A “heritage brewery” is a small brewing company that is still in business and is one of only a handful that survived and emerged from the American Prohibition.
Once the emblem of the working man, beer was stigmatized as a blue-collar brew not intended to impress a sophisticated palate. That all began to change in America in the late 1970s, which was the beginning of a beer revival that still continues to increase in popularity today. The beer revolution of the past 35 years is due to the pioneering efforts of an entrepreneurial community of home “craft beer” brewers and beer enthusiasts who have responded to better-tasting, higher-quality beers than previously available.
But let’s take a step back. Notwithstanding the fact that Native Americans brewed beer, this alcoholic beverage was introduced by the colonists in the late 1500s, many of whom brewed their own beer, bringing recipes from their native countries, especially England, Holland, and Germany. Beer, not wine, was the preferred alcoholic drink of choice in colonial America.
In time, brewing companies flourished. The Dutch West India Company opened the first commercial brewery in New Amsterdam (lower Manhattan) in 1632. In time, as the American population spread westward, brewing companies followed. Milwaukee became the hub of American breweries, many of which were built by German immigrants. The early giants that were running large-scale breweries included Best Brewing, established in the 1840s by Philip Best. Best shipped his beer to Chicago and St. Louis, keeping Illinois and Missouri afloat in suds. Other commercially successfully breweries of the era emerged, including the Miller Brewing Company and the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company. In 1860, a German soap maker, Eberhard Anheuser, bought a floundering brewery. Anheuser’s daughter married Adolphus Bush, a brewery supplier, and soon after, the Anheuser-Busch brewing company was born in St. Louis. Budweiser was introduced in 1876 and remains one of the top-selling brands and most-recognized name in beer in the world today. The largest breweries of the time brewed beer based on various styles of central Europe. However, the pilsner style, whose recipes included mild hops from Czechoslovakia and rice or corn, became America’s most popular style of beer.
Fast Forward to January 17, 1920
The 18th Amendment to the Constitution outlawed the production, transport, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Almost all American breweries were wiped out as a result of Prohibition. In 1919, the year before Prohibition, there were close to 1200 registered breweries in the US. Only the largest breweries survived by manufacturing soft drinks such as root beer and cola, near beer (containing less than 0.5% alcohol), malt syrup, and non-alcoholic grain beverages.
Beer production was resurrected in 1933 with the repeal of Prohibition, and approximately 300 breweries soon emerged. However, most breweries in business before 1920 never returned. The number of American breweries steadily rose to about 700, but by 1982, that number was reduced to around 50 US breweries, the fewest number of breweries in our country’s modern history. Beer brewing as a business looked bleak, as the beer industry was now consolidated to a small number of breweries owned by conglomerates. The traditional styles and brewing techniques brought to America by immigrants from all around the world had disappeared. National brands like Budweiser, Coors, and Miller dominated the market. Then, “light” versions of the national brands appeared, which had fewer calories and even less taste. The big beer companies’ dominance continued in spite of their very limited offerings to American beer drinkers. The rich variety of traditional styles of beer brought to America by immigrants from all over the world had long vanished.
Viva la Revolución: the Emergence of Craft Beer
However, things had been slowly brewing during the late 1970s. The beer revival began in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter signed a law legalizing the home production of small amounts of beer and wine for personal consumption. A beer-brewing culture arose from the ashes, bolstered by home brewers and beer enthusiasts. Beer lovers were inspired to open their own small-batch brewing companies, and microbreweries and brewpubs began to spring up all across the country. Home-brewing hobbyists now offered Americans the only opportunity to experience the beer traditions and styles of other countries, giving birth to the craft-brewing industry, which elevated the purchase and consumption of beer. There was finally an avenue for beer enthusiasts to drink better-quality, better-tasting beer. Even though the microbreweries produced limited quantities of beer compared to the big breweries that mass-produced less-flavorful suds, craft brewers poured their personality, passion, and unprecedented flavorings into their select brews. They used more-expensive hops than the beer giants and created a range of recipes to satisfy every conceivable taste. This era represented the renaissance of beer brewing in America, led by pioneers who were developing better-tasting beer and finally offering a wide selection of flavorful beer that captured the hearts and minds of the American beer consumer.
However, market conditions were tough for new entrants into the beer industry at the retail level. Throughout the 1980s, microbreweries and brewpubs led the way for commercial acceptance on a national level. Microbrewing momentum saw a real rise in sales during the 1990s, and craft beer is now a strongly established sector of the US beer market. Bars that catered to the “shots and beer” crowd now catered to younger beer drinkers who had a more demanding palate.
The beer revolution that began over 35 years ago continues to flourish as new brews are constantly being released on the market, introducing beer drinkers to ever-increasing varieties. Like most American commodities, there are a mind-boggling choice of craft beer styles, including pale ale, India pale ale, cream ale, steam beer, bitter, stout, nut brown ale, red ale, barley wine ale, black ale, white ale, wheat beer, fruit-infused beer, blonde ale, English, Belgian, Scottish, Irish, Bohemian, and Lambic. Popular ingredients used to flavor beer include herbs, spices, honey, oatmeal, coffee, chocolate, pumpkin, malt, rye, and smoke flavor. Then you have the hybrids, which offer the wildest combinations of style and flavor. Seasonal winter and summer brews are created in limited quantities, as are special celebration beers brewed in small batches only once a year for events such as Oktoberfest. Regional varieties also abound. There’s even gluten-free beer for those with that particular sensitivity. The elevated status of craft beer has even reached the culinary world. A quick search on the Internet yields voluminous information on craft beer and food pairings as well as recipes calling for craft beer as the main flavoring ingredient in a variety of dishes.
So, beer brewing has come full circle. In the late 1970s, the beer industry had consolidated to about 44 breweries. Today, there are more breweries in the US than any other country in the world (over 2500), which exceeds the number of total breweries that existed during the Colonial period. Interesting stat: a majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a brewery. The US craft beer industry alone (separate from large-scale breweries such as Budweiser, Coors, and Miller) generates about $15 billion a year in retail sales. The industry is steadily growing and virtually all new breweries opening are small microbreweries and brewpubs, serving a new generation of beer drinkers who demand beer that is far superior to the generic beer your dad drank in the ’60s and ’70s.
- Beer consumption in the United States. Visual.ly website. http://visual.ly/beer-consumption-united-states.
- Beer style guidelines. Brewers Association website.
- Craft brewing defined. Brewers Association website.
- History of craft brewing. Brewers Association website.
- Papazian C. History of beer. Craftbeer website. http://www.craftbeer.com/the-beverage/history-of-beer/the-revival.
- Three brewers on the craft beer revival, hoppy brews and how pilsner got a bad rap. Albany Business Review website. January 4, 2013.