Beer History: TV, Supermarkets, and the Decline of 20th Century Breweries.

Beer History: TV, Supermarkets, and the Decline of 20th Century Breweries.

The number of breweries declined in the first half of the 20th century faster than you can say the word "chug." The number was already on the way down at the turn of the century, but Prohibition and WWII accelerated that decline. The end of the war arrived with a boom in the economy, but the number of breweries continued to decrease.

When soldiers returned from the war they got married, purchased homes, created a baby-boom....and started watching television. In 1950, just over 9% of American homes possessed a television – about four million households, but by 1962, 90% of homes – over forty-five million households -- had televisions.  Additionally, those that could take advantage of the booming '50s economy could live on one income, thus the return to "traditional" (Victorian) family models -- the father at work, the mom at home with the kids. Coincidentally, television viewership helped foster that culture, as seen in popular shows such as Dick Van Dyke, Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best.

leave-it-to-beaver

In other words, an entire generation now embraced their home-life and, with television, could enjoy leisure time at home, too.

In order to provide beer to a society that desired to remain home, brewers had to learn how to attract shoppers instead of saloon goers, and that meant learning how to distribute to the newly emerging supermarket culture. Economist John P. Walsh goes as far as to say that “the ideal example of modern capitalism is not the factory, or even the even the stock market, but the supermarket.” The supermarket overtook regional grocery stores because of their vast shelf space and an ability to sell nationally advertised products that people saw on television or heard on the radio each day in their homes.

Along with beer, items such as “television dinners,” canned hamburgers, and instant breakfasts signified a society that enjoyed national consumerism, mass production, and convenience. Big brewers understood their need to win the advertising battle and get their beer on supermarket shelves. Greater sales meant more profits, more profits meant more advertising budgets, and so on and so on.

Brewers learned to sponsor television shows and pay for advertising that focused on families, middle-class living, and, of course, the home. More importantly, they advocated the idea that having a "cold one" was paramount to winning the "cold war." In fact, the United States Brewers Foundation (USBF) emerged in order to produce propaganda movies and over 120 magazine ads that not only advocated beer, but promoted beer drinking as part of the “American way of life” and claimed that “beer is part of our American heritage of personal freedom.”

beer-collage-at-home

In the end, TV provided the opportunity for brewers to gain national recognition. "Brand name" beers spurred supermarkets to carry the winners of the advertising battle. Marketing strategy became more important than recipes.  As a result, despite an economy that grew by 37% during the 1950s (and unemployment that remained under 5%), the 400 breweries that existed in 1950 dwindled to 230 breweries by 1961 (only 140 of them independently operated).

By the early '80s, only 44 companies managed less than 100 breweries; the low point of brewing within American beer history.

This is an excerpt from my research titled, "A Pint of Liberty." Please do not copy or cite this material without permission. A full bibliography and source list is available upon request -- the list is too lengthy for this blog post. Thank you. ~Mathew Powers

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  • Very interesting. And true when you think about it. Good information on the history of a very important food -- beer.

    My favorite vanished brew is Lemp, brewed in St. Louis. It's huge, hulking distillery sits like a broken down car a mile or so from where Anheuser-Busch pushes out its watered down swill.

    The Lemp story has glory and tragedy and secret tunnels all over it.

    http://www.beerhistory.com/library/holdings/lemp1.shtml

  • Thank you for the kind words -- and it is food, indeed!

    And thanks for sharing that story. No matter how much research I do, there is always more to know. For some reason, I had never heard or seen that story before about Lemp. I just read that article -- that's fascinating. I need to drive down and see that.

    So many craft breweries have been able to move into old breweries and breath new life into them, but that might not be as easy if it's right down the street from Hard-Way, Inc. ;)

    Thanks for sharing!

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    Beer and spirits writer for Chilled Magazine, PorchDrinking.com, Thrillist-Chicago, and Sommbeer.com. I love great beer, great stories, and community. In addition to drinking beer, I have a background that involves weather, the environment, history, and of course writing. I love cars, rock music, comedy, traveling, camping, and all things Simpsons.

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