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).
Our “modern era” 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 It effectively ended in April of 1933 with the return of 3.2% beer, and in December the 21st amendment officially repealed the 18th.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 Americans provided 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.
Stan Hieronymus has traveled the United States many times over while writing about beer for numerous publications. He’s author of seven books, including Brew Like a Monk and Brewing With Wheat and For the Love of Hops.