United States History of Beer

Native American tribes brewed beer in the lands of the United States prior to European arrival. One recipe was composed of maize, birch sap and water. The earliest record of brewing by non-Native peoples dates from 1587, and the first commercial brewery opened in the United States was at the Dutch West India Company of Lower Manhattan in 1632.

The brewing traditions of England and the Netherlands (as brought to New York) ensured that colonial drinking would be dominated by beer rather than wine. Until the middle of the 19th century, British-style ales dominated American brewing. This changed when the lager styles, brought by German immigrants, turned out to be more profitable for large-scale manufacturing and shipping. Lager was also preferred due to its longevity, while local ales of the time quickly turned sour and were a perceived risk to drink.

The lager brewed by these companies was originally based on several different styles of central Europe, but the Pilsener style, using mild Czech hops, pale, lightly roasted 6-row barley and often adjuncts such as rice and corn, gradually won out.

Steam beer, the first style of beer to originate in the United States, evolved in the San Francisco area during the 19th century. After Prohibition ended, theAnchor Brewing Company was the sole producer of steam beer. The company was near closure in 1965, whereupon Fritz Maytag, great-grandson of theMaytag Corporation founder, rescued the brewery and with it the steam beer style. Anchor has since trademarked the term “Steam Beer” and all subsequent renditions of the style are now termed California Common.

D.G. Yuengling & Son, commonly called Yuengling (pronounced “ying-ling”), is the oldest operating brewing company in the United States, having been established in 1829, and is one of the largest breweries by volume in the country. It is currently the second-largest American-owned brewery after theBoston Beer Company. Its headquarters is in Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

Best Brewing Co., Virginia Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, circa 1885

One of the earliest large-scale brewers was Best Brewing, a Milwaukee brewery built by German immigrantPhillip Best in the 1840s. It began shipping its beer to Chicago and St. Louis the following decade, first by ferry and eventually by rail, establishing an early trans-market beer brand in the United States. Other successful breweries of the era begun by German immigrants in Milwaukee included the Valentin Blatz Brewing Company,Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, and the Miller Brewing Company, owned Frederick Miller, who took on the brewery which had originally been owned by Phillip Best’s brother, Carl.

In St. Louis, a prosperous German soap maker, Eberhard Anheuser, purchased a struggling brewery in 1860. His daughter married a brewery supplier, Adolphus Busch, who took over the company after his father-in-law’s death, and renamed it Anheuser-Busch. Busch soon toured Europe, discovering the success of Bohemian lager, and introduced Budweiser beer (named after a beer brewed in the town of Budweis in Bohemia) in 1876. Anheuser-Busch, and its Budweiser beer, would go on to be the largest brewery and beer brand in the world. The company innovated the use of refrigeration in rail cars to transport its beers, which helped make bottled Budweiser the first national beer brand in the United States.


Detroit Police discover an underground brewery during Prohibition

On January 16, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was enacted into law, creating the Prohibition era, wherein the production, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages was made illegal. All legal American brewing came to a halt when Prohibition was imposed, though the earlier temperance movement had already reduced the number of breweries significantly. Only a few breweries, mainly the largest, were able to stay in business by manufacturing near beer, malt syrup, or other non-alcohol grain products, in addition to soft drinks such as colas and root beers. Production and shipping of alcohol was largely confined to illegal operations that could deliver compact distilled beverages — smuggled rum and domesticmoonshine — more efficiently and reliably than bulkier products such as beer.

American Prohibition was repealed by degrees. First, the Volstead Act defining “intoxicating liquors”, was amended in April 1933 by the Cullen-Harrison Act to provide that beer with a strength of up to 3.2% alcohol was not “intoxicating”, and thus not prohibited. Within 24 hours of legalization, as much as 1.5 million barrels of 3.2% beer was sold, causing some to predict a “beer famine”. Soon thereafter, in December of the same year, the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution repealed Prohibition in general, but left the production of alcoholic beverages heavily regulated by federal, state, and local authorities. Included in this regulation was the imposition of a three-tier distribution system.


Although the Twenty-first Amendment allowed brewers to legally resume practicing their craft, many “dry” counties remained and many states failed to ratify altogether, which slowed the resurgence of the brewing industry. In addition, the many prohibitionists of the temperance movement were still quite vocal and were able to retain a large following despite the repealing of the 18th amendment. Before the American beer industry could attempt to re-establish itself, World War II began. This further inhibited the re-emergence of smaller breweries because much of the grain supply was rationed due to the war, forcing the breweries to use adjuncts such as corn and rice alongside the barley traditionally used in brewing. The prohibitionists saw a tantalizing opportunity to quell the efforts of remaining breweries, insisting that the commercial brewing of beer squandered manpower, grain, fuel and cargo space that should have gone towards the war effort overseas. Brewers responded to these accusations by extolling the benefits that brewer’s yeast have on human health, namely, their high vitamin B content. It was argued that the increase in thiamine in the diets of the soldiers and factory workers would improve performance on the battlefield as well as in the factory and that this increase sufficiently justified the need for beer. The American government decided that the benefits of the vitamin B in brewers yeast, alongside the taxes coming in from beer sales were enough to justify a request for fifteen percent of beer production for servicemen.

Although America’s breweries had the backing of their government, they still needed to capture the hearts and the wallets of the American people. In order to accomplish this, the major breweries banded together and launched the “Morale is a Lot of Little Things” advertising campaign. The campaign can be well summarized from the following 1942 magazine advertisement:

“If you’re a man, it’s a shine on your shoes … the sweet feel of a fly rod in your hand … If you’re a woman, it’s a tricky new hair-do maybe … or a change of lipstick. Morale is a lot of little things like that. People can take the big bad things … the bitter news, the bombings even … if only a few of the little, familiar, comforting good things are left.”

From the time America entered the war in 1941 until it ended in 1945, the overall production of beer increased by over 40% despite the small number of active breweries. This wartime growth allowed the large breweries such as Anheuser-Busch to dominate the American market for over fifty years. During this period they produced beers more noted for their uniformity than for any particular flavor. Beers such as those made by Anheuser-Busch and Coors Brewing Company followed a restricted pilsner style, with large-scale industrial processes and the use of low-cost ingredients like corn or ingredients such as rice that provided starch for alcohol production while contributing minimal flavor to the finished product. The dominance of the so-called “macrobrew” led to an international stereotype of “American beer” as poor in quality and flavor. However, in recent years the major brewers have made attempts at developing premium beers in the European tradition such as Killian’s Irish Red.


In 1978, President Jimmy Carter legalized the private brewing of beer in one’s home. This change, along with the emergence of new microbreweriessuch as New Albion and Sierra Nevada in Northern California, led to a growth of manufacture and interest in beer in the 1980s, which continues to this day. Due to the resurgence of the commercial craft brewing industry in the 1980s, the United States now features many beers, offered by over 1400 brewpubs, microbreweries, and regional brewers. However, the majority of beer sales in the United States are still for pale lager produced by national and international brewing companies.

While in volume the large brewers still dominate, smaller producers brew in a variety of styles influenced by local sources of hops and other ingredients as well as by various European traditions. The success of the commercial craft brewing industry has led the large breweries to invest in smaller breweries such as Widmer Brothers and Goose Island, and to develop more complex beers of their own.

Beer sales in the premium market are increasing, while sales in the standard and economy section are decreasing. The major beer producers merged together to strengthen their position – Anheuser-Busch merged with InBev to form Anheuser–Busch InBev, and Molson Coors merged with Miller Brewingto form MillerCoors. Despite legal challenges, the country’s three-tiered distribution system remains in place.

Nearly 80 percent of convenience stores sell beer, about 93 percent of which is sold cold. The U.S. convenience store industry sells more than 2 billion gallons of beer a year – roughly one-third of all the beer purchased in the United States. (In 2007, U.S. consumption was 6.7 billion gallons.)

Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage in America and accounts for about 85% of the volume of alcoholic beverages sold in the United States each year. As of 2009, the top three beer companies in the US were Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, and Pabst Brewing Company. The top beer brands by market share were Bud Light (28.3%), Budweiser (11.9%) and Coors Light (9.9%). Corona Extra is the #1 imported beer, followed by Heineken. 2009 figures show an overall decline in beer consumption from previous years, with only craft beer sales rising at a rate of 7–10%, earning 4.3% of sales by volume. Overall U.S. beer consumption was calculated at 205.8 million barrels. Light beer constitutes a 52.8% share of US beer sales.

Beer styles

The best selling style of beer made in the US is pale lager, which is made by most large-scale brewers, including Anheuser–Busch InBev and MillerCoors. These large-scale, or “macro”, companies also brew popular styles which descend from the pale lager. Light beer, which was introduced on a large scale by Miller Brewing Company in the early 1970s, is a beer made with reduced alcohol and/or carbohydrate content, and has grown to eclipse many of the original pale lager brands in sales. Bud Light, brewed by Anheuser-Busch InBev, is the top-selling beer in the United States. Ice beer is an example which has been partially freeze-distilled with the intention of concentrating flavor and alcohol. The technique is based on that used to make Eisbock, but the two styles share no stylistic similarities (apart from both being lagers) otherwise. Dry beer, a Japanese style based on pale lager, is also brewed by some American companies. In dry beer, the yeast is encouraged to consume more fermentables, resulting in a crisper finish and an unusually subtle hop flavor.

Malt liquor is a high-abv pale lager. It has often incited controversy due to its alcohol content, larger-sized containers, low prices, and advertising frequently targeting inner-city neighborhoods.

Other beer styles indigenous to the United States include California common beer or “steam beer”, amber ale, blonde ale and cream ale. Adapted styles with distinct American variations include pale ale, India Pale Ale, red ale, brown ale, stout, barleywine.

Belgian beer styles have also been adapted by American breweries, including saison, dubbel, tripel, and Belgian strong ale. The lighter of these (saison, golden strong ale and tripel) beers have soft malt flavors and mild to strong “spicy” characteristics that come from yeast or the addition of spices. The darker of these beers (dubbel and dark strong ale) may have flavors of dried fruit that derives from the malts, yeast and sugar used to make them. All of these beers are high in carbonation and low in hop character. Witbier, a style nearly extinct until reintroduced by Belgian brewer Pierre Celis in the 1960s, is brewed by MillerCoors as Blue Moon, and is one of the top-selling craft beer styles in the United States.


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