Historians have traced the origin of the brewing of beer to the early history of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Grain, most likely barley, was soaked in water until fermentation occurred. Although this method was quite crude, it remained the essential foundation for brewing throughout history.
The pilgrims brought the art of brewing to America in the early 1600s. Dutch settlers brewed ale in New York (then known as New Amsterdam) soon after their arrival in 1624. Early brewing was a small scale subsistence enterprise—just enough beer was produced for the neighborhood barter market.
As the colonies expanded, and the number of breweries increased. Partly because of the problem of finding potable (pure) water, early American per capita consumption of alcohol (including hard cider, which actually surpassed beer in popularity in the eighteenth century) was about double what it was in the late twentieth century. As in Europe, differing flavors developed in different regions—mostly because of varied ingredients. Ales and stouts were (and still are) made with a yeast that rises during the fermentation process; this gives the brew a dark, cloudy look. American brews were decidedly different in taste from English ale because of their short fermentation time and the need to import barley, which could not be grown locally in the colonies. Large amounts of English ale were imported for most of the eighteenth century. This practice, however, came to an end in 1770, when George Washington (1732–1799) proclaimed a boycott on imported English ale in order to boost sales for ailing American breweries. The American Revolution (1775–1783) and the subsequent break with Great Britain finalized what Washington had begun five years earlier. In 1789 the U.S. House of Representatives strengthened commercial brewing by limiting the tax on beer. The success of this measure led to the expansion of the industry; by 1810 there were approximately 132 breweries operating in the United States.
Throughout the mid–1800s, a new type of beer revolutionized the U.S. brewing industry. Brought to the United States in 1840 by Bavarian brewer Johann Wagner, lager utilized a different type of yeast during fermentation that sank—leaving the beer clear and light instead of cloudy. This process required a cool environment. Recognizing the importance of this yeast, brewer George Manger purchased a quantity and set up America's first commercial lager brewery in Philadelphia.
In the mid-nineteenth century, an influx of German immigrants introduced a new type of lager to the United States: the pilsner. Some of these immigrants set up breweries on the shore of Lake Michigan. Many famous breweries arose from this period, including Schlitz, Pabst, and Miller. By 1860 the number of breweries in the United States had swollen to 1,269— mostly lager brewers. As in the case of other commodities, the development of a national economy required distribution in larger markets. Milwaukee breweries attained good reputations in part because of Milwaukee's large German population (in which beer had long been part of the national culture) and in part through the accident of the Great Chicago Fire (1871). Damage to Chicago's water supply and breweries gave Milwaukee brewers temporary access to a huge, new market.
By 1873 there were 4,131 breweries in the United States; nine million barrels of beer were produced per year. This year also saw the birth of what would become two of the country's most prominent breweries: Coors and Anheuser-Busch. To improve the taste of his beer, Adolphus Busch (1839–1913) studied the work of scientist Louis Pasteur (1822–1895). The pasteurization of the brew to kill bacteria, coupled with the invention of the crown bottle cap in 1892, extended the shelf life of beer, which made shipping of beer to remote areas possible. By using these new techniques to make beer, Busch began to produce and market Budweiser, creating the empire of Anheuser-Busch. The ability to manufacture ice, the growth of the railway lines, and European immigration gave birth to the first nationally recognized brands of beer: Pabst, Schlitz, and Anheuser-Busch. Facing competition on this scale, smaller breweries began to consolidate or go out of business.
By 1910 only 1,568 breweries remained in the United States, and these were about to be dealt a serious economic blow. Fueled by anti-German sentiment during World War I (1914–1918), Protestant morality, and the agitation of the Anti-Saloon League, the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages was outlawed by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which become law in 1920. Larger breweries survived by making malt for the food industry, ice cream, soft drinks, industrial alcohol, and non-alcoholic beer. Organized crime produced the now-illegal beer and hard liquor.
In 1933, Congress passed the Twenty-first Amendment repealing Prohibition. In the grip of the Great Depression (1929–1939), the sale of bottled beer helped the brewing industry stay afloat. With the advent of cans, dominated by the American Can Company in 1935, beer found a new container—one that would not break and would protect the beverage from the damaging effects of light. Take-home packaging was also developed. Now beers could be purchased six to a pack.
During World War II (1939–1945), fifteen percent of brewery output went to the military. The anti-German sentiment that had afflicted the German-dominated brewing industry during the World War I did not occur this time. In fact, there was a substantial increase in brewing. Due to a shortage of malt during this period, lighter styles of beer became popular. Lighter beers would characterize the American brewing industry until the late 1980s.
After the war the major brewers in Milwaukee and St. Louis began to expand. Both Pabst and Schlitz owned breweries in New York by 1949. In 1951, Anheuser-Busch constructed a new brewery in Newark, New Jersey. Anheuser-Busch and Schlitz continued expansion, both building breweries in Los Angeles, California (1954), and Tampa, Florida (1959). By 1957 Anheuser-Busch had taken the lead in sales and remained the number one selling brewery in the United States through the 1990s. Though Anheuser-Busch's Tampa brewery would eventually be shut down, the location became the site of the popular Busch Gardens theme park.
During the 1970s a series of mergers occurred. Philip Morris, known primarily for its tobacco products, purchased Miller Brewing Company. Philip Morris reasoned that beer was not unlike cigarettes in that it was an agriculturally based item dependent on advertising for consumer awareness. Mergers were happening on a smaller scale as well. Regional breweries joined forces to form national concerns with bigger markets.
Advertising had become as important as the beer itself to the breweries' success. Competition was fierce. In 1975 America's breweries produced 147 million barrels of beer and spent $140 million dollars in advertising. By 1994, total beer production had increased by almost 37 percent while the amount spent on advertising skyrocketed to $700 million, an increase of five hundred percent.
Part of this growth was caused by expected competition. The late 1980s brought the rebirth of the regional brewery (now known as the micro-brewery) and the homebrewer. A large number of beer drinkers had grown weary of pilsner. Micro-breweries offered American-made stouts, porters, ales, bocks, and other brews, all with a taste specific to the region in which they were brewed. Homebrew supply shops popped up across the country and beer enthusiasts began making beer with ingredients of their own choosing. In the late 1990s it was legal for individuals to brew up to one hundred gallons of beer for personal consumption per year.
Does this spell the end of the national brewery? Hardly. Sensing the change in the market, Anheuser-Busch began producing a wide variety of flavors, including a honey-blond ale, a stout, and many others. This gambit paid off. In 1998 Anheuser-Busch reaped the profit from the sale of over ninety million barrels of brew and their flagship product—Budweiser—was the number one selling beer in the world.
Baron, Stanley. Brewed In America: The History of Beer and Ale In the United States. New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 1962.
Papazian, Charlie. The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing. New York: Avon Books, 1991.
Van Munching, Philip. Beer Blast: The Inside Story of the Brewing Industry's Bizarre Battles for Your Money. New York: Times Books, 1997.
"Breweries and Brands," [cited April 12, 1999] available from the World Wide Web @ dir.yahoo.com/Business_and_Economy/Companies/Beverages/Alcohol_and_Spirits/Beer/Breweries_and_Brands/.