The United States of Beer: A Freewheeling History of the All-American Drink by Dane Huckelbridge (William Morrow, 289 pp., $25.99)
Not long ago, my wife and I found ourselves in the tiny hamlet of Ellis, Kansas (human population: 2,012; cattle and calf population: 26,932). Ellis consists of two grain elevators, a railroad track, a four-block downtown, scattered houses, and a Days Inn catering mostly to truckers. We planned for an ice-cooler-provided “dinner” in our room, and asked the young man at the desk if there was anywhere nearby to buy beer. He directed us to the Red Brick liquor store, easy to find since it was on the fourth—and last—block of downtown.
Our hopes for some decent suds faded as we approached the building, which was about the size of a double-wide trailer. How looks can deceive: the shabby place had a big rack of craft beers and included my wife’s favorite: Lagunitas’s A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale. Amazed, we left with a six-pack of this fine example of American brew-dog artistry. That haute-bière can be found in the most improbable places is a testament to just how far America’s beer culture has come in the last few decades.
Earlier this year, in an unsubtle swipe at the craft-beer revolution, Anheuser-Busch announced that the word “America” would replace “Budweiser” on its cans for the remainder of 2016; the slogan “King of Beers” would similarly be replaced by “E Pluribus Unum.” The point was meant to be both simple and patriotic: Budweiser is the real American suds for real Americans. A Budweiser executive told the New York Times that “the campaign is resonating because the timing is right—from the Olympics and Copa America to the U.S. Presidential race, celebrations of patriotism will be at an all-time high this summer.”
In a Super Bowl commercial last year, Bud made cruel fun of foppish hipsters sniffing and drooling over a beer infused with pumpkin and peaches, though just two weeks later Bud bought (for a reported $165 million) the Seattle-based Elysian Brewery that made the concoction. Perhaps Bud really thinks craft beer drinkers are snobby and unpatriotic elites who’ve made our country weak. But as Dane Huckelbridge tells us in his new and wonderful book, The United States of Beer, American craft beer sales exceeded sales of Bud in 2013. Anheuser-Busch (owned entirely by an even more gigantic—and foreign—conglomerate) has to answer to shareholders. How better to nudge slipping sales than by appealing to love of country?
In rich and full detail, Huckelbridge tells the story of America’s love affair with beer. Even before Europeans set foot on the new continent, Native Americans made beer for fun and religious purposes from a wide variety of vegetable matter. Our Dutch and English forbears brought their beer—and their beer preferences—with them. In 1620, the Mayflower landed in Plymouth, at least in part for want of enough beer for both passengers and crew. When the Arbella sailed into Boston Harbor in 1630, it was laden not just with Puritans but also with 10,000 gallons of beer and 120 hogsheads of malt. The English in New England drank dark and cloudy ales made from fire-roasted malt and top-fermenting yeast. The Dutch in New Netherlands preferred drafts lighter in body and mouthfeel; they added rye, wheat, and oats to the barley. The English put an end to New Netherlands in 1664, but that didn’t end the war—as it would eventually prove to become—between the light and the dark worlds of beer. Huckelbridge approaches his subject from a regional point of view. National tastes sprang from regional ones. Beer tides flowed North to South, turned westward to California, and then doubled back East in the late twentieth century.
Our English forbears came relatively late to the use of hops in beer, as was done on the European Continent in the ninth century. As late as the early sixteenth century, hops were thought of in England as “a wicked and pernicious weed.” In Europe, brewing was done by large, organized monasteries, while in England it remained largely a household craft. The larger European producers had to worry more about consistency and spoilage than did the home-brewing English; the hop, though essential to the taste of beer as we know it, was originally used as a preservative, with the appreciation of bitterness following on the utility of anti-sepsis. As English brewing took on a more industrial tone, the uses of the hop became clear, and so the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower could drink safe beer rather than brackish and polluted water. By the time of the revolutionary crisis, English economic policy and regulation had increased the price of barley and hops so much that cider and rum began to edge out beer as the preferred drink of New Englanders. The Sons of Liberty—including Samuel Adams and John Hancock—rebelled for beer as much as for independence.
In New York and the Mid-Atlantic, the Dutch taste for lighter beer outlasted the demise of New Netherlands. By the mid-eighteenth century, Philadelphia had become the center for the production of English-style, extra-dark porters. In 1769, the brewers of the city united to reject a cargo of malt sent from Yarmouth, England. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 was preceded by a demonstration on behalf of American beer. The devastations of war crippled the mid-Atlantic beer industry, but once the British yolk was lifted, Philadelphia porter once again became the patriots’ beer of choice. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the city provided beer to almost all American cities and the Caribbean. Of the 132 major breweries in America in 1810, 48 were in Pennsylvania and 42 were in New York.
The beer blast didn’t last long, however. By 1820, the American beer industry was again in crisis, caused this time not by British policy but rather by “a new immigrant group taming the rough edges of the South.” These were the Irish and Scots who brought their taste for whiskey to modern-day Kentucky and Tennessee. These folks, Huckelbridge tells us, knew a thing or two about turning bad beer into “barrel-aged” whiskey—and that the hard stuff could travel where perishable brew couldn’t go. By 1810, per capita annual consumption of whiskey had skyrocketed to five gallons, while that of beer collapsed to just a single gallon.
When American beer recovered, it did so in the Midwest, and in a new form: lager. What we now think of as American beer (Budweiser, Busch, Pabst, Miller, etc.) sprang from the habits and tastes of German immigrants in Midwestern cities. Their lager beers were rich and full-flavored, but were somewhat lighter and milder than “the darker and more fragrant British-style” ales they eventually displaced. Huckelbridge describes in some detail the history of German brewing from Roman times through the sixteenth century, when lager yeast was discovered as an alternative to ale yeast. This new yeast strain originated in the cold forests of Patagonia and made its way by accident to Europe—and especially to Bavaria.
Bavarian brewers had long practiced the “lagering” of beer in cold underground storage. By serendipity, the immigrant lager yeast mated with and produced a hybrid form of the local ale yeast. This new hybrid fermented at the bottom of the beer rather than at the top, and at much lower temperatures than the traditional ale yeast. Traditional ales were often inconsistent and contaminated by bacteria and wild yeast, but the cooler temperatures of the new lager solved these problems. At the same time, the beer was lighter (with less alcohol), more carbonated, and easier to store and transport. And so began the big beer “dichotomy” in German brewing: the line wasn’t between hops or no hops as happened in England; it was between darker, stronger, cloudier, and fruitier ales and lighter, crisp lagers.
Well before the discovery of lager yeast, the German beer tradition had been unified and standardized by the Rheinheitsgebot (purity law) passed in Munich in 1447 and again in Bavaria in 1487. In 1551, laws were passed in Munich that recognized the making of cold-fermented lager. By 1750, there were almost 4,000 lager-producing breweries in Bavaria, though consolidation vastly shrank that number. By the middle of the nineteenth century, regional German ales (though not the profitable wheat beers) had disappeared. The lagers—bocks, doppelbocks, Märzens, and pilsners—won the day because they were artisanal, sophisticated, and of consistently high-quality. As the wind brought lager yeast from the Americas to Europe, so German immigrants brought the flowering of that lager to the United States of Beer.
The oldest existing brand of beer in America was started by a German immigrant in 1829. David Gottlob Yüngling started out producing ale, not lager. The German Revolution of 1848 produced such a flood of well-educated and well-heeled German immigrants that by1861, 1,350,000 of them lived in the German Triangle of Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. All these Germans drank and produced lager beer of the rich and still-relatively dark tradition of their birthplace. Indeed, it was so dark that in 1881 a drilling company that by accident breached the lager of Grossman’s brewery in Pennsylvania thought the stuff they discovered was oil, at least until they tasted it.
From the German Triangle came the huge breweries such as Busch, Pabst, Miller (formerly Müller), and Schlitz. By 1866, Milwaukee brewers sold 68,000 barrels of lager annually, compared with a paltry 3,600 barrels of ale. The Civil War years saw the creation of the first brewers’ association. It was so dominated by Germans (and so anti-ale) that it made German its official language. Ale for all practical purposes disappeared. By 1900, American beer production swelled to 40 million barrels, and average per capita annual consumption ballooned to a whopping 20 gallons. Almost all of it was lager brewed in the German Triangle of the Midwest.
Huckelbridge reminds us repeatedly that lager in the second half of the nineteenth century was much darker and richer than the mass-market lagers of today. So what happened? How did American beer gain its reputation for being weak, watery, and tasteless?
In the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, two forces converged to transform our national drink: technological innovation and Prohibition. Before the Volstead Act went into effect in January 1920, technological and economic changes had been at work degrading the quality of American beer. New kiln technology made it possible to roast malts with no direct contact with the heat, which made for fewer notes of smoke and slag. Likewise, temperature controls made it possible to make lighter and “crispier” brews. The use of American six-row barley, which is higher in enzymes than German two-row barley, enabled brewers to employ cheaper, adjunct grains such as corn, wheat, and rice—all of which made for a sweeter and flimsier beer. Pasteurization increased shelf life, lessening the need for preservative alcohol and hops. Artificial carbonation replaced the traditional practice of adding live yeast to the finished brew, which improved taste but was less consistent than artificial carbonation. Add to this the advent of advertising and refrigerated rail transportation, and we were on the verge of becoming the United States of Bland Beer. Prohibition delivered the death blow.
After the Volstead Act’s repeal, America was in the grip of the Great Depression. Beer drinkers—and brewers—focused on the cheap and not the good. The result was a pale and watery brew “served up in cans across the county . . . and the final product bore only a passing resemblance to the rich and hoppy lagers that German immigrants had first brought to this country.” Prohibition ruined the beer industry nationwide and drove alcohol underground, producing a significant change in American tastes: speakeasies learned to disguise low-quality whiskey and gin in sweet “cocktails.” As a result, a generation of Americans came of age with sweet-tooth tongues allergic to the bitter hop or the malty malt. By the 1950s, America was the land of the macrobrew: thin and flaccid sweet suds, distinguishable only by the brand names on the can.
America’s beer salvation happened in San Francisco. Back in 1965, my wife and I were just married and still undergraduates at Berkeley. From time to time we would cross the bay to have some fun in North Beach—then home to beatniks and bookstores, jazz clubs, cheap eats, and exotic nightclubs. One of these restaurant-clubs was the Old Spaghetti Factory, known among other things for a strange brew on tap called Anchor Steam, which Huckelbridge rightly identifies as the first microbrew of the revolution.
The story by itself is worth the price of the book. German immigrants in the Bay Area brewed beer in flat vats with lager yeast, but the fermentation occurred at the warmer temperature of ale. The brew was then cooled on foggy San Francisco roofs. The resulting steam—legend has it—gave the beer its name. Huckelbridge suggests that the more likely source of the moniker was that the beer was kräusened in the barrels which, when tapped, let off the built up carbonation. Whatever the source of the name, the lager wasn’t “lagered.” It was quick to make, rich and full flavored, and ready to drink.
In 1965, Fritz Maytag—scion of the washing machine family—bought the Anchor Steam brewery “for less than the price of a used car.” By 1971, Maytag and his brilliant brewmaster Mark Carpenter were bottling the stuff that would redeem American beer culture. In 1976, Jack McAuliffe founded New Albion Brewing Company in nearby Sonoma, and after Jimmy Carter’s deregulation of home brewing in 1978, the two amateurs Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi opened the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in nearby Chico. The center of America’s beer action then moved back east. In 1984, Jim Koch created Samuel Adams Boston Lager, which soon became the first “national” craft beer.
Huckelbridge ends his American beer saga with some figures to illustrate the turning beer tide. In the late-twentieth century, the number of American breweries “numbered only in the dozens”; by the turn of the twenty-first century, there were more than 1,500. “The rest,” he says, “is history.”
Recent history is actually more impressive than Huckelbridge acknowledges. According to the Craft Beer Association, the low point in American beer occurred in 1977, when there were a mere 50 companies and 96 brewing facilities from coast to coast. By 1986, the number of facilities rose to 124, but by the end of 2015 it had skyrocketed to 4,269, of which 4,225 were craft breweries of varying size and reach. Craft beer now accounts for 12.2 percent of the American beer market.
There’s no doubt that beer geeks and snobs can get under one’s skin (the same is true for wine). At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if most people still drink crummy beer fit only for beer-pong: it’s a free country, after all. What does matter is that a miracle of free enterprise has made varied and fabulous beer available to just about anyone. Good beer costs a bit more than bad beer, but for what you get it’s a cheap luxury.
And you can get it anywhere: even in Ellis, Kansas.
Photo by joshuaraineyphotography/iStock