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Beer in America: Brief history

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Jeff Bean

hophead, fisherman, and Nebraska-native

Now is a great time to be a beer drinker.  The fruits of the craft brewing revolution lie before us, and brewers are experimenting like never before with a wide variety of styles and ingredients.  Liquor stores with even modest selections offer beers from around the world, and an increasing number of restaurants are offering beer lists full of microbrews and pairing suggestions.  At the same time, Pabst and Schlitz, beers that have been popular in this country for over one hundred years, remain readily available.   It wasn't always this way.  This is a look at the tumultuous history of American beer.
The history of beer in America is long (if not particularly pretty), and colonists in Virginia are known to have brewed beer as early as 1587 (using maize instead of barley).  Breweries in early America were small operations that produced ales for local markets.  Because bottling was prohibitively expensive and there was no way to reliably refrigerate or distribute their product, beer was usually served from a wooden keg on the premises.  Production rose rapidly in the mid-1800s, when millions of European immigrants began to pour into the U.S.  German immigrants brought with them a preference for lager beers, and faster ocean vessels made it possible to transport the live yeast varieties necessary for making these beers.

Commercial brewing really began to take off in the decades following the Civil War.  There are at least several factors responsible for this change.  Technological innovations in refrigeration, transportation, and microbiology allowed for a new scale of production and distribution.  Consumption was driven by an increasingly industrial workforce with a taste for beer and larger discretionary income, as well as sizable temperance movements that advocated for beer in lieu of stronger beverages.  The number of U.S. breweries peaked at over 3,200 in the early 1870s, and gradually declined to around 1,500 by the 1910s.  Production, however, soared.  The total national output grew from an estimated seven million barrels to almost sixty million during that same time period (one barrel = 31 gallons).

With the ratification of the 18th amendment in 1919, legal production of all alcoholic beverages, including beer, came to a halt.  Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and over 750 breweries were back in business by the end of the following year.  Still, many of these breweries remained weak, and the number soon began to fall.  Closures, corporate buyouts, a growing consumer preference for light, mass-produced lagers, and the subsequent increase in production at the largest breweries left fewer than fifty-one brewing interests operating eighty breweries by 1983.  Most produced only pale lagers, and the six largest breweries accounted for 92% of national production.  

Thankfully, the change since the 1980s has been remarkable.  There are again over 1,500 breweries in the United States, and the vast majority of these produce a wide range of ales and lagers.  In the 1970s and 80s, people seeking to explore the flavors of international styles or enjoy beer they had consumed overseas were left with few commercial options.  This unmet demand drove the homebrewing movement, which, in turn, spawned what is known as the craft brewing revolution.  According to the Brewers Association, the number of craft brewers increased from 8 in 1980 to 1501 in 2008.  This number is still growing, as are the quality and quantity of the beer being produced.  Chicago has seen several new breweries open in the past couple years, and will welcome another in the coming weeks.

I'll be posting more on Chicago-area brewing history in the near future.  For more detailed readings or statistics on America's brewing history, check out: Brewers Association website, beerbooks.com, or this excellent article complete with statistical tables and bibliography.

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4 Comments

JamesJ said:

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Nice article, Jeff. I'm curious whether you know anything more about the drivers of this micro-brew movement, its demographics, locations, etc. In my experience, it is still really hit or miss whether you will find good craft beer in an urban setting, among a particular age group, around large universities, etc. (all potential factors).

On another topic, it seems that until recently America's biggest claim to originality was "steam-style" beer, but it looks like we (Americans) are now producing the most original beer in the world. Am I just too isolated, or are there similar movements around the world? As I understand it, it is illegal in Germany to brew your own beer?! Thanks!

Jeff Bean said:

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Great questions, James. The beer culture (and probably the market demographics) is certainly stronger in some regions and places than in others. I'll be writing a post on this sometime in the not-so-distant future (after I've done a little more research!). At the same time, it's pretty remarkable how far and wide the trend has spread. My family lives is a city of 25,000 in western Nebraska (albeit a college town), and it has two brewpubs.

As I understand it, it is legal to brew small amounts of beer for personal consumption in Germany. This isn't the case everywhere, though. In Japan, for example, it is basically illegal to homebrew, so people join brewing clubs at licensed places where they can legally brew on site. American brewers are indeed producing some of the most unique beers in the world (armed with new hop varieties and the freedom that comes with a tradition that is not so well-established as those in Germany or Belgium). Other countries, such as Italy and Japan, have growing craft brewery movements and increasing experimentation.

I'm not a homebrewer (yet!), so maybe one of our readers (or Matt) could better answer your question.

Lauren Strec said:

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Yum, yum! Awesome blog, Jeff. This entry is on today's "Hot on ChicagoNow:"
http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/hot-on-chicagonow/2010/01/hot-on-chicagonow-january-25-2010.html

mary2020 said:

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Hi,

Great article on microbrewers! Thought your readers might want to know that you can find a large variety of microbrews in bottles and on draft at Old Chicago Pizza Restaurant in Merrillville, Indiana (Rt. 30 and I65)

Here's what they are currently carrying:

BOTTLES
Flying Dog, Dog in Heat Wheat (Maryland)
Flying Dog, Doggie Style Pale Ale (Maryland)
Boulder, Planet Porter (Colorado)
Dogfish Head, 90 minute IPA (Delaware)
Harpoon, UFO (Massachusetts)
Brooklyn, Brown Ale (New York)
Brooklyn, Lager (New York)
Upland, Wheat Ale (Indiana)
Lefthand Sawtooth ESB (Colorado)
Lefthand Blackjack Porter (Colorado)
Abita, Turbo Dog Dark Brown (Louisiana)
Bells, Two Hearted Ale (Michigan)
Petes, Strawberry Blonde Ale (New York)
Harpoon, IPA (Massachusetts)
New Belgium, Mothership Wit (Colorado)
New Belgium, 1554 (Colorado)

DRAFT
Boulder, Hazed and Infused (Colorado)
Three Floyd's, Alpha King Pale Ale (Indiana)
Three Floyd's, Gumballhead (Indiana)
Goose Island, 312 (Illinois)
Goose Island, Honkers Ale (Illinois)
Upland, Seasonal (Indiana)
New Belgium, Fat Tire (Colorado)

They have over 40 taps and carry 110 beers everyday! And, the food is terrific too. There's also an Old Chicago in Champaign. So, if you are heading down to see the Illini or visit a student, make sure to stop by OC at Market Place Mall.

Thanks and keep up the good work!

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