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WhenGermans and German-Americans first started brewing in North America in themid-19th century, they used recipes from their homeland. These would’ve been amber-coloured,flavoursome liquid-bread, matured for months in pitch-lined barrels in cool cellars.They were lagers, opaque, but thanks to the lagering time which allowed theyeast to drop they were brighter and lighter than the muddy, dark, prone-to-sourEnglish-style ales which had been brewed since colonial days.

InChicago, Philadelphia, New York and especially Milwaukee, lager breweries werestarted by German émigrés. To begin, their beers were mostly drunk by otherGermans in their local areas. These German drinkers, foaming mug of lager inhand, also brought with them their drinking culture of leisurely mugs in beerhalls with music, dancing, family and food. This was a stark contrast to thespit, sawdust and smoke of American taverns, where speed and greed were valuedover pleasure. Americans were drinking spirits in the dark while the Germanswere drinking lager in bright beer halls.

Menwith the surnames Anheuser, Busch, Best (to be passed on to Pabst) and Uehlein(Schlitz) had started their breweries. And they grew quickly, re-writing whatbrewing was in America and creating their own fortunes with ingenuity,determination and ambition. These were the guys who first used refrigerationfor beer, who first pasteurised their beer, who built enormous automatedbottling lines (in the 1890s, Pabst’s bottling line employed over 900 peopleand could fill 75,000 bottles an hour per spindle of their line; they had 96spindles), developed transport networks around America in order to sell morebeer and grew local, then national, then international companies.

Asthe numbers of German-Americans grew, so their beer spread further andAmericans started drinking it. But the American taste for beer was different tothat of Europeans: they didn’t want the ‘heavy’ Bavarian beers, they wantedsomething lighter – it was the German historical nourishment of liquid breadversus the American need for drunken speed. So beers evolved or new brands werereleased to satisfy the market demand.

Inthe 1870s, brewers looked back to Germany and saw the bright beers of Bohemia –pale gold, light-bodied, clear and sparkling. This was the style of beer whichAmericans would like, the sort of beer they could drink lots of. But it proveddifficult to brew. Europeans used two-row barley but Americans used six-rowbarley; six-row is rich in protein and some of that remained in the finishedbeer, forming a haze or unsightly clumps, as well as reducing shelf-life (thisis still pre-pasteurisation). Darker Bavarian lagers could hide this haze butpale Pilsners couldn’t. And this new beer style arrived at the same time asglass became the drinking container of choice: suddenly beer had to look good.

Thisis where adjuncts come in. Brewers needed something with starch and usefulsugars to reduce the amount of barley. Corn worked; it absorbed excess proteinin the barley and stretched the six-row further (meaning less needed to be usedfor beer-quality reasons rather than financial ones), but it also added anunpleasant flavour as it contained oil. A better adjunct was rice. This new light,clear lager was now a beer unique to America, used in order to produce abetter, brighter beer, not a cheaper one. And this modern beer was exactly toAmerican tastes where quality quickly became associated with pale and sparkling.

Throughoutthis period, the successful breweries – Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Schlitz – werefocused on quality, consistency and reaching new drinkers, and they brewed, byall accounts, some of the best beers in the world, reaching a notable high inthe battle at the World Expo of 1893 which awarded Pabst the medal for which itstill wears a blue ribbon today – Budweiser took second place, beating lagersand ales from around the world, including the German beers which inspired thenew style of American lager.

Thencame Prohibition. More than a decade dry, America had turned to soda and13-year habits are hard to kick. Those dry years saw big advancements in life:people now spent time at home where they could listen to the radio or spendtime with their family, and if they drank then they did so at home (packagedbeer was 10% of the market in 1919; by 1940 it was split 50-50; by 1960 it was80% packaged), or they’d go to the movies, where they’d watch svelte Hollywoodstarlets sipping cocktails (post-Prohibition, obviously), a sight far removedfrom the bouncy Bavarian beer wenches.

Thencame recession, the Great Depression, World War II and ingredient rationing.Some brewers changed and cheapened recipes to keep away from bank managers orto keep up with demand; others, including some of the big guys, for whompremium quality was essential, refused to compromise on ingredients and sobrewed less. When recession and rationed ended, some breweries just carried onusing the adjuncts, liking the savings they made on cheaper ingredients.

Timeschanged again. The knock-on from Prohibition to war to general technological,commercial and industrial advancement saw a very different America in the 1950sto how it’d been 40 years earlier. The ‘drinking demographic’ of 20-40 yearolds was low in the 1950s and spirit sales went up while beer sales went down.Dieting and bad health became part of the public conscience and beer was unableto rid the wench’s fat-fingered grip. The rationed diet of the last two decadesalso saw a blanket blandness and a palate that wanted sweetness combined with anew desire for convenience, so mass-market beers sat beside sliced white breadand packets of processed cheese.

Ashad happened in the 1870s, when the amber beers of Bavaria became the palebeers of Bohemia, so in the 1950s Americans wanted less-demanding drinks andbeer changed to suit to the tastes of the nation.

Enterlighter beers, drier beers, weaker beers and, in the 1970s, Lite beers. Thesebrewhouse changes happened with a backdrop of mergers, takeovers, buyouts andbreweries going bust, as the big boys looked to spread across America while thesmall breweries just tried to keep going. Survival was made harder as consumersstarted looking for cheaper beers over premium ones – the big brewers adaptedand had the mountainous volumes to push prices lower and lower, forcing the smallbreweries to fight over dimes, not dollars. Brewing corporations brutally ruledthe market.

Thenthings changed again. The liberal, world-conscious and curious attitude of the1960s and 70s saw people travelling more and experiencing other cultures, whichsaw import beers rise in popularity. Then came homebrewing (though stillillegal until 1979), an extension of a growing knowledge of food andingredients, and a way away from the corporations and towards small producers. Changeswere happening while the big brewers were still perpetually searching for newmarkets, still spending millions on advertising and still changing theirrecipes by reducing rather than adding flavour.

Thechange started with Anchor, New Albion, Sierra Nevada, Redhook, BoulderBrewing, Mendochino Brewing and others. Then come more and more. Followed by anon-going burst in America since the 1990s. In 1880s, there were over 4,000breweries in America, which dropped to around 1,500 before Prohibition, ofwhich less than 200 survived to the repeal of the amendment. In the mid-1980sthere was only around 80 breweries owned by 60-odd brewing companies. There arenow around 2,000 craft breweries in America with over 900 in planning (in the UK, in 1910 there was over 4,500 breweries,dropping to just 191 in 1980; now there are over 1,000). The small guy now hada say.

‘Weare the 5%’ has become a proud bumper-sticker-slogan for the craft beerminority of America. Brewing is booming, even if the big companies, which arenow really big companies thanks tomergers and takeovers, still hold the huge majority of market share; themonolithic giants are being pushed around by a growing army of little guys.

Inthe 1870s and again in the 1950s, German-American breweries changed theirrecipes to suit what the drinkers wanted. Now look at the last 15 years. Themain brands rarely change but big brewers are always searching to be at theforefront of things, to position themselves to slot into different markets withdifferent products: Blue Moon, Budweiser American Ale or the Brewmaster’sPrivate Reserve, Shock Top, Green Valley Brewing or see the list of AB-InBev brands, especially the Michelob brews which includes a lager funked up withbrettanomyces and a Rye Pale Ale. The big brewers are now having to seekinspiration from the craft breweries, from the guys who are closer to thedrinkers, more able to see how tastes are developing and shape where things go.

Butthis isn’t about the big brewers any more. While it’s interesting to see whatthey do, they are being reactive instead of proactive. The forefront of theindustry is now taking place in small mash tuns around the world by brewers whoare creative and passionate and dedicated to making great-tasting beers with personalityand character and flavour.

Thecurrent trend is towards big flavour in beer. It’s the antithesis of the light/litelagers which dominate bar tops and home fridges. These beers show you howdifferent beer can be, how varied, how exciting. Not long ago, the beers ofBelgium would’ve converted new drinkers but now it’s more likely they’ll have adouble IPA than an abbey dubbel, and we have American brewers to thank for that,but we can also look at New Zealand, Sweden, Italy and the UK as countries whoare taking beer further, doing new things, giving drinkers more and betterchoices.

Andchoice is what’s great about beer right now. It’s hard to introspect what’shappening in terms of changing tastes but we can anecdotally see that more hopsare being added to beers, different hop varieties are being used, strong beersare no longer fearsome, breweries are experimenting with different styles,ingredients and yeasts, sour beers are a big thing in America, barrel-agingisn’t slowing down, old recipes are being recreated and new ones are changingwhat we thought we knew about beer.

Beforetravel networks were laid across America all beer was local. This allowed for those4,000 breweries to operate in the 1880s as each had their own market. Withroads, trains, ships and planes, plus pasteurisation, bottling, canning andrefrigeration, breweries were able to ship beer further and look nationallyinstead of just nearby. Now provenance is back. There’s an interest in wherethings are from and there’s a parochial pride in supporting local businessesand community. And that’s making room for more new breweries to start fillingtheir fermenters all over the world.

Tasteschange. The big brewers have always had to react to the tastes of theirdrinkers: opaque, heavy amber lager became pale and sparkling pilsners whichthen became lighter, drier lagers. Now flavour is back and drinkers are moreknowledgeable and curious than ever. The full-on aroma of American hops is anexciting change to the tastebuds, a rich stout is deeply satisfying, a sharpsour is refreshing and complex and lagers have their flavour back.

Tasteschange and who knows what’s next. Who knows how the big brewers will react toit – maybe it’ll be buying more craft breweries, maybe building new breweriesof their own and backing it up with advertising spend, maybe we’ll see them recreatetheir pre-Prohibition lagers. Who cares how they’ll react; there are a handfulof them and thousands of us now. As knowledge grows, as people experience differentbeers, as the thousands become tens-of-thousands and the mash tuns go from 5barrels to 50, so tastes will change and drinkers will want different things.The past is fascinating; the present is exciting; the future is going to tasteeven better.


Alot of the history stuff comes from reading Maureen Ogle’s excellent Ambitious Brew. If you haven’t read it then you must. The whole story of American beer isdeeply fascinating and was the inspiration for writing this.

KenWells’s Travels With Barley also helped form my knowledge of American beer.

RandyMosher filled in some gaps on the history of American beer in Tasting Beer.

The Oxford Companion to Beer is always a great resource to dip into.

Statsand figures come from The 2011-2012 Cask Report, the British Beer and Pub Association’s Statistical Handbook 2011 and via pages linked above.

Images from here, here, here, here, here and here.