Cheers to American Beers, Triumphs of Capitalism and Technological Progress

What contributed to the revival of the U.S. brewing industry between the 1990s and the present?


A couple of weeks ago, a European friend of mine, who was passing through Washington, suggested that we get together for a few drinks to bitch about politics in Europe and America. "Could we," he requested in a typically dismissive way, meet at a place that serves imported beer as opposed to "the s–t that Americans drink?"

I pointed out to my snooty European friend that not all Americans drank Budweiser and Coors, and that the country abounded with thousands of breweries producing a great variety of beer. In 2013, for example, the United States had close to 2,600 breweries. Today, one source claims, there are over 3,700.

Moreover, the quality of American beer can be very high. To celebrate the annual International Beer Day, for example, one British newspaper ranked the best beers in the world. In a story titled World's best beers to try before you die, six out of the top 17, including the overall winner, came from the United States.

The eagle-eyed reader will notice the changing fortunes of the U.S. brewing industry. During the Prohibition era in the 1920s, the deadhead of the government brought the number of U.S. breweries down to zero—at least officially. Following the repeal of Prohibition, the beer industry quickly rebounded.

Beginning in the early 1940s, however, brewing activity started to decline as the brewing industry consolidated and became dominated by the likes of Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors. Why? Before Prohibition, A Concise History of America's Brewing Industry notes, most beer was consumed on-tap in bars or saloons. Between 10 and 15 percent of the beer was bottled, but "it was much more expensive than draught beer."

Then, in 1935, "the American Can Company successfully canned beer for the first time. The spread of home refrigeration helped spur consumer demand for canned and bottled beer, and from 1935 onwards, draught beer sales have fallen markedly. The rise of packaged beer contributed to the growing industry consolidation."

What contributed to the revival of the U.S. brewing industry between the 1990s and the present? Part of the reason, surely, rests in the decline of capital costs. According to some estimates, a budding entrepreneur can start a micro-brewery for as little as $50,000. (Thanks to technological progress, each one of us can become a beer "producer" by purchasing a beer making kit for less than $200.) So, next time you raise a glass of chilled American beer, drink to technological progress and capitalism!

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  1. I still don’t understand the country’s tiered distribution schemes.

    1. Then their plan worked.

    2. It’s in the Constitution!

      Repeal wasn’t actually repeal.

      1. At least government still had the decency back then to pass an amendment to give them the power to prohibit booze in the first place. Now they just prohibit whatever they want because FYTW.

    3. It’s easy people like John McCain’s wife benefit from this so it remains the law.

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  2. My favorite American beer is Sam Adam’s lager. I’m fond of their cream stout. also.

    1. Sam Adams is very good as is Goose Island.

      1. Sam Adams Irish Red is one of my favorites, but hasn’t been available in TX in a few years. Their Oktoberfest is also delicious.

  3. [Insert remark about not liking beer here]

    [Insert howling from commenter about the heresey of not liking beer]

    [Insert random insults]

    [insert memetic quips about UnCivil not liking anything]

    There, I just condensed my entire contribution to these threads to one post.

    1. you forgot the hops! Or how there are too many hops used.

      1. It might be a stereotype, but I’m on board with the stereotype. The fad to put hops in your hops makes for some pretty shitty beers, no matter how many hipsters tell you how great it is.

        Like everything, it goes in cycles. As a reaction to the flavorless swill we’ve been served all our lives, people started hopping it up 25 years ago. As each iteration had to get hoppier and more strongly flavored, we passed over into “holy crap, that sucks” territory a while back.

        But the hipsters are to cool to notice that their particular emperor has no clothes. It’ll dial back soon enough. We’ve got some really good microbreweries around here that make a mix of beers from the delicious to the god-awful. It makes for a fun night out – trying a strongly flavored glass of flower runoff mixed with coffee grounds and bitter chocolate makes for great “holy crap, you have to taste this” conversation – if not great beer.

        1. Blaming the IPA / Hops binge on hipsters is a colossal misread of both hipsters’ motivations and the trend itself.

          I’ve been hearing for at least six years that the (X) style of beer is the next big thing. It’s unlikely to happen. IPA’s are too easy to make, too potent, too accessible, and too popular to ever be forgotten. They’re also a great vehicle for showing off a particular hop varietal’s flavor profile, so new variations will be released often enough to keep the style from ever really getting stale.

          Yeah, the SEXTUPLE HOPPED ZOMG MEGA IPA types are probably just a passing fad, but the last ten years have made clear that Americans like hops and brewers have no qualms with delivering on that desire.

    2. You also forgot the inevitable beer puns.

      What the helles wrong with you?!

      1. Oh no, don’t stout this game – someone will then dubbel down and post bock-to-bock stupid puns!

        1. It cures what ales me.

    3. I don’t like beer. I don’t like soda, either. The bubbles hurt my mouth, so it all just tastes like needles and pain to me. This was a problem at all childhood events.

  4. Start the night out at 7:00pm with a black and tan followed by possibly illegal activity depending on state and a few fat tires for the walk on the way to the pool par. God I miss my 20’s.

    1. But now you can buy beer right on the street out of a vending machine! Whisky too!

      When I worked in Tokyo, I would laugh every morning because there was an all girl Jr. High across the street and about 20 feet from the entrance was a beer vending machine. I’d try to explain to my coworkers that if we had had such a thing in my hometown, the line of us underage miscreants would wrap around the block. What confused them was the fact that we would do things that were illegal all the time.

      On the other hand, we’d often buy a beer after work and drink/chat in front of our office. They would laugh because when the local beat cop would walk by, I’d always put my beer behind my back. I couldn’t believe that the po-po would not give me a ticket for drinking on the street.

      1. Unfortunately, they got rid of almost all of those beer vending machines. You’ll see a few in hotels and bowling alleys, but not on the street. I don’t know what changed it, but about 7 or 8 years ago they started a TASPO system to buy cigarettes. No TASPO card, no cigarettes out of the vending machine. I assume the govt wouldn’t approve the card system for vending machines of alcohol except in places where the establishment had a view of who was buying out of the vending machine.

        1. Just checked. Evidently it was a voluntary ban.

        2. I was in Tokyo in 2008 and there was a vending machine just in the middle of a walking path to a bunch of houses. I was staying with a coworkers family and it was awesome to grab a Sapporo on the way home.

  5. The best and most innovative beer in the world is being brewed in the United States. This is pretty much indisputable.

    In any case, drinking imports from Europe (assuming they are not brewed by a big brewer stateside) is usually a bad call, even if the beer was brewed well, because most beer is extremely perishable. Additionally, most international shipping and import distributors do not refrigerate, which exacerbates the problem. 9 out of 10 European imports will have developed significant off flavors by the time they hit your local pub or store in the U.S. If you like a certain style, your best bet is to find a US craft brewer that does the style well, as opposed to sticking to a well regarded Euro brand.

    1. Generally good advice. I do enjoy Samuel Smith’s, however.

    2. Exactly.

      Even Budweiser, when it is very fresh as at Busch Gardens, tastes pretty good. A few weeks later, wash your car with it.

      1. Your’e going to make me cry. When my brother and I were little kids in the 60s, my uncle would walk us the three blocks to Busch Gardens whenever we got haircuts. BG was free then (because the bird gardens WERE Busch Gardens). The only entertainment was the bird show and the little plaster elves in the foliage, and the only ride was that looong escalator into the brewery. Anyway, he’d sit on the patio of the Hospitality House and drink beer while my brother and I fed pretzels to the fish. It was sad when they tore down the brewery several years ago.


        1. (sniff) I must have something in my eye (wipes away a single tear)

    3. I agree. It’s amazing how many people cling to this ‘American beer sucks’ nonsense. Either they do it out of ignorance or out of convenience judging American beer solely on the big companies. Here in Canada, I like to point out how would like if people judged our beer on Molson alone (which, personally, I don’t find that great) and not on some of our world class craft companies? I always get that stupid ‘you just burst our pseudo-smug bubble!’ look. At one party, some idiotic woman (she’s married to someone we know and is quite opinionated ) was showing off her knowledge of beer yet was dismissive of American beer when I mentioned it. I tried to bring up the fact American craft beer industry is much bigger than ours and therefore many more varieties and classes of excellence. Ever speak to someone so deep in their ignorance so as to bounce right off?

      Anyway, I find Quebec seems to produce world class beer as well. Creemore Springs out of Ontario is very good too.

      1. Quebec brewers are world class. The worst I’ve managed to get from a Quebec based brewery is a beer equal to an average American craft beer.

        1. Disagree. I found almost all Quebec beers to be inferior. Maybe it’s just my tastes.

    4. The folks behind Pilsner Urquel have been working on the shipping problem. Their stuff now goes in refrigerated containers.

    5. I largely agree, although some of the larger brewers or more popular beers rotate fast enough that you’re still in pretty good shape. I will say, however, that I’ve had Fuller’s London Pride, Fuller’s ESB, and Redhook ESB back-to-back and prefer Redhook’s take.

  6. Visited London in 2010, after an earlier visit in the late 70s. I was really looking forward to the beer. Long story short, I was disappointed. It wasn’t bad, but I tried dozens of different ones, and the differences were miniscule.

    The U.S. has a knack for taking something good being done elsewhere, and then experimenting and making it better. (I won’t mention deep dish pizza here, for obvious reasons.)

    And for the record, Miller Genuine Draft is the worst beer I’ve ever had. And that includes such beers as Old Milwaukee Light. Drink one before having a Budweiser, and you’ll think Bud is the best beer in the world.

    1. I stick by my belief America is exactly like High Middle Ages-Renaissance Italy. Via its merchant and trading empires, it was the gateway for product coming in from the East into Europe. They often were the first peoples to come across things like cards, spices, fabrics etc. The Italians were the masters of making those things their own and often making the best versions of it. In addition, like America, Europe’s best would flock to Italy for engineering, architecture and the arts thus adding to its patrimony. Next thing you know, more Unesco sites and wealth of culture than any nation in Europe.

      Modern America = Renaissance Italy.

      On a much grander scale too.

  7. Smuttynose just released a big 9% ABV french saison. They knocked right out of the ballpark. This also reminds me that I ned to make a black, and smoky Urbok mustard.

  8. Anyone in Dallas or Austin should try any beer from Community Brewing Co. The Russian Imperia Stout is my favorite, and bonus: it will knock you on your ass right quick. Their mosaic IPA is also delicious, as is the wheat, if you’re into that sort of thing.

  9. Schlitz is a pretty good beer, and not just for breakfast.

  10. “Could we,” he requested in a typically dismissive way,

    Aww, that’s a cute story.

    Most European beer is about the same as Bud, etc, and American “micro-brewery” beer is consistently nasty.

    Mexican beer is the best.

    1. Indeed!

  11. I just get whatever is cheapest by the case. Usually coors.

    1. When I’m really broke there is Miesterbraugh(sp?)

  12. I wish this was a more in-depth article.

    One of the earliest catalysts for the brewing industry was the legalization of homebrewing by none other than Jimmy Carter. For all the crap he did, let’s give at least some credit where credit is due. That first step was an act of deregulation. The allowed DIY folks to legally brew their own beer. This triggered homebrew clubs through the 1980s where folks could legally assemble and share their knowledge of brewing, since there was no real place to go and get this information.

    Enter the 1990s and the Internet. While brewing was growing on the west coast, homebrewers moved to the Internet to start sharing more information and knowledge of brewing through listservs and other primitive collaboration methods available in the early Internet. This allowed more people to become educated in homebrewing. In the mid 1990s the proliferation of homebrew supply stores and Internet homebrew stores (thank you, Northern Brewer) opened up a new homebrewing market. This early market brought greater knowledge and diversity to a very broad audience.

    It was essentially the broadening of the American beer palete through homebrewing that catalyzed a larger market for non-traditional American beers. One of the main ingredients in a successful business is a market of buyers. It’s best to understand where that market came from and how it evolved.

    Regardless, it’s good to see someone doing a brewing article.

    1. I wish the article stuck with the story of the snobby friends who might have learned a lesson. Rather than that, we get a slightly updated rehash of what microbrews have done.

  13. I doubt the veracity of any list that doesn’t include something from Prairie Artisan Ales… I had the distinct pleasure of actually getting one (Bomb!) on tap at Mikeller’s in SF without knowing what I was getting. Best beverage I’ve had the pleasure of imbibing. I bought a single bottle locally just for the memories and I think it was like 12 dollars (ridiculous)…and it was worth every penny.

    Prairie Bomb!

  14. “Could we,” he requested in a typically dismissive way, meet at a place that serves imported beer as opposed to “the s–t that Americans drink?”

    Marian, your friend sounds like an asshole.

  15. I read the linked list, and while I’m psyched to see a Maryland brewer leading the pack and do love me some Lagunitas, I can only assume there was some sort of editorial mishap that left Dale’s Pale Ale off the list.

  16. American beer is the best beer in the world, and like all things in America, it comes in astounding variety. Suck on it, Europe.

  17. Its such a really Nice Post… Really Awesome…

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