Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage in the United States. Americans drink more beer than both spirits (second) and wine (a distant third) combined. The brewing industry is large, highly concentrated, and politically powerful. Beer advertising is so pervasive in American culture that themes and catch phrases from commercials sometimes become part of the everyday language (as indeed they are designed to do). These commercials come under fire from public action groups that claim they are designed to encourage underage drinking, a major social problem in the United States. The beer industry denies this, and spends many millions every year to improve its image and protect itself against restrictive legislation.
For the 200 years from about 1630 through about 1830, most immigration to what became the United States came from the British Isles: England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. These people brought with them a type of beer that was similar to what we today call “ale.” Considered to be a healthy alternative to water, which was unreliable in most areas, the beer, a fresh product that could spoil quite quickly, was consumed at room temperature immediately after brewing. Brewers produced only what they could sell in their local area, and beer was frequently brewed at home.
Immigration of German-speaking immigrants increased in the 19th century and became particularly heavy following the European political upheavals of 1848. The German tide brought bottom-fermented cold brewed lager (or pilsner style) beer, which rapidly became the standard among German immigrants and eventually among the general public. Beer “barons” like Schlitz, Pabst, Stroh, and Busch came to dominate the industry, adding innovations like refrigerated transport, bottling, advertising and a sophisticated system of dealership and distribution. Lager beer became the standard among the general public and in fact became the most popular variety of beer around the world. While beer is produced all over the United States, one city, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, became particularly known as a center of both beer production and beer consumption.
The national prohibition of all alcoholic beverages that occurred between 1919 and 1933 dealt a crushing blow to American brewers. The larger breweries were able to survive by making non-alcoholic products like root beer, malted milk and even cheese but many small local brewers went out of business, and many more were swallowed up by the big companies over the next half century. In 1900, over 2,000 independent companies brewed beer in the United States; only 20 still survive, and of these, the top few (Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors, and Stroh) control most of the market. These companies produce brands of popular beer, premium beer, super-premium beer, varieties of light beers (less alcohol and fewer calories), and non-alcoholic beers, mostly in a highly uniform lager format. Nearly half the beer sold in the United States, domestic or imported, is light beer.
Over the past several decades, microbreweries (and legions of home brewers) have brought variety back into American beer, moving back to frothy British-style ales and stouts. While many distribute their beers in bottles to markets and in kegs to bars and taverns, a new kind of brewery-restaurant has emerged in which the beer making equipment is clearly visible to customers and the beer is piped in fresh. The Independence Brew Pub in Philadelphia, for example, in addition to offering tours of its facilities, sells a German-style wheat beer called Kolsch, a red ale, an English-style cask-conditioned ale, an oatmeal stout, and an India pale ale. New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Brewery prefers names the likes of Killer “B” Braggot, Smuttynose, and Old Brown Dog Ale. If anything distinguishes the new smaller breweries, it is the use of evocative, clever variety names, and equally clever logos and artwork.
While most specialty brewers are relatively new on the scene, the D.G. Yuengling & Sons brewery of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in existence since 1829, is the nation’s oldest brewery. Family-owned Yuengling managed to survive as a regional brand during both prohibition and the industry shakeout of the mid-twentieth century, and has since benefited from a renewed interest in variety beer. Yuengling produces a line that includes premium, light, traditional lager, porter, and several ales.
Craft and micro-brewed domestic beers still account for barely one percent of US consumption; imported beers fill in the specialty market at more than 10%. Mexico is the number one exporter of beer to the United States (twenty times more beer than the United States exports to Mexico); the Netherlands, Canada and Germany come next. Mexico’s Corona brand is popularly priced; imported brands like Holland’s Heineken and Germany’s Beck’s are positioned as premium beers. While beer connoisseurs support a small market for high-priced imports like Belgian monastery beers or Scottish bitters, most imports are varieties of pilsner.