Meet the New Record, Slightly Bigger Than the Old Record: America’s Craft Beer Explosion has a Predecessor

St. Joseph 3_March 2016
This was a beautiful symbol of the future. Then I drank it. (St. Joseph Brewery, Indianapolis)

Something wondrous happened in November 2015 for the world of American beer, and I don’t just mean the Bourbon County release. After three decades or so of feverish expansion and diversification among the U.S.’s breweries and brews, the nation shattered a record that stood for 142 years. In 1873 there were 4,131 U.S. breweries and as of November there were 4,144. That number has since climbed to 4,269 and shows no signs of stopping. For craft beer’s foreseeable future, every new brewery is a historic celebration, and every day’s a new record.

Remember, remember the end of November. Whether you were whale hunting or just enjoying a well-made, well-deserved pint, you contributed to a pivotal moment in American brewing history. As for me, I was in the Cincinnati History Museum, letting  temperance advocates shake their finger at me from 160 years in the past while I fantasized about an after-hours pint at Taft’s Ale House. That’s kind of my thing. I study American brewing history during the 19th century as a way to better understand the period’s German immigrant population, especially in the Midwest. Through this blog, I hope to share what insights I gain on America’s longstanding and complex relationship with beer. What better way to start than by comparing our shiny new record with its grizzled  predecessor and the world that made it. They’re different, but not as different as you might think.

For one, both major periods of expansion in American brewing history happened pretty quickly. The Brewers Association made a handy graph that shows how brewing has changed over time, and the recent craft beer surge only goes back about 30 years. What that graph doesn’t show is that American brewing had a very similar surge right before the 1873 record was set. In 1810, the U.S. contained a sparse 132 breweries. By 1850 there were just 431, but that number tripled to 1,269 by 1860, and nearly decupled (I had to look that up) by 1873.

Number of Breweries
Brewers Association graph showing how the number of U.S. breweries has changed. Source

What’s more, the population and later re-population of American breweries coincided with sweeping diversification within the industry. Thirty years ago that meant experimenting with different styles to get away from yellow fizzy lagers, and 160 or so years ago that meant giving lagers a try. Go figure.

Lager beer isn’t especially popular (compared with ale varieties) among craft brewers today, but in the 1840s and 50s it was new and exciting. It was lighter, more effervescent, lasted longer, and was less alcoholic (which mattered, as that pesky temperance movement was already gaining momentum) than the British-style ales and porters that prevailed in the early 1800s. The growth of breweries in the mid-19th century correlates greatly with the rise of lager’s popularity. The Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce described it well in 1865:

“The manufacture and consequent consumption of [beer] continues to increase with extra-ordinary rapidity, which is doubtless owing…in no little degree…to the taste which has been acquired for ‘Lager,’ as a beverage, not only among the native German population, but all classes. Beer Gardens, where this beverage is swallowed by old and young and in incredible quantities, have become institutions of great magnitude in this and all the large cities of the Union, and so necessary has the article become…that a scarcity of Lager is regarded in a similar light with a dearth of corn, and from the fondness displayed for it, and the rush made to those beer shops, where a fresh keg of ‘Lager’ has been tapped, the conclusion seems natural that a large number of the citizens would dispense with their break rather than their beer.”

~Source: William Smith, Annual Review of the Commerce of Cincinnati for the Commercial Year Ending August 31, 1865 (Cincinnati: Gazette Steam Printing House, 1865), 381 C 574 1860-69, Cincinnati History Library and Archive

It got to the point that before the United States Brewers’ Association went by that name, they called themselves the Lager-beer Brewers Association  and conducted their proceedings in German.¹

Next, American brewing both then and now has a profoundly local aspect to it. Now, let’s not get carried away and forget that the largest brewer in the country, Anheuser-Busch Inbev, is a gigantic international conglomerate making full use of a globalizing marketplace. But when we talk about the vast majority of American brewers today, we’re not talking about 4,000+ AB-Inbev operations. We’re not talking Boston Beer Companies or Yuengling’s either, nor Stones or New Belgiums or Boulevards. Not even my coveted Three Floyds. We’re talking about small places serving local customers and which probably brew fewer than 5,000 barrels a year. Places like Chain O’lakes Brewing in my hometown of McHenry, Illinois, or my nearby crush, People’s Brewing Company in Lafayette, Indiana. Of the thousands of breweries out there, could you name a tenth of them (~420 or so) from memory? I doubt I could, but I sure know my local and regional favorites. And those spunky little go-getters are closer to the hypothetical median brewer than the big players we all know by name. In fact, “more than 3,000 breweries put together have less than half the capacity of a single MillerCoors facility in Golden, CO.”

Nineteenth century beer was local through and through. At first this was because beer was unpopular and unsanitary—pasteurization hadn’t been invented yet and the the top-fermenting ales and porters of the early 1800s were heavy and spoiled quickly, so long distance transportation rarely worked out. Imagine trying to run a bar when a keg spoils before you can sell the whole thing, but whiskey and rum last just fine. Even after 1840, when lighter and more robust lagers (which bottom-fermented) entered the scene, its consumption tended to follow the German immigrant communities that brewed and drank it. They formed Dutchtown in Brooklyn, Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, and the “Dutch settlement” on Chicago’s north side. And don’t even get me started on Wisconsin.

A few mid- and late-century brewers achieved a longer reach. M. Vassar & Co. out of Poughkeepsie, New York (yes it’s that Vassar) exported beer regularly to the Caribbean from the 1860s through the 1880s, and in 1860 the brewers of Cincinnati exported around 20,000 barrels, mainly to southern cities like New Orleans (the Civil War put a stop to that a year later). But these are exceptions that prove the rule.

Even by the end of the century, when you might think that large firms with national distribution came to dominate the industry, beer was local. The production of the four biggest national firms—Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Schlitz, and Best— claimed just an 8.8% combined market share in 1893. It’s amazing that Pabst was brewing a million barrels a year by that time but most beer was brewed locally.²

Finally, both then and now, the expansion of beer in the U.S. faces significant challenges, the kind that run much deeper than blunt Superbowl ads. For German immigrants in the 1850s, this meant the combined forces of temperance and nativist (anti-immigrant) forces. For example, The Crusader (a temperance newspaper in Cincinnati) was “astonished and alarmed” at the increasing popularity of lager beer, which they called “Dutch swill.” Much to their chagrin, even native-born citizens who were “not particularly fond of stinking ‘kraut'” learned to “imbibe very freely the juice of rotten barley.”³ This juxtaposition of nativist resentment toward Germans and affinity for their beer was hardly limited to Cincinnati.  Chicago’s Lager Beer Riot of 1855 erupted after a nativist city government selectively enforced and enacted laws to target the city’s numerous immigrant-owned saloons.

Sun King/FFF collaboration as part of their lobbying effort. Also some of my favorite bottle art ever.

Some of these challenges span the centuries, such as beer’s relationship with the law. From the “Maine” prohibition laws of the 1850s, to the federal tax on beer passed in 1862 (which prompted the creation of the U.S. Brewers’ Association), to that whole Prohibition thing, to the ban on homebrewing that was lifted in 1979, to the ongoing battles over distribution laws and the distinction between small and large brewers, beer has a close and bittersweet relationship with the law. State legislatures all over the country have become battlegrounds over the perceived future of craft beer. Indiana’s Sun King and 3 Floyds spearheaded the Support Indiana Brewers initiative which successfully lobbied to allow the states small brewers to brew up to 90,000 barrels (instead of 30,000) without affecting their ability to self-distribute or open taprooms, and Georgia’s craft brewers have been mired in one legislative fight after another over the past year.

Letter posted at the 3 Floyds carryout kiosk for Support Indiana Brewers. It was still there when I last visited the brewery, but it’s admittedly been a while.

Bottom line: beer engages, and it always has. Its legality, its risk, its quality, its artistry, its technology, its morality, its economy, and its availability have always been moving targets. American beer has absolutely entered a new phase where boundaries are tested, battles are fought, and every day is a new record. But if we are to make any sense of this uncharted territory, it cannot be divorced from its past and context. They’re the only guides we have.

Let’s explore together.



¹ W.J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 106-110; Stanley Baron, Brewed in America: A History of Beer and Ale in the United States (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962), 214.

² Baron, Brewed in America, 155, 176; Timothy Holian, Over the Barrel: The Brewing History and Beer Culture of Cincinnati, 1800 to the Present, Vol. 1, (St. Joseph, MO: Sudhaus Press, 2000), 92; Martin Stack, “Local and Regional Breweries in America’s Brewing Industry, 1865-1920”, Business History Review Vol 74, No. 3 (Autumn 2000), 449.

³ “’Lager Bier’ a Temperance Beverage”, The Cincinnati Crusader, Vol. 3, No. 11 (April 1858), 178.05 C957 v. 3 1858-59, Cincinnati History Library and Archive.

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