An Inside Look at the Pioneering Days of American Craft Beer

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 34, Issue 3
July 1, 2013 By Tom Acitelli

The Wave of Consolidation

Beer in America had once been a local foodstuff. Mid-size and major cities each had their own breweries, and some had dozens—Brooklyn had at least 48 by the end of the 19th century and Philadelphia perhaps more than 100. Moreover, what was brewed in Cleveland could not be had in San Diego, and vice versa. Few breweries until after World War II distributed nationally—a good thing, too, as beer was a perishable foodstuff that tasted best fresh.

That all changed as a wave of consolidation swept the industry. The wave was not only the result of business trends—other industries were consolidating rapidly, whether it was snack foods, accounting, computer manufacturing, media, you name it—but due to changes in the ways Americans consumed their beer.

In 1959, Bill Coors, a Princeton-trained chemical engineer who would later chair the brewery founded by his grandfather, introduced the 7-ounce aluminum beer can; by 1963, with the introduction of the pull-tab opening, aluminum had supplanted tin as the preferred metal for canning, as tin sometimes dissolved into the beer.

The biggest breweries—including household names like Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Stroh’s and Miller—sent their cans forth to points far and wide, over the Interstate Highway System built throughout the 1950s, including to freshly constructed suburban supermarkets (a word that itself entered the national lexicon in the Eisenhower era). Consumers could pluck them off the shelves, perhaps along with TV dinners (introduced by Swanson in 1954), and then plop down with both in front of one of the more than 10 million rabbit-eared television sets throughout the country.

By the end of the 1960s, eight in 10 beers sold in the U.S. were sold in packaging rather than by draft. What had once been a foodstuff consumed largely communally was now largely consumed in isolation. And, no matter where these beers were consumed, whether 10 miles from their brewery or 3,000, they tasted identical.

The wave of consolidation had spurred an engineering triumph: most beer in America started to taste, look and smell the same. The biggest breweries, in part because they were started by German immigrants and in part because Americans increasingly preferred sweeter drinks like sodas and juices, had settled on bastardized imitations of the pilsner style. These were yellowy, fizzy concoctions light on traditional ingredients like hops and barley and heavy on adjuncts like corn and rice, as well as whatever preservatives were needed to ship them great distances. Jim Koch, co-founder of what became America’s largest craft brewery, the Boston Beer Co., aptly termed them “alcoholic soda-pop.”

Still, Americans lapped them up: they were each drinking, on average, twenty gallons of beer per year, most of it bastardized pilsner and most of that made by increasingly fewer hands. By the time Maytag walked to Anchor in 1965, more than 80 percent of the beer sold in the U.S. was made by six breweries. Regional brands had been absorbed one by one, leaving only a handful of older, often family-run ones like Yuengling and F.X. Matt nationwide.

The craft breweries like Anchor? They were barely worth the trouble of acquiring, and simply shut down as consumers migrated from their ales and lagers to the alcoholic soda-pop so much cheaper and easier to get.

Tom Acitelli
This story was adapted from the new book, The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution by Tom Acitelli. He can be reached via email and on Twitter.