The History of Beer in America

In North America, fermented beverages were being produced long before the Europeans arrived. We know that the first European settlers were greeted by the natives with a wine made from the persimmon. In the southwestern region of the New World, the native peoples were brewing a beer made from the fermentation of maize. The passengers of the Mayflower, hoping to land in the more mild southern climate, were forced ashore, in part, due to a shortage of beer. An entry from the journal of a Mayflower passenger, dated December 19, 1620 reads: “We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer.” As proof of the importance of beer, the daily consumption of the Puritans was regulated by law. They were allowed two quarts for breakfast alone! In days gone by, there was little choice of beverages, and the poor management of waste disposal contaminated many water sources. People, afraid of the water drank beer instead and it was drunk as readily as we drink water or soft drinks today.

The early English settlers of North America relied primarily on the importation of English beers. Two breweries, however, were established in 1629 which used maize instead of barley and produced an un-hopped beer like the beers of England at the time. The Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, unlike its English counterparts relied primarily on local breweries instead of importing beer from the motherland. New Amsterdam was the first and biggest brewing center of the New World, and continued to be so even after its sale to the British and transformation to New York. Philadelphia was the second major brewing center of the New Colonies and began to rival New York in the late 17th century. In fact, many of our founding fathers were brewers. William Penn, the Quaker founder of the Pennsylvania colony had a brewery on his estate. Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Madison and Samuel Adams encouraged legislation to promote the American brewing industry, and even George Washington, whose recipe for beer can be found in the New York Public Library, was an established homebrewer.

These early beers were all ales produced by top-fermenting yeast, like the beers found in England today. In 1840, the wave of German emigrants brought with them the bottom-fermenting lagers of Germany and began a brewing revolution in the United States. This, and subsequent emigrations brought such people as Frederick Pabst, Bernard Stroh, Joseph Schlitz, Adolph Coors, Henry Weinhard, Theodore Hamm and Eberhard Anheuser to name a few. These lagers quickly replaced ales, and even today the vast majority of breweries around the country, and even the world, were originally established by German emigrants and produce lagers.

Brewing in the United States peaked in the 1870’s with 4,131 breweries throughout the nation. From this apex right up until Prohibition, the numbers of breweries began to decline as companies merged and consolidated in an attempt to produce a beer that could sell nationwide. The anti-German sentiment fostered by the arrival of World War I set the atmosphere for the passage of the Volstead Act, which began the decade-long period of Prohibition. Over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto, 1,568 breweries closed in January of 1920 when Prohibition became national law. A few breweries managed to survive by producing candy, malted milk, soda water or something similar.

This law was repealed by President Roosevelt in April of 1933, and by the next year 756 breweries were in operation. The number of breweries began once again to decline as larger breweries pushed smaller breweries out of business in an effort to produce a beer that would sell nationally. Some middle sized breweries, (including Yuengling in Pottsville, NY, establ. in 1829 and operating today, it is the oldest brewery in the US) survived by catering to a local or regional taste, which was not a profitable avenue for larger breweries to pursue. The number of breweries in the United States had dwindled to less than 90, and just when it appeared as if the U.S. was destined for one or two national beers, states began to pass legislation in the early 1980’s allowing microbreweries to operate.

In 1978 there were 89 breweries in operation in the US, producing fewer than 25 nationally distributed brands. TAs the new century dawned, nearly 2,000 breweries once again operated in the United States, bolstering employment roles, the tax-base and the economy. There are now more styles of beer produced in the U.S. than in any other country in the world. And this all happened in less than twenty years.

In California in the mid 1960’s, some people with the financial ability and with an appreciation of fine wine, began investing in California real estate and developing vineyards. The success of these wineries caught the attention of other entrepreneurs. These were the people who knew what well made, fresh beer tasted like. They also realized that once tasted, demand would grow. And so it did.

In 1977, in Sonoma, California (a famous wine producing region in the U.S.) the first micro brewery, The New Albion Brewing Company began with an annual production of 200 barrels of British style ales and stouts.

At the same time, international travel was becoming less expensive and available to more people. These people returned from Europe (the worlds great beer producing region) and demanded the same full-flavored beers they had enjoyed overseas. These consumers insisted on foods and beverages of quality, and they knew what quality was. It meant knowing what went into a product, not what the brand name was. The search for quality continues.

Today, we are experiencing a boom in hand-crafted beer tailored to local and regional tastes. Many restaurants now feature “beer menus” (like wine menus) and are concentrating on pairing food with beer. (Matching flavor components of beer with those of foods).  Even the major breweries have “read the writing on the wall” and are offering beers with more flavor and character to cater to the market segment that usually purchases imported or “specialty” beers. If the big breweries are willing to make major changes in their products and advertising campaigns, the trend of a few years ago is now a full-fledged market segment and the only real growth segment in the domestic market today.

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