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A Brief History of Beer Brewing in the USA

By Edited Jun 8, 2016 0 0

  Brewing in the United States actually predates the country itself by over 200 years.  One would expect this history to coincide with the arrival of the earliest European settlers.  However, brewing in the new world is  even older than that.  The following is an overview of the evolution of brewing in the U.S. from pre-colonial times until present day.  My hope is that it is as entertaining to read as it was to research and write.

precolonial brewing

In the Beginning: Precolonial times - prohibition

The earliest record of brewing in the U.S. was by Native Americans who used birch sap, maize, and water to make an alcoholic brew previous to European arrival. 

The first record of brewing in the new world by people of European descent was in the late 1500's with the first recorded brewery being established in Lower Manhattan in 1632.  The early breweries as expected were dominated by British style ales as the first settlers obviously came from the British dominated parts of Europe.  Later, as German settlers began arriving in higher numbers, lager beers began to rival, and then surpass the ales in popularity because of their longer shelf  life and thus better marketability for the breweries.

Luckily for the early population of our great nation, there were many different styles of lagers being brewed, and therefore a variety of quality swill was available for their enjoyment.  Although German Pilsner eventually became the most popular style in the colonies, the abundance of home brewed beers continued to ensure the "variety is the spice of life" theme enjoyed by our forefathers.  In fact, more than one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were homebrewers themselves.

After the Revolutionary war as the United States was establishing itself as an economic power, more breweries began to pop up and increase distribution of their products to the populace. Miller, Anheuser-Busch, and Schlitz brewing are all commonly known breweries that came into being in the 1800's.  In fact, Anheuser-Busch began brewing a style based on a beer from a town in Bohemia called Budweis during this era.  This beer of course became the grandfather of the now popular Budweiser, and became known as America's beer.  This era also saw the invention of the first truly American beer style known as Steam beer.  Steam beer is a style invented in the San Francisco Area made with lager yeast but brewed at higher ale temperatures.  This process created a unique product made famous by the Anchor Brewing

Anchor Steam Beer
Co. i
Anchor Steam Beer(102683)
n San Francisco, and is still thriving today.

All in all, the early history of beer brewing in the U.S. is one of variety and geographically individual styles of beer.  This of course leads to different areas of the country being known for different styles and ensures the availability of diverse products for the public's enjoyment


Prohibition:  The dark years.

In 1919,

under pressure from the temperance movement, the U.S. congress enacted the worst piece of legislation in the history of our great nation.  The 18th amendment made the production and distribution of alcoholic beverages illegal and effectively destroyed an entire industry overnight.  Drinking beer and other alcoholic beverages during this time was limited to underground speakeasies and hushed home sessions.  Gone were the variety and quality of the products previously available.  By the time prohibition ended, the state of beer brewing in the United States had taken a giant step backwards into the dark ages.


Post Prohibition- Carter administration.

Finally in 1933, the U.S. government wised up to the fact that prohibition was an abysmal failure and repealed it with the 21st amendment.  Ah glory days!  Now the country could go back to enjoying the quality and diversity of beer that they had previously enjoyed until that dark day in 1919 right?  Unfortunately, there were some basic but daunting problems standing in the way.

First, although the 21st amendment made it legal for professional breweries to begin making beer again, it failed to legalize the making of beer by amateurs in their homes.  Secondly, there were very few breweries that survived the prohibition era and because the nation was now mired in the great depression, there was little incentive for new startups to begin brewing again.  These 2 major problems resulted in very little progress for beermakers in the days before the outbreak of WWII.  

Once the war began, the economy quickly rebounded.  However, the use of grains was limited by the need for these grains as food for our soldiers.  Additionally, with much of the beer drinking demographic at war overseas, the market for beer was somewhat limited.  These two contributing factors resulted in the use of adjuncts such as rice and corn which created a lighter tasting product that was affordable for the breweries to make and which appealed to the lighter palate of the women of that time(yes you manly bud-coors-miller drinkers, your beer was designed for girls....sorry, couldn't help myself).  These unfortunate turns of events resulted in a fairly uniform, comparitevly tasteless product that dominated the American beer drinking scene for the next 30 years, and led to a reputation on the world market that beers from the U.S. were sub-quality.

Although Jimmy Carter may not have been our most dynamic president.  He did at least one thing during his term that makes me smile everytime I hear his name.  In 1978, President Carter signed a piece of legislation that once again made it legal for hobby brewers to begin making beer in their homes.  It didn't take long for a few craft breweries to pop up and for different styles of beer to again make themselves known to a long suffering population. 

Modern day

With a small market for different beer styles steadily climbing in the post Carter years, breweries such as Sierra Nevada in Chico, California began producing and dispensing old world styles such as British pale ales.  It didn't take long for home brewers to gain confidence enough in their products to begin opening smaller craft style microbreweries up and down the coast from Northern California into the state of Washington.  This movement has steadily increased not only in the Northwest, but I'm glad to say all over the U.S.  As it currently stands, there are craft breweries in every state of the union that produce beers that rival any examples of the great beers of Europe. 

I am proud to say that quality beer has made an enormous come-back in our great nation. 

beer sampler
Beer has once again taken its place in America as a quality product that is something we can be proud of.  Regardless of your preferred style, you can now likely find an excellent example of it in your grocer's cooler.  I believe this is a huge victory for brewers and beer drinkers across the nation simply because it was definitely not always the case.





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  1. Michael Jackson The World Guide to Beer. Philadelphia, PA: New Burlington Books, 1977.
  2. Charlie Papazian The Joy of Home Brewing. Boulder, CO: Log Broom Brewing, 1976.

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