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The big are at their biggest, but the underdogs are gaining steam.
This chart, from a guide to beer and homebrewing, Beer Craft
, which I wrote with Jessi Rymill, tracks American brewing from its earliest days of pumpkin-and-tree-bark hooch to the sudsy empire of today. American brewing began in the kitchen and it's booming there now, again. Homebrewing is hip
—but it started out of necessity. In America's early days, thirsty colonists placed ads in British papers begging pro brewers to emigrate, but no luck. Washington, Jefferson, and even John Winthrop were homebrewers, and pretty creative ones. This was experimental stuff—think anise, molasses, pumpkins, parsnips—but it did the trick.
Beer took a hit in the early 1800s when rum flooded the ports and whisky the frontier. In those days, America had 200 breweries and 14,000 distilleries. Americans drank almost three pints of liquor a week. Then, the Germans arrived with a new beer: lager. During the wave of German immigration in the 1840s, 40 lager breweries opened in Philadelphia alone. The only problem was, nobody drank much anymore. The German tendency to drink during the day, outside, in noisy beer gardens with—mein Gott!
—women and children freaked out the xenophobes, and a dark curtain of temperance dimmed drinking to a national per-capita low in 1850 of less than a bottle a week.
So most breweries closed, or consolidated. Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Pabst dominated the flagging market with fancy new technology like refrigerated railway cars. The few small breweries still around finally succumbed in 1919. Prohibition took no prisoners. Big breweries scraped by selling low-alcohol "near beer," soda, and ice cream (what else to do with those expensive train cars?). Beer took a long time to recover. By 1978 there were only 89 breweries, owned by 41 companies. Meanwhile, though, craft beer was born.
Washington and Jefferson were homebrewers.
In the 1970s, three tiny California breweries fired their kettles: New Albion, Anchor, and Sierra Nevada. New Albion closed in 1983, but Anchor and Sierra exploded. Boston Beer Company followed in 1984, and the rush was on. Between 1993 and 1994, 200 breweries opened. Craft beer boomed fast, and suffered for it—many small breweries, started on a whim, shut down in the late '90s—but it's since found its legs. Today craft beer is growing in volume and dollars while the rest of the beer industry stagnates. Homebrewing is booming too, bringing American beer history full circle. Only, with fewer parsnips.
Today's golden age of beer has been a long time coming. We haven't drank this much beer from this many breweries for a hundred years. Sure, most of the 204 million barrels of beer made in America last year came from two monstrous brewing conglomerates—Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors—but 97% of the breweries in operation are small, independently owned craft breweries. The big are at their biggest, but the underdogs are gaining steam.