Native Americans made a corn beer long before Europeans found their way to America, bringing with them their own version of beer. Although most of that was brewed in the home during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a fledgling industry began to develop from 1612, when the first known New World brewery opened in New Amsterdam (now Manhattan).
The “modern era” of American beer began in the nineteenth century. In 1810 only 132 breweries operated and per capita consumption of commercially brewed beer amounted to less than a gallon. By 1873 the country had 4131 breweries, a high water mark, and in 1914 per capita consumption had grown to 20 gallons (compared to about 21.5 today). Then came national Prohibition.
American beer was already changing before Prohibition. When German immigrants began arriving in the middle of the nineteenth century they brought with them a thirst for all-malt lagers and the knowledge to brew them. But by the end of the century a) drinkers showed a preference for lighter-tasting lagers, ones that included corn or rice in the recipe, and b) consolidation began to eliminate many small, independently operated breweries. In 1918 the country had only one quarter the number of brewers that operated 45 years before.
National Prohibition (individual states had prohibition as early as 1848) began January 16, 1920 when the 18th amendment, also known as the Volstead Act, went into effect. It effectively ended in April of 1933 with the return of 3.2% beer, and in December the 21st amendment officially repealed the 18th. Within a year 756 breweries were making beer, but the biggest companies remained intent on expansion, using production efficiencies and marketing to squeeze out smaller breweries.
The number of breweries shrunk quickly, to 407 in 1950 and 230 in 1961. By 1983 one source counted 80 breweries, run by only 51 independent companies, made beer. As British beer writer Michael Jackson observed at the time, most produced the same style: “They are pale lager beers vaguely of the pilsener style but lighter in body, notably lacking hop character, and generally bland in palate. They do not all taste exactly the same but the differences between them are often of minor consequence.”
Something else was happening as regional breweries closed. Not only were Northern Californians nurturing the rise of “California cuisine” and local wineries but also small breweries so new people didn’t know what to call them. What started when Fritz Maytag bought Anchor Brewing in 1965 continued when Jack McAuliffe opened the short-lived New Albion Brewing Company in 1976. This is an example of an entrepreneurial act repeated a thousand times over and in every state in the country.
By the end of the century more breweries operated in the United States than any country in the world, the number climbing past 1,500 in 2009. Taking inspiration from brewing cultures around the world Americans also brew a wider variety of beer than anywhere. “I have no doubt that America is the best place to be a brewer because we don’t have the burden of having to carry on a long brewing tradition,” explains Phil Markowski, brewmaster at Southampton Public House. “We have more freedom to be creative and can gather influences from all over.”
In turn, American beer provides inspiration for like-minded brewers in other countries. “For me the innovation in brewing in the USA…has been by far the most exciting thing to happen in brewing, possibly ever,” said James Watt, co-founder of upstart BrewDog in Scotland.
As American beer enthusiasts are fond of saying, there may never have been a better time to be a beer drinker, at least until tomorrow.
Notable Dates in Beer History
1800 BC (Circa)
A “Hymn to Ninkasi,” the Sumerian goddess of beer, is inscribed on a tablet, about 4,000 years after men first leave evidence of brewing activity.
Saint Arnold of Metz is born, one of dozens of patron saints to beer, brewers and hop-pickers. He helps end a plague by convincing people to drink beer rather than impure water.
The Reinheitsgebot, instituted in Bavaria, is a beer “purity law” that remains today in revised form. The original laws permits beer to be made only with barley, hops and water, later acknowledging yeast and permitting wheat.
Heinrich Knaust writes the first extensive book on brewing in Germany, describing in detail about 150 different beers. He calls the “noble Hamburg beer the queen of all other wheat beers.”
The tavern that will become known as the Wayside Inn after being immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn opens in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Nearly 300 years later it’s oldest continuously operating inn in the United States.
A storage vat at the Horse Shoe Brewery in London containing more than 300,000 gallons of porter collapses, knocking down brewery walls and flooding immediate area. Eight people are killed, “by drowning, injury, poisoning by porter fumes, or drunkenness.”
Prohibition, in the form of the 18th amendment, outlaws the sale of alcohol in the United States. Key dates to remember:
- The 18th Amendment is ratified on January 16, 1919 and goes into effect January 16, 1920.
- On March 23, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signs into law legislation permitting the sale of 3.2% a beer.
- On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment repeals the 18th Amendment.
Because it is not practical to ship beer, the HMS Menestheus, a British mine-laying ship, is converted into a floating brewery to supply beer to British and Allied troops in the Asian theater during World War II.
The late Michael Jackson, “The Beer Hunter”, drinks his first beer at the Castle Hill Hotel in Huddersfield, Yorkshire. Twenty years later he writes The World Guide to Beer, one of the inspirations for a “beer revolution.”
Development of Cascade hops begins in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1956. The hop is released to brewers in 1972 and becomes a hallmark aroma and flavor for beer from American small-batch brewers.
Hilton Harvest House in Boulder, Colorado, hosts a modest 20 breweries serving only 35 beers for the first Great American Beer Festival. Today the annual event features more than 2,000 beers.
Astronaut-homebrewer Bill Readdy blasts into space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery carrying an unofficial package, a bag containing Cascades hops. Spinnakers Brewpub in Victoria, B.C., later makes a beer brewed with the hops that circled the earth 128 times.
Jack McDougall of New Jersey wins the first US Beerdrinker of the Year competition sponsored by Wynkoop Brewing in Denver. McDougall is an original member of the Bar Tourists of America, a loosely organized group that held its first tour in 1978.
Smithsonian Magazine states: “The best beers in the world today are being made in the US.”
The craft brewing sales share in 2012 was 6.5 percent by volume and 10.2 percent by dollars. 2,347 craft breweries operated for some or all of 2012, comprised of 1,132 brewpubs, 1,118 microbreweries and 97 regional craft breweries.
Craft brewers reached 7.8 percent volume of the total U.S. beer market. Additionally, craft dollar share of the total U.S. beer market reached 14.3 percent in 2013, as retail dollar value from craft brewers was estimated at $14.3 billion. More than 2,800 U.S. breweries operated for some or all of 2013, of which 99 percent were small and independent craft brewers as defined by the Brewers Association. Of those craft breweries, there were 1,237 brewpubs, 1,412 microbreweries and 119 regional craft breweries.
Craft brewers reached 11 percent volume of the total U.S. beer market. Additionally, craft dollar share of the total U.S. beer market reached 19.3 percent in 2014, as retail dollar value from craft brewers was estimated at $19.6 billion. More than 3,400 U.S. breweries operated for some or all of 2014, of which 99 percent were small and independent craft brewers as defined by the Brewers Association. Of those craft breweries, there were 1,412 brewpubs, 1,871 microbreweries and 135 regional craft breweries.