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Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Story of American Beer

I've spent the past year reading the history of beer in Belgium, France, and Britain and traveling to those locations.  In York, I stood on the city walls, portions of which were built by the Romans, and the next day visited Samuel Smith's, which has barely updated their system since the 19th century.  In Belgium and France I was reminded of the world wars every time I was shown a copper kettle dating to 1920 (none from before that survived wartime plunder).  It was an eye-opening experience for an American to experience the European sense of history through brewing.  Traditions stretch back into the distant past--and even when they don't, they're reworked so they appear to. 

Americans are comparatively unmoored.  Our traditions come from immigrants who brought them over in a suitcase.  But to the children who inherited them, they were stories no more real than Disney movies.  I was in Bend over the weekend, and like so many small towns in the mountain West, Bend highlighted its meager history everywhere.  I walked past a parking lot where a home built in 1917 had once housed some city ancestor.  When your history begins in the last century, anything that came before can feel like myth and legend.

American brewing reflects this.  For centuries, it was an immigrant's drink.  The English brought it over in boats when locals found they could not brew it well.  (See Washington, Geo., small-ale-brewer, for an example.)  Locals pretty much didn't touch the stuff.  In 1763, New England alone had 159 commercial distilleries, yet were only 132 breweries in the entire country in 1810. By 1830, the US had 14,000 distilleries, towns tolled a bell at 11 am and 4 pm marking “grog time,” and the per capita rate of consumption was nearly two bottles of liquor a week for every drinking-age adult.

Update.  Alan McLeod has a post riffing on the above paragraph, and it prompted a rich discussion in comments.]

We only started drinking beer when another wave of immigrants, the Germans, brought it in the 1840s.  Their lagered beer, in a time when no one understood the mechanism of yeast, was clean, tasty, and popular.  We enjoyed a flowering of brewing in the following decades--German beer, brewed by immigrants.  It was stubbed out by the great puritan experiment of Prohibition, which also says a lot about America.

The consolidation after Prohibition was classically American: out with the local, the distinctive, the (tenuously) traditional, in with the demands of commerce and efficiency.  We were not alone in this regard, but the fire of consolidation roared more easily for the lack of memory and tradition as a cultural backstop.

But the craft brewery movement was also classically American.   Lacking our tradition, we more easily appropriate others'.  Even in the earliest days of craft brewing, it was nothing for a brewer to put on beers inspired by British, German, and Belgian styles.  It's safe to say that by the 1990s, more styles of the world's beer were brewed in the US than had ever been brewed in any country in the world. And now those styles are being twisted and bent to the wishes of breweries who have no memory of what "traditional" ever was.  The vast majority of Americans, upon encountering, say the Widmer Brothers' Marionberry Hibiscus Gose, will have no idea what a gose is, never mind whether marionberry and hibiscus are typical of style.  So why not throw them in? 

I have also learned in the past year that what Americans do to beer appears like ignorance and transgression to some of those who hold their traditions dear.  And indeed that is one dimension of it.  But there's this, too.  We are a country of people who either left another country or have ancestors who did. They related to those traditions differently than those who stayed--the Germans remained, for example, are accused of being hidebound and unwilling to accept modernity.  Not our Germans--look at Rob and Kurt Widmer.  None of this can be measured on the scale of right/wrong or good/bad.  It's cultural.  And the story of American beer, good and bad, is the story of America.

Happy fourth, everyone--


  1. You have missed the reality of pre-1840s US brewing history. Plenty more breweries than that working on a local and export level. The German immigrants brought low alcohol lager to a continent well satisfied by lots of beer as well as other drinks.

  2. Albany alone has 18 identified breweries pre-1840 including the largest in America, the 200,000 barrel Talyor brewery:

  3. Great post, looking forward to your book

  4. Alan, I wasn't trying to capture the entire arc of American brewing history. There were indeed a lot of breweries in the 19th century--though the sources I've consulted said that per capita consumption was quite low until German migration. And I do think quality was an issue.

  5. Enjoyable, insightful post.

    German immigrant brewers apparently established most of the breweries in Territorial Colorado [1859 & up]. I long to know
    - what styles of lager they brewed
    - how those beers would compare to modern BJCP styles
    - the source of the hops.

    Period photographs and advertisement typically state bock or lager; but, what style of today's lager would be most representative of 1870-1890 lager?

    I would appreciate being directed to authoriative information on late 19th century [German] lagers in the USA.

  6. Check your sources. Pre-lager interpretation misses a lot of information. There is simply poorer recording, loss of records (a Revolutionary habit generally due to the post-1776 land scramble) but also more local tavern and home production as well. The available sources support higher levels and quality than has been the assumed interpretation.

    But why that is? Who knows but one part certainly is that most of American was developed fully in the post-lager era so it is the first beer from much of Buffalo and the Erie Canal to the west.

  7. Looking back as what I wrote I am going to put it another better way. We should check our sources. I am thinking I see something because of research I am privy to at work related to 1700s colonial life. Things around the economic disruption that would have suspended large sectors of the brewing trade. But, even with that, I should not have suggested you are making the argument that you have as you are stating what has been understood and stated before. I just think there is much more.

  8. Alan, I'm on your wavelength. I'll do some further looking.

    Jack, I'd definitely give Maureen Ogle's Ambitious Brew a look.

  9. Jeff,
    I read the first 1/2 of Maureen Ogle's 'Ambitious Brew: the Story of American Beer' checked out from the public library. If memory serves, it contain no definitive information regarding lager style or hops source. I will attempt to contact her directly.

    Other potential sources welcome.