Central Europe, and to some extent the United States, came to dominate world beer production with this fascinating new beer type. Large American brewers of this era began to buy up their smaller neighbors. Nevertheless, by 1860 there were 1,269 breweries in this country, with a total population of 31 million people. Although expansion and consolidation continued, there were a little over 1,900 breweries by the end of that century. Prohibition loomed and numbers fell precipitately, so that fewer than 1,000 remained by the time Prohibition was enacted in 1919.
After Prohibition was repealed at the end of 1933, some 756 brewers eventually returned to production in the next few years. However, consolidation once again became the major activity of American brewers. Only 605 remained in 1939. World War II also took its toll and by 1962 only 220 brewers remained operational.
That wasn’t the worst result of the war. The brewers were forced to lower the alcohol content of much of their production. During the war, the Republicans wanted to return to return the country to Prohibition, but British Prime Minister Churchill urged President Roosevelt not only to allow continued beer production, but to make sure that our armed forces in this country, and in the field across the world, were provided with a reasonable ration of beer.
Actually, when I was serving on Okinawa near the end of the war, we were provided with a weekly ration of six beers, so called “3.2 beer” ABW, which translates to 4% ABV. (I remember that when the Japanese surrendered, supplies became scarce, and our ration was reduced from six beers to six cans of Australian chocolate milk toddy, and a little later to six cans of tomato juice! But I digress. Another time I’ll tell you about the grand party we enlisted folk had to celebrate the war’s end. That one featured some of our purloined officer’s hard liquor, along with stolen steaks and such. Fireworks? They wanted us to return our unused ammunition. Fat chance.)
This era led to the large brewers using greater amounts of cheaper non-malt adjuncts. Eventually it led to the ever lighter and paler beer. By 1962 only 220 brewers remained, down to 55 in 1974, with 10 predicted to remain by 1990. Worse, the beer was becoming totally tasteless.
Then came lite beer, dry beer and ice beer. The lager beer revolution had reached its ultimate end-point. Enough! What the country needed at that point was beer with taste and character. We needed ale beer! Ale beer was a natural result of the many new brewers joining the fray. They didn’t have the room or the refrigeration to produce lager beer; and for the most part were forced to fast ferment their beer because of space limitations.
Ale was just what we beer drinkers needed: beer with flavor and character. We had come a full circle. But rest assured, lager beer will become more popular again for the same reasons it first became dominant on the planet. Folks will tire of ale, and look for mellow lagers again. But maybe this time, the beer styles will be more abundant. Any brew that can be aled can be lagered. Two different results and twice as many satisfied customers. That should be great fun.
Read more columns by Fred Eckhardt.