Let me take you back to pre-prohibition to examine beer production in America. Every village, city, town, and county had their own brewery or breweries--just like Europe at the time. Similar immigrant groups would congregate together and retain styles and flavors of their heritage. The most influential immigrants of beer production and consumption were British, Danish, French, and Germanic people. Of these immigrants, the British and Germanic styles of brewing were--and still are--the most influential styles of beer produced in the world. The founders of the big four--Budweiser, Coors, Miller and Pabst--were German. The lagers and pilsners were Germanic inventions. The word lager is german for storage, which describes the long cold process of storage--originally in ice caves. Pilsner refers to the Czech town of Pizsen.
Brew beer that offends the least amount of people.
Once when I was in Munich I met two young German men drinking lite beer. "American beers have small taste compared to German beers, but lite beer is nearly water," I said. They replied: "That is why we drink it." Inoffensive and subtle flavors, that was the philosophy that big American breweries used after prohibition in 1933, through to when I was learning to brew, in the 80's. “Less Filling/Tastes Great” was a sales slogan for a “lite" beer back in the day. That meant lower calories and no flavor--essentially pure, carbonated water. There may not be any data to support this claim but your taste buds will support the premise.
Does American beer taste like it did 100 years ago?
Prior to prohibition, locally produced beers likely tasted very close to the taste and styles of the brewer and the consumer's home country. If a brewery could not produce a beer that the locals liked, they were out of business. Prohibition put these ethnic and local breweries out of business in one fell swoop. Only the illegal breweries with organized crime protection continued to produce beer. Some breweries survived by making near beer or selling malt extract, which supplied illegal home brewers. Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling breweries focused their manufacturing facilities to make ice cream, and Yuengling is one of America's only continuous-producing brewery that still operates today.
Strapped for cash after prohibition, brewers resorted to a technique practiced by Depression era housewives: they stretched recipes, and further lightened the taste. If the depression wasn’t bad enough, America’s heartland-the grain belt-was suffering through one of history’s worst droughts. Barley supplies shrank and the price of barley skyrocketed. Budweiser added rice along with barley to its flagship recipes, which decreased production costs for ingredients. Due to numerous hop shortages in the 2000s many mega breweries attempted to cut cost and stretch hops use in their flagship beer recipes 5. This same strategy caused smaller breweries such as Schlitz, Hamms, Olympia, Strohs, and Pearle to either go out of business or to be sold. Decreasing hops content contributed the most to changing the taste of beer, followed by the use of low quality malted barley.
Prohibition caused brewery consolidation and encouraged breweries to attempt to attract a broader consumer market. In the true corporate ethic to maximize profits and reduce costs, breweries continued to stretch the recipes by adding less hops and using lower quality grains. It is widely thought that the warm climate of the United States resulted in consumers moving toward a more refreshing beer with little taste and lower alcohol. As of late, major breweries have faced numerous hop shortages from the early 90s on.
Wheat has always been used in specific German style wheat beers such as Weissbier, Weizen, Kristalweizen, or Hefeweizen. Weissbier, or white beer, and is made from malted wheat. Weizen is German for wheat. Hefe means "with yeast" but more specifically it is cloudy and unfiltered. Kristalweizen is a filtered Hefeweizen. These beers use 50/50 or higher ratio of wheat as a grain but not to save money. It was done for a specific taste. The yeast also gives this style of beer a distinctive flavor.
Currently there are three main production companies left in America that existed prior to prohibition: Bud, Coors/Miller, and Pabst. These are also the top three breweries in 2013 by volume. They were not the major beer producers then that they are today. There were many more medium to large breweries that were in competition with BCMP that aren't in business today. Breweries such as Falstaff, Strohs, Hamms, Olympia, Pearl, and Schlitz to name just a few, are no longer producing beer.
Micro and craft breweries began popping up all over America in the 1980s. Their market share started out slowly, but the craft beer movement has only seen growth. In response, the mega breweries brew beer with very little taste and during the last 10 years, have used less and less hops to flavor their beer. There has also been a pre-prohibition movement as MillerCoors, Brooklyn and Lucky Bucket breweries all claim to make a brew using pre-prohibition recipes. Anchor Steam of San Francisco Bay Area say they have never changed their recipe since the 1890s.
Historical Timeline of American Brewing after Prohibition
The birth of our nation started with British pubs taverns and inns. People of the 13 colonies drank and produced British beers, ales and spirits and the rum that was introduced by Spanish traders. It has been said by some that Samuel Adams was a beer brewing hobbyist, yet research for this article finds zero data to support that claim. In fact the Boston Brewing Company only borrows the name. Not to disappoint, I leave you with the fact that in 1754 George Washington entered a beer recipe in his journal--a safe bet that George intended to or actually made beer.
In the European tradition, beer was made by a master brewer who started out as an apprentice, typically for 7 or more years. This was customarily passed down from father to son or other relative which kept the skill within the family. Some master brewers likely also produced the harder spirits of rum and whiskeys such as Scotch and Irish Whisky. The crew of the Mayflower and Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620 extremely short on beer. The seamen quickly forced the Pilgrims off the ship so that there would be enough beer for the voyage back to England.
The beers and Ales that appeared at the time of the birth of this nation are still brewed and consumed today, although slightly modified by craft Breweries today to produce more flavor than beers produced by the major American Breweries today. Virginia colonist begin brewing ale using corn in 1587 and beer starts to arrive from England in 1607.
Prior to prohibition there were over 1000 breweries and brewpubs. Within a year after repeal of the 18th Amendment by the 21 Amendment there were 756 breweries that started or restarted brewing beer. Today, there are over 3000 breweries in the US, and 99% are independent, local operations.
The future of beer in the US? It looks a lot like the past.
Jim St. Germain is president of St. Germain Cellars and the resident hops enthusiast. When he isn't evangelizing IPAs (75+ IBUs!), he enjoys a nice glass of pinot noir or good whiskey, neat.