As a beer snob, I am horrified when I see someone drink a cheap beer when there are perfectly better alternatives at hand. To sit in a beer bar poring over a menu featuring the world’s finest beers and hear some chump order a Bud Light makes my blood boil. I can’t understand that in this day and age people choose to forego enjoying a quality brew. The current American beer market is a huge improvement over what it was but is still a sad state. The history of the industry is a twisted tale of fanatics, immigrants, mobsters and chauvinist marketing. I put the blame not on the companies who brew the stuff-they’re just looking for a quick buck. Instead, I blame the circumstances around prohibition that created the modern American brewing industry.
From 1919 to 1933, under the Prohibition amendment to the Constitution, alcoholic beverages were barred from being imported into or sold in the US. Besides giving rise to organized crime and turning ordinary citizens into petty criminals, Prohibition destroyed the American brewing industry of the early 20th century by putting thousands of local and regional breweries out of business. Without any other product line, countless brewers had no choice but to shut down. These brewers had been producing quality beers based on traditional ingredients and recipes that immigrants from Europe brought with them when they came to America. These beers rivaled their European counterparts in quality and introduced new styles that were unique to the US. This great tradition was lost for decades until the microbrewery revolution of the 80’s brought it back.
The only brewing companies that could survive the 14 years of prohibition were the ones with the capacity to produce other goods to sustain profits. By the time Roosevelt repealed Prohibition, the big breweries were all powerful in the renewed industry. In the intervening years the drinking public had become used to liquor-an easier product to smuggle and produce illegally and, hence, was more available during Prohibition. As a result, the market was different, and the brewers took action to revive the industry by changing their approach. They reasoned that men prefer liquor and cocktails so the industry marketers focused on women. Attitudes being what they were at the time, it was assumed that women don’t like strong flavors, so breweries primarily made easy-drinking lagers instead of more hearty beers. This style took hold of and still dominates the U.S. market.
It wasn’t until the 80’s (when craft beers like Sam Adams were introduced) that things began to change. As Sam became popular, interest in craft brewing rose dramatically and it became possible for small brewers to thrive once more. Small breweries popped up all over the place and the pre-prohibition variety and quality had returned. All this goes to show that while politics and markets may try to intervene, in the end better beer will prevail.
Sam Adams’ Boston Lager (MA)- The now classic beer that paved the way for all your favorite microbreweries today. A fine beer, this multi-award winner still stands out.
Brooklyn Lager (NY)- A pre-Prohibition recipe from the center of Brooklyn’s old brewing industry, “Brewery Row.” One of my personal favorites of all time; look for it on tap for the ultimate beergasm.
Anchor Steam (CA)- One of the great original American styles of beer, this recipe dates from the late 1800’s. A tribute to the old-school beers that Prohibition didn’t kill.
Ballantine Ale- Try the best of the biggest old breweries to survive Prohibition and one of the only to brew ale instead of cheap lager. Have a Ballantine and drink a living American beer legend.