Craft beer, a drink produced in smaller breweries using conventional methods and techniques, has an interesting history in the United States. The rise of the industry is complex, having been influenced by many factors.
Below, we’ll talk about the American attitude to alcohol over time, and how it has culminated in the culture we know today.
Since its founding, the U.S. has seen efforts to limit or ban the consumption of alcohol. Temperance movements were often advocated for by religious leaders and other conservatives. National temperance was achieved with Prohibition in 1920, made possible through the passage of the 18th amendment. World War I helped pass the act, causing a distrust for German-brewed beverages. Additionally, supporters of Prohibition claimed that barley should be reserved to make bread for those in the war.
During the Prohibition era, the consumption of alcohol was not illegal, but the manufacture and sale of it was. Regardless, beer companies used innovative ways to stay in business. Some transitioned their factories, using them to produce different commodities. Others produced drinks that contained amounts of alcohol just under the legal limit or sold ingredients customers could use to make their own beer. Smaller distilleries would often just continue operating underground.
The Great Depression & the Lift of Prohibition
The Great Depression helped facilitate the repeal of the 18th amendment in 1933. Many believed that the tax revenue from alcohol sales would help relieve the country’s economic misfortune. With the sale of alcohol legal again, the quality of beer resulting from Prohibition was questionable. Grains used to make beer were often replaced by alternative ingredients such as rice or corn. Also during the ban, alcohol producers looking to profit took control of bars so that they controlled both the production and sale of alcohol. These monopolies led to cheap, watered-down beer meant for mass consumption.
With customers wanting better beverages, entrepreneurs took advantage of this vacuum in the field. The quest to create new, quality beers led to the rise of the craft beer industry. Laws enacted after Prohibition served to prevent brewing companies from being consolidated. Even though antitrust laws were not always completely enforced, the craft beer industry gained momentum.
Fritz Maytag & the New Brew
One of the most notable milestones in U.S. brewery history concerns Fritz Maytag. In 1965, he bought the Anchor Steam beer company when it was facing bankruptcy. In order to improve sales, Maytag worked to improve his product’s quality. He created new flavors and reintroduced old ideas of traditional brewing. His approach was so fresh that it took him quite a few years to be successful with Anchor Steam. Ultimately, however, he laid the groundwork for other microbreweries to flourish in later years.
Legal Home Brews
By 1978, there was still only a small number of breweries in the U.S. This was partly due to the fact that it was still illegal for one to make beer non-commercially. Congress passed a bill to legalize home-brewing that year, and it was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. Now legalized, people could privately experiment with different brewing techniques and pursue their interests in craft brewery.
Beer for All
Many microbreweries started to open with the newfound freedom to explore creative recipes. During the mid-1990s, the market was becoming slightly oversaturated. People saw the success of the original small breweries and wanted to replicate it for themselves. These hopeful entrepreneurs, however, often just wanted to make a quick buck and did not take the time to produce quality beer. The issue resolved itself when the less than satisfactory breweries closed from lack of business.
The American Craft
During the late 1990s, there was a shift away from incorporating traditional methods of brewing to inventing completely new techniques. They were often over-the-top and extreme but gave beer a distinctly “American” feel, unique from the rest of the world. Customers approved of the new style as evident from the “beer geek” culture. People loved collecting beers, trying new flavors, and experiencing everything about the beverage that they could.
Larger corporations also noticed the success of the craft brewery industry. At first, companies would try to mimic the microbreweries techniques. Realizing that the mass production of a craft beer is not the most efficient, most ended up purchasing a stake in the smaller businesses.
Presently, craft beer in the U.S. is incredibly successful. It is even more notable considering the challenges the industry went through to get to where it is today.