Someone unfamiliar with craft beer might ask, “Is there really a difference between beer from a craft brewery and beer from one of the ‘national’ brewers like Anheuser Busch, Coors, or Miller? What’s all the fuss about? Beer is beer, right?”
Fact: In 2001, the four largest brewers sold about 85 percent of the beer in the US (Anheuser-Busch, 50 percent; Miller, 20 percent; Coors, 10 percent; and Pabst, 5 percent).
For beer drinkers who are aware of the diversity of styles from craft and foreign breweries, such questions sound absurd, but there are historical reasons why the US beer industry is dominated by taste-alike pale lager beers. Understanding how developments in the US brewing industry led to the homogenization of American beer helps define the reasons why today’s craft beers taste different from mass-marketed brands.
To provide the proper perspective, it’s helpful first to review the history of the brewing industry in the United States and remember that there were no national breweries before 1850. Before the Industrial Revolution created innovations in hygiene, refrigeration and packaging, brewers had difficulty extending the shelf life of their product long enough to ship it safely to distant markets. After 1850, the expansion of railroads also enabled brewers to transport their product to a wider area in a shorter time.
In the late 1800s, an innovative brewer in St. Louis transformed brewing from a local to a national business. Anheuser-Busch, which introduced Budweiser in 1876, was the first US brewer to pasteurize its beer and keep the product fresh during shipment in railcars cooled by ice. History confirms the 2001 A-B annual report, which describes Bud as “…a light-colored lager with a drinkability and taste that would appeal to the masses….”
The opening of national markets brought about the beginning of a century-long consolidation in the brewing industry. The number of US breweries peaked at 4,131 in the 1870s. As breweries were able to expand their markets, they began to grow larger in size and decrease in number until only about 1,500 breweries existed before the start of Prohibition in 1920. Unfortunately, only 353 reopened after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Further consolidation occurred after World War II as breweries used radio and television in expansive marketing campaigns that created nationally known brands.
For such brands to be accepted nationally, they had to appeal to a broad spectrum of tastes. The result was the extinction of local styles and the homogenization of the survivors into the pale lagers that today most often typify “American beer.” In effect, breweries recognized the same fundamental principle learned by presidential campaign managers—that the best way to appeal to the greatest number of people is by offending as few of them as possible.
By 1978, only 89 breweries producing fewer than 25 nationally distributed beers were operating in the United States. For some reason (perhaps it was the growing availability of import beers or the greater number of Americans traveling overseas and experiencing good beer), beer lovers began seeking out distinctive styles and demonstrating a willingness to pay a premium for them. During the 1980s, entrepreneurs—aided by new brewpub legislation and encouraged by the growth of small wineries in California—began opening craft breweries and brewpubs to meet consumer demand for specialty beers.
Today, the number of breweries has grown to about 1,400, or roughly the same number as before Prohibition. Although large breweries still dominate sales, the variety of beer styles has increased, and craft beers and imports now dominate premium beer sales.