer bootleggers the incentive to illegally produce and sell the stuff. Beer was simply too week to survive and as a result, the industry was almost entirely wiped out.

Following prohibition, the large lager producers came to completely dominate the market. Whereas their success in the 19th century was alongside the traditional ale consumed by Americans and colonialists for centuries, prohibition effectively made everyone start from scratch. The large companies had a leg up in this race and were quick to capture market share as well as important government contracts for producing beer for soldiers during WW2. Beer as a whole died, but only lagers were reborn.

In the post-WW2 period, companies discovered that if they take an already watered down beer, and water it down some more, but add the word “light” to it, Americans would love it. Bud Light and Coors light account for approximately 40% of the American beer market. Things began to change in the 1980s.

Until 1978, brewing beer at home was still illegal (thank you Jimmy Carter). By the early 80s, microbreweries began to grow. Shockingly, customers wanted tasty beers. In many ways, the largest of these, the Boston Beer Co. (makers of Samuel Adams) and Sierra Nevada are barely microbreweries anymore – they are the 5th and 7th largest breweries in the country.

Silly Beer Name

As the Atlantic article stated, overall beer sales are down. When you factor in that craft and microbrews have been growing steadily over the past couple of decades, the piss poor American beer that the rest of the world makes fun of is in even faster decline.

This reduction in quantity coincides with a dramatic increase in quality. It’s an attempt to get at what American beer culture would have been like had prohibition not ruined it for almost a century. But perhaps the most fun aspect of the country’s renewed love of crafting beer is all the silly names. So far, my favorite is McGuire’s “I’ll Have What The Gentleman On The Floor Is Having Barley Wine“.

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3 thoughts on “A Brief History of Beer in the US

  1. Great article, though I have to disagree with the caption on your photo that “Ales are Dark and Lagers are Light – not a rule, but generally true.”

    Generally Lagers do have more clarity as bottom-fermenting yeast and colder fermentation temperatures help settle out particulate, but it is not generally true that one is darker than the other more often.

    Sure most commercially popular American Style Light Lagers are very light, but there are Lagers such as Bocks, Dopplebocks, Dark Lagers, Dunkels, Schwarzbiers, and Viennas are all typically darker than the particularly popular Pale Ales and even most IPA’s. Other light Ales include Kolschs, Altbiers, Weisses, many belgian styles, and Witbiers.

    It really all depends on the particular style of beer versus whether one uses lager or ale yeast as to how dark or light the beer is.

    Also, I really want to try that “I’ll have what the gentleman on the floor is having.”

    Cheers!

    1. Couldn’t agree with you more. I was considering using the term “commercial” in the caption, but it kinda ruined the lyrical sound of the line so I left it out. Will put it back now to avoid any further confusion. I’ve had more than a few Belgian (not Belgian style, but Belgian) lagers that were quite dark, and quite delicious. I guess the reader I was targeting was the sort that goes to the bodega or supermarket and is trying to figure out what’s what – just a general guideline for the most popular beers in the US.

      As for the “Gentleman…” unfortunately it’s no longer in production. But something tells me “Old leg humper” and “pig’s ass” will do just fine.

      Thanks for the heads up!

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