What better way to imbibe the legacy of American beer—and what better time to do it, over the Fourth of July—than to drink the five beers that evoke that history? These particular beers from particular breweries collectively represent the march of American beer over the last century and a half or so. Again, they are meant to be evocative, as examples of this evolution, and are not meant to be definitive.
They also have the added benefit of being widely available, so you really can drink the chronology of our nation’s brews this weekend.
This lager first dropped in 1876, and, as historian Maureen Ogle points out, “the new brew changed the face of American brewing for all time and did so almost overnight.” Indeed, the old Anheuser-Busch’s creation, a lighter adaptation of the traditional Czech style, pilsner, made with rice and Bohemian yeast, became the prototype for what, in turn, became the dominant American beer brands of the 20th, and perhaps 21st, century.
Steam is one of only three beer styles developed in the United States. (Read on for one of the other two. Can you name the third?) The Anchor Brewing Co., America’s oldest independent purveyor of small-batch beers made with traditional ingredients, owns the trademark to steam beer and has long hung its commercial hat on the style. Crafted with lager yeast at ale temperatures, Anchor Steam dates from the 1890s, though it was vastly improved upon starting with the brewery’s modern iteration in 1965.
When the then-Miller Brewing Company introduced this lager in early 1975, the brewery was in the midst of a San-Juan-Hill assault on Anheuser-Busch, which had over the last century ridden Budweiser to the top of the brewing heap. Miller Lite, an adaptation of earlier light beer recipes that had not done so well in the marketplace, proved a smash hit. It spawned the most popular beer style America has ever gifted the world (and, yes, light beer is a distinct style).
Yuengling Traditional Lager
Dating from 1829, D.G. Yuengling and Son is America’s oldest brewery, a bridge between a time when thousands of breweries dotted the national tableau before Prohibition in 1920 and our current age, when thousands again spread across the land. In 1987, Yuengling re-introduced its Traditional Lager, brewed with caramel malt; it is itself a bridge to how smaller-batch lagers throughout the United States tasted before the rise of Budweiser.
The Lagunitas Brewing Co. in 1995 became the first California brewery to lead with an India pale ale as its signature beer. The beer, originally a seasonal and now ubiquitously available, came to typify the West Coast style. What is West Coast style? Hoppy and strong; more importantly, it’s the canvas upon which American brewers have been painting for the last 25 years, pushing ever more envelopes as they reinterpret more European inventions such as the IPA.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.