Why American Beers Suck

A pro-Prohibition protest Source: Ken Burns' PROHIBITION

A pro-Prohibition protest
Source: Ken Burns' PROHIBITION

With the craft beer movement in full swing today, many may wonder why the US put up with such bland, profile less beers for so many decades up to this point. The answer, many reasons. Religious objections to alcohol, hordes of German immigrants, and miners and factory workers who wanted to drink without getting tipsy, all contributed to the easy access and mass produced nature of today's lagers, light lagers and pilsners.

Ranjit Dighe, a professor of economics at the State University of New York at Oswego, published a history of American Beer. He noted that while British colonists who made their way to America preferred darker, bolder beers, similar to the porters and stouts of today, this was not easily replicated in the US at the time. Those beers required expensive imported ingredients such as malted barley. To get around this cost, American brewers made the switch to corn, wheat and molasses as alternatives. The result? The first wave of boring American beers were created.

Beermaking at 17th-century Jamestown by Sydney King
Source: NPS

German immigrants had a large hand in the creation of the more boring, streamlined beer culture Americas macro breweries push today. Large numbers of them flooded the U.S. in the mid 1800s, bringing lager with them. The combination of this immigration, and American miners and factory workers desire to drink at work, yet return with their sobriety, aided in pushing the weaker lager style beer to higher popularity.

Many also picked lagers as their lunchtime beer choice, as it just gave the appearance that it was a weaker beer. The lack of ABV labeling at the time required people to trust their instinct based on appearance. This especially helped the pilsner, a pale lager from the city of Pilsen, rise in popularity.

Along with expensive ingredients and German immigration came the Temperance movement. This movement, starting in the 1820s, attempted to curb consumption of all liquor. This movement made brewers nervous, therefore causing them to promote the fact they were the lower ABV alternative to standard liquors on the market. This plan failed however, and full fledged prohibition was enacted in 1920. This left America without full bodied beers for over a decade and a half, causing Americans to lose their taste for it.

Once Prohibition ended, breweries that could afford to open did so by producing what they knew Americans would drink, light watery beers. Some brewers tried more full bodied brews, but when they went unsold were forced into the mainstream. The Temperance movement still being a factor even post Prohibition also lead breweries to continue the narrative they were the moderate alcoholic beverage of choice.

Fortunately for all flavorful beer lovers, things are changing. America had all of 2 craft breweries in 1977 and that has increased to 2751 as of 2012. As long as we don't experience another Prohibition, look for the craft beer scene to continue to chip away at the old bland style macro market.

Source: The Atlantic