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Beer’s American Journey

The Beginnings

Beer was first brewed in America by colonists in Virgina using corn in 1857.

The Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Mass. instead of their intended location because they were getting low on beer.

Several of the the country’s founding fathers like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Sam Adams brewed their own beer or were involved with the brewing industry.  Like most brewers at that time, the beer produced were ales like those made in England.

Between 1650 and the Civil War, the market for beer did not change a great deal: both production and consumption remained essentially local affairs.  Bottling was expensive, and beer did not travel well.  Nearly all beer was stored in, and then served from, wooden kegs.  While there were many small breweries, it was not uncommon for households to brew their own beer.

The American Lager

In the 1800’s, Beer in the US was a local product with local breweries each producing unique beers for their local customers.

In 1842 in Pilsen, Czech Republic, the first light lager was brewed when the first quality light colored malts became available.  German immigrant brewers all across America were soon making their own light lagers but American 6-row barley didn’t brew as well as the European 2-row barley due to its higher protein content so American brewers started adding adjuncts like corn and later rice to the brewing process resulting in a cleaner, crisper and more brilliant beer.

The millions of German immigrants brought with them their tradition of beer drinking, beer gardens and beer halls.  They quickly established breweries throughout the country.  These brewed lager beer in the style of the beers from Bavaria, Germany’s brewing capital.  The smooth-tasting, but flavorful beer eventually caught on with non-German Americans. When ice-making allowed year round brewing,  lager beer supplanted whiskey as the national beverage by the 1870s.

Prohibition and its Consequences

Prohibition in 1920 forced the closure of nearly all of the breweries.  It also destroyed the existing beer culture, wine industry, and fine-dining restaurants (which could not exist without alcohol sales).  Their absence for thirteen years until 1933 along with the increasing industrialization and homogenization of the county’s food supplies, and the importance of advertising, help pave the way for bland as the national beer style.

During Prohibition, people’s taste for alcohol moved from beer to liquor as it each bottle had more alcohol and thus was more valuable so it was easier to smuggle a certain volume of  alcohol as liquor than the same amount of alcohol as beer.  As a result when prohibition ended, beer was not America’s first choice for an alcoholic beverage.

From repeal until World War II, the brewing industry struggled to regain its pre-Prohibition fortunes. Prior to prohibition, breweries owned or controlled many saloons, which were the dominant retail outlets for alcohol. To prevent the excesses that had been attributed to saloons from reoccurring, post-repeal legislation forbade alcohol manufacturers from owning bars or saloons, requiring them instead to sell their beer to wholesalers that in turn would distribute their beverages to retailers.

The period following WWII was characterized by great industry consolidation. Total output continued to grow, though per capita consumption fell into the 1960s before rebounding to levels above 21 gallons per capita in the 1970s, the highest rates in the nation’s history. Not since the 1910s, had consumption levels topped 21 gallons a year; however, there was a significant difference. Prior to Prohibition most consumers bought their beer from local or regional firms and over 85 percent of the beer was served from casks in saloons. Following World War II, two significant changes radically altered the market for beer. First, the total number of breweries operating fell dramatically. This signaled the growing importance of the large national breweries. From the mid 1940s to 1980, the five largest breweries saw their share of the national market grow from 19 to 75 percent

The number of breweries in the US went from 4131 in 1880, to 736 in 1934 after Prohibition.  Then the low point was in 1983 when the US had only 80 breweries and 97% of the beer was a very similar light lager.

Craft Beer Revolution

By the late 1970’s, the American beer market was full of light lagers and not much else. The beer industry had consolidated to only 44 brewing companies and experts predicted that soon there would only be 5.

A grassroots homebrewing culture was emerging because the only way a person in the US could experience the beer traditions and styles of other countries was to make the beer themselves.

In 1976 the first micro brewery, New Albion Brewery in CA was opened by a homebrewer. While it was only open 6 years, it inspired hundreds to follow in their footsteps and start breweries in the early-1980s and beyond. The number of craft brewers has gone from 8 in 1980 to 537 in 1994 to over 3200 today in early 2015.

There has never been a better time or place to drink beer than in the US right now.

Beer Facts

The largest American owned brewery is currently Yuengling with 1.3% of the domestic market with Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams) close behind.

Pabst Brewing is larger than Yuengling and Boston Beer Co. but they don’t have their own brewery so their brewing is outsourced to other company’s breweries.

The largest beer companies in the US are currently foreign owned:
Anheuser-Bush was bought by InBev, a Belgo-Brazillian multinational company with headquarters in Leuven, Belgium.
Miller Brewing is owned by the UK based SABMiller.
Coors Brewing is actually part of Molson Coors Brewing Company with headquarters in both Montreal, QC and Denver, CO.

Craft beer’s sales increased by 20% 2013 and by 18% in 2014 while during that same time, overall beer sales have been flat or actually decreasing in some recent years.

Overall Market Share (2013 with 211.7 barrels total)

Anheuser-Busch  – 45.6%
MillerCoors*  –  27.0%
Crown Imports – 6.2%
Heineken USA – 3.9%

*MillerCoors is a joint venture between SABMiller and MoulsonCoors to sell the beers from both brewing companies in the United States in an effort to compete against the larger Anheuser-Busch InBev.

All Domestic – 78.2%
All Imports – 14.0%
Craft Beer – 7.8%

2014 stats show Craft Beer is now up to 11% of the beer market.

Top 10 Beer Brands in 2013 (% of US market share)

1 – Bud Light (19.8%)
2 – Coors Light (7.9%)
3 – Budweiser (7.0%)
4 – Miller Lite (6.2%)
5 – Corona Extra (4.1%)
6 – Natural Light (3.7%)
7 – Busch Light (2.8%)
8 – Michelob Ultra Light (2.6%)
9 – Busch (2.2%)
10 – Heineken (2.2%)


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