Thomas Jefferson, a talented homebrewer, remarked over 200 years ago that American beers were “meager and often vapid.” Today, American beers are still not taken too seriously: they are more commonly associated with frat parties, casual barbeques, and country music than refined culture. However, the current upswing in craft beers and microbreweries is creating the opportunity to finally make beer into a gourmet beverage – a change American society has resisted ever since its founding.
Throughout Europe, beer is taken seriously – England has a long history of pub culture and Germany has Oktoberfest. When the first settlers came to America, they attempted to replicate their rich, dark beers. However, as barley was an expensive import, settlers began using more accessible – albeit less flavorful – products such as corn, wheat, and molasses. Thus, American beers even started weakly.
As immigrants streamed into the US, they increased the demand for these milder, less flavorful beers. The increase in immigrants increased the labor supply, thus making jobs harder to keep. While many immigrants wanted to keep up the tradition of enjoying a beer with lunch, they knew that, unlike in Europe, being tipsy on the job was unacceptable. Thus, these workers increased demand for weaker and more “work-friendly” beers, and the breweries responded accordingly. So, throughout the 19th century, American beers typically remained light and mild.
Then came the temperance movement. The campaign against alcohol decreased the interest in ‘throwing back a brewski’ as a pastime – in fact, the movement put 1,568 breweries out of business. While a few dedicated individuals experimented with homebrewing, beer was generally in very short supply. As the country went through over a decade without readily available beer, many Americans lost the taste for it.
When the temperance movement ended and the beer industry picked back up, breweries began where they last left off: creating weak beers that could keep workers sober. The beer industry marketed the product as a “beverage of moderation,” a claim that stuck with consumers. As World War II caused restrictions on wheat, breweries were unable to create hoppy brews. Given its unimpressive quality, beer became less popular and profits weakened. There were 684 breweries in 1940, and only 44 in 1979. Furthermore, the rise of fad diets in the ‘70’s encouraged beers to become even lighter and blander.
However, the limited options for beer sparked an interest in greater diversity and improved quality in the market. Intrigued customers were happy to spend more money on beer, especially because a high-quality beer is cheaper than a nice wine. Thus, craft beers from smaller breweries were able to create more flavorful products that could compete with the bland, big-name beers. Accordingly, customers followed. In 1977 there were only two craft breweries in America, and by 2012 there were 2,751.
Currently, craft beers are expected to continue to grow, especially given their popularity among young people. The Brewers Association put craft beer’s 22.2 million barrels in 2014 at an 18 percent increase in volume and a 22 percent increase in sales over the previous year. One issue craft beers face, however, is getting their products in stores. While many large grocery stores and liquor stores have begun stocking these lesser-known brands, smaller stores, such as gas stations and convenience stores, are less inclined to supply without brand recognition on their small shelves. While these brands are becoming more popular, craft brews are still far from ubiquitous.
While the rise of craft beers may be stunting growth for the larger beer companies, good ol’ bland, American beer is here to stay. Young people, for example, have developed a prevalent drinking culture that heavily values quantity over quality of beer. As long as guys and gals are still scoring in beer pong, shotgunning, taking keg stands, and enjoying power hours, there will be a place for cheap beer in our parties, bellies, and hearts.