The American Bevolution

Beers have nationalities, just like people. British styles taste distinctly British; Belgian beers have flavors unlike anything else on Earth. But American beers, like American people, are a mixed bag. Some of us take comfort in tradition; others relish experimentation. It makes sense that our breweries produce everything from pilsners to imperial stouts. But, with so much diversity, can American drinkers pin down a patriotic beer? One we can chug in time with our national anthem while fireworks shoot out of our ears?

Good news! America has many beers that can and should inspire patriotism. They just might not be the ones you’d expect.

American beer was born when Dutch and English feet first touched North American soil. Beer was brewed and drunk locally for centuries — several of America’s founding fathers were homebrewers. And, until the mid-1800s, most breweries made ales, not the pale lagers that fill convenience stores today.

Our brewing industry expanded as British, Irish, and German immigrants poured into the country. Technological advances such as artificial refrigeration accelerated the expansion by making beer easier to store and transport. During the latter half of the 19th century, those German immigrants began producing German-style lagers — hearty, flavorful beers that were a bit too heavy for most Americans. So we imported the Czech pilsner and adapted it, using adjuncts like corn and rice instead of six-row barley, which has too much protein for the style. (And now you know the truth behind the myths that The Great Depression/Prohibition/World War II forced big brewers to use cheap adjuncts — according to Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer by Maureen Ogle, anyway. Those events still had significant effects on the world of beer.)

These pale, drinkable pilsners garnered immediate acclaim and turned brewing into a lucrative candidate for industrialization. Large brewing companies emerged, many of which are still distributing today. Pabst and Anheuser-Busch were two of the first to bottle and ship beer on a national level. These “shippers” were competing directly with local breweries, but when Anheuser-Busch introduced Budweiser, a pilsner brewed with rice and Saaz hops, it became a nationwide hit.

So you might assume that those breweries should inspire patriotism. Coors, for example, is the beverage that represents our soaring Rocky Mountains. And Miller’s name itself evokes farmers toiling at the tasks that kept America alive in its infancy. Budweiser is the lager that cemented our beer industry’s foundation. These breweries were, at the time, the pinnacle of American ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit.

But wait, let me finish! In 1919, the 18th amendment was ratified, prohibiting the production of alcoholic beverages above .5% ABV. The big boys continued brewing low alcohol “near beer” and non-alcoholic beverages such as root beer while the Temperance Movement destroyed their former rivals — that is, small American breweries. Big beer survived and took over after prohibition’s gradual repeal. The number of breweries in the new world plummeted.

OK, so Bud took out some microbreweries. Big deal. They also started brewing weaker, cheaper beers somewhere along the line (beer scholars argue about when and why this happened — some even think it was the upswing in female drinkers during World War II — but it did happen). But none of that should matter, because it’s still an American beer, right? When you look at it honestly, all that matters is your opinion; something becomes a patriotic symbol as soon as someone thinks it is. The only problem is that Bud, Miller, and Coors are no longer made by American companies. In 2008, Anheuser-Busch became Anheuser–Busch InBev, a beverage conglomerate based in Belgium; MillerCoors is the awkwardly named product of a 2007 merger between SABMiller, a brewing company based in London that acquired Miller in 2002, and Molson Coors Brewing Company, which is based in Canada. Let me be clear: I have no problems with beer made in other countries (obviously), and I have no problem with the countries that produce them. In fact, I want to visit such places as soon as possible! I advocate drinking whatever makes you happy: If you love the flavors in the beers those companies provide, I would never discourage you from doing what you love. Just be aware that their all-American ad campaigns are unrepentant hokum.

But if we can’t drink those quintessential “American” beers, what should we drink? Let’s return to the history lesson. From around 1945 to 1980, big beer’s market share grew from 19% to 75%. But somewhere in there something changed. It probably happened in 1965, when Fritz Maytag purchased and revived Anchor Brewery. He started making Anchor Steam Beer, and during the next 30 years, craft brewing exploded in America. The number of breweries began to grow for the first time in decades. Small breweries were popping up everywhere and introducing new, flavorful beers. By the year 2000, the number of American breweries in operation had grown by hundreds.

At first, these brewers made beer the way our forefathers did: in the home. Then they followed the big beverage companies by becoming actual businesses, building brewpubs everywhere, and shipping beers across state lines — but that’s usually where the similarities end. Some, like Rogue, have cultivated proprietary yeast strains and started growing their own hops and barley to brew beer from scratch using the freshest possible ingredients (a concept the big brewers abandoned long ago). These breweries, big and small, epitomize the entrepreneurial ingenuity I spoke of earlier; they’re playing with the flames that made this country an economic superpower. I’m not the kind of guy who thinks the U.S. is infallible, but these breweries fire up my patriotism. Whenever I hear or read a European beer lover slamming America for only producing weak lagers, I pull the craft beer card and the table trembles under it.

Yet our current economy of subcontracting and conglomerates stifles innovation. The big breweries feel threatened — that’s why you’re seeing Budweiser branch out with Golden Wheats and American Ales — but they still hold an 81% death-grip on the American beer market. So, if you ever find yourself purchasing a pack of Coors or Bud or Miller Lite while complaining bitterly about the outsourcing of America’s commerce and culture, take a moment to rethink your beverage choices. Consider picking up a sixer of craft beer and supporting an American small business instead.

Comments
13 Responses to “The American Bevolution”
  1. David says:

    Rambling is a must for the next article! I look forward to it.

  2. Deb says:

    I had no idea that those companies were no longer in American hands.
    I think I’ll be patriotic and stick to American craft beers!

  3. James W. says:

    Another top notch post. I was drinking Anchor Liberty Ale on our Independence Day.

    • Scott says:

      Thanks, and good choice! Much better than the beer I had … I wish I’d been drinking Liberty Ale, haha.

  4. fil says:

    Rambling!?? Nay, I say, poppycock & falderol! Another well-rounded and exemplary ‘history of brew’ treatise, by that guru of brew, that wild eyed, mis-matched socks beer genius, Beer(ein)stein! I think I’ll go have an Anchor Bock . . .Take THAT you Coors fiends . .
    (bait breath . . pee u)

    • Scott says:

      Man, I really need to run out and get some Anchor beers now. Thanks for the odd and entertaining compliments!

  5. Ben says:

    way to preach to the choir, miller. here, i thought you were going to say it was okay to enjoy bud light, but then you did a complete 180 on that thought process (which is great, because i always vomit when i drink that…although it might have something to do with the fact that i tend not to drink it unless i’m already QUITE drunk to begin with).

    anyway, also wanted to drop in and say i was at fedex/kinko’s yesterday (american conglomerate tie-in???) and some guy was shipping things in a case of black butte porter. i called, “black butte rules!” but the guy didn’t acknowledge me. it’s just like that time i saw a guy in a protomen shirt…

    • Scott says:

      I wanted to do that earlier today when I saw a Rogue Nation bumpersticker … but then I thought hey, I’m in my car, and he can’t hear me.

  6. Shane says:

    I enjoyed this post! I don’t like coors so much anymore…

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