The Evolution of Beer in North America

As a young beer drinker in the 1960’s, I could not understand why mainstream American beers were so pallid compared to their Canadian, English and German counterparts. In the U.S., brewers said, “the public demands it,” but that hardly explained the popularity of Canadian and imported beers, travelers’ enthusiastic reports on beers in Europe, and my own reaction when I found beers with character, body and flavor.

There had to be a better reason for the pale, light nature of American beer, and I spent years talking to brewers and studying history to find it. In 1988, this article appeared in the North American Microbrewers’ Resource Handbook and Directory. It summarizes my findings and my understanding of how beer evolved in North America. If I have anything important to say about beer, this is it.

:: The First Colonial Brewers ::

The brewing industry in North America began in the early 1600s, as European settlements such as Quebec City and New Amsterdam grew large enough to support breweries. In tracing the industry forward, it is obvious that the success of commercial brewing was dependent not only on the quality of the beer brewed and the character of the brewers themselves, but often on how skillfully brewers applied the emerging technologies of their day, on how well they weathered the storms and trials of their times, whether mild or catastrophic, economic or social, governmental or agricultural.

The earliest brewers walked off the boat with a knowledge of how to brew beer in the seventeenth century. But they lacked fields to grow barley, plows, brewing vessels and tools — in short, they lacked almost everything. And yet brewing began and survived. For openers, it had to. Colonists, anxious to save steps and stay close to home in a land populated with “savages,” often sank privies next to wells and polluted their own water supply. And so they turned to antiseptic fermented beverages — beer, cider and wine — to quench their thirst safely.

Wealthier folk imported both malt and beer from England, while others brewed from corn, which had been grown by the natives since about 1400. Although hops were grown in American in the New Netherlands (on Manhattan Island and along the Hudson River) as early as 1625, they were always in short supply. The chief characteristic of brewing in this era was its unpredictability, because of the lack of brewing instruments and the variability of ingredients.

Government taxation and regulation appeared early and often. New Netherlands established public breweries in 1632, an excise tax on private brewers in 1644, and laws regulating brewing and the quality of beer in 1664. There were other perils as well. In 1650, forty Iroquois tried unsuccessfully to burn down the Brewery of Montreal.

Southern colonists relied on northern breweries because the southern climate was too hot and the grain too dry to be used for malting. In fact, tobacco proved to be so profitable that no one would grow anything else. (Virginia colonists had to be ordered to grow food to prevent them from starving in the winter.)

The chanciness of life in the New World worked against any great commercial success. Brewers were only part of a system that also included home-brewing and beers imported from England and Holland. The frontier wasn’t that far from shore and Indian wars disrupted agriculture. The American Revolution closed American ports to imports of grain and hops, disrupted the economy and decreased consumption.

Because of population and access to water transportation, New York, Albany and Philadelphia became colonial America’s brewing centers. Significant brewing activity in Canada was centered in Quebec City and Montreal, where John Molson set up business on the river front in 1786.

The War of 1812 repeated the disruptions of the Revolution, but its conclusion in 1815 opened up the American West and encouraged expansion of the great brewing cities of the nineteenth century. Small towns like Milwaukee, Chicago, Cincinnati and St. Louis were all located on the shores of rivers or lakes with cheap transportation, nearby farmland for growing barley and cold winters for ice harvesting.

:: The Arrival of Lager ::

The brewing of bottom-fermented lager probably began in Bavarian monasteries. The first historical mention is in a report of the Munich town council in 1420. But the widespread commercial production of lager in Europe did not take place until much later, almost simultaneously with its introduction in America. Large-scale lager brewing was begun by Anton Dreher of Vienna in 1840, Gabriel Sedlmayr of Munich at about the same time, and was introduced to Bohemia, cradle of the Pilsener style, in 1842.

Using lager yeast acquired from German breweries, brewers in America introduced lager beer as early as 1840 or as late as 1848, depending upon which source you believe. First brewed by small German breweries in Philadelphia and farther west in other cities with German populations, lager entered a market dominated by whiskey, cider and an Americanized version of English ale, creating very little stir.

In almost every case, the lager brewers began on an extremely small scale and continued to make top-fermented beer for immediate use, because lager took many weeks. Such was the case with the Bests of Milwaukee, the ancestors of the Pabst and Miller breweries. The Bests made lager beer, ale, porter, plus rye and corn whiskey. This diversification helped them learn the local demand and make steadier use of the family’s labor.

There was no “lager revolution,” but rather a very gradual evolution as population demographics changed and several technical advantages of lager began to exert an effect. In 1850, ale brewing was still the most common mode of production; by 1860, lager brewing accounted for less than a quarter of the annual American production. In 1870, the large ale breweries still outranked the lager beer breweries of New York, Albany and Boston, but many American ale breweries were adding lager brewing facilities.

In Canada, the advantage of ale was even more pronounced, although Canadian brewers lost many of their ale drinkers when Great Britain withdrew its troops in 1867-68. Eugene O’Keefe was one of the first Canadian brewers to add lager facilities, doing so in 1879 at his brewery in Toronto. (In contrast, Molson’s did not produce lager until 1955.)

In the late decades of the nineteenth century, consumption of both beer and ale rose dramatically. Not, however, because brewers were doing anything right. The simple fact was that the population was increasing so rapidly that any brewer who was even half competent was successful. Between 1873 and 1893, the population in U.S. cities doubled. Half of this growth came from abroad, much of it from Germany.

Certainly, German emigration to America created a greater demand for lager, but there were many more reasons for lager’s eventual prominence. Stanley Baron, in his Brewed in America, suggests, “The type of lager developed in America was well adapted to the prevailing meat diet of Americans.” Brewers often cited “changes in public taste.” But these reasons are ephemeral when compared to the impact of technology, agriculture, economics and society on both the ascendancy of lager in the United States and the rise of the large brewer both north and south of the Canadian border.

:: Hot and Cold Running Technology ::

Between 1875 and 1890, new machinery ended hand labor in many processes and greatly increased productivity. It also provided much more precision in control. Obviously, new machinery was put to use only by those brewers who saw its potential and had sufficient capital to buy it. In turn, the equipment gave these brewers advantages in consistency, productivity and volume — a competitive edge that doomed their smaller, less venturesome competitors.

Steam-driven machines and steam heat solved the problems of uneven steeping and germination of the barley, unwanted germination in the drying kiln, uneven drying and the inability to malt during the summer. Uniformity of machine-made malt was soon matched by uniformity in the malt mash. Steam heat for warming the mashing water and boiling the wort provided a degree of control that had been unobtainable in the days of direct cooking over a flame. This was complemented by steam-driven mixing, which led to a more uniform wort from a given quantity of malt.

Just as steam provided better temperature control during malting, mashing and brewing, so mechanical refrigeration brought precision to fermentation and lagering. The first “ice machine” in America began cooling beer in 1869 at a New Orleans brewery, but it was six more years before the machines began working regularly and appearing in more and more breweries.

Like other large brewers, Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis saw the introduction of machines would increase productivity. With machines, they found they could easily meet growing demand and reduce cost per barrel. And new equipment enabled them to brew a beer that always looked, tasted and smelled the same when produced from the same ingredients, a tremendous advantage with consumers.

In 1881, Anheuser-Busch installed artificial refrigeration. They found it allowed more accurate temperature control, therefore a better quality of beer. It also reduced labor costs from ice-handling and saved space at the brewery. In 1882, an unseasonably warm winter made ice scarce and expensive in the major brewing cities. Brewers who relied on a supply of ice to keep brewing were forced to do business at a loss.

The lesson is obvious. Brewers who recognized the importance of a new technology, who had the money and the decisiveness to install the machinery, were able to survive the consequences of a change, in this case a change in the weather, over which they had no control.

Canadian brewers, in spite of an abundant supply of ice, saw the benefits and added refrigeration in the mid-1880’s.

Refrigeration had other effects as well. Lager brewers, fermenting their beer at lower temperatures, had been restricted by the need for cold and tied not only to the weather but also to haphazard, unwieldy methods of cooling the wort and controlling fermentation temperatures. Refrigeration freed them to brew year-round and gave them the control to produce a more consistent product. Lager was already naturally freer from bacterial infection because of the colder temperatures employed. Now it could reap these benefits consistently and continually.

In summary, technology untied the hands of the lager brewers and allowed them to press their competitive advantages over ale. And because refrigeration enabled uninterrupted lager brewing during the summer months, there was no longer any need to brew a highly hopped, highly alcoholic “keeping beer,” one that contained its own preservatives, to bridge the warm summer months. This rich, heavy beer became unnecessary and in its absence, beer became lighter overall.

:: Other Technological Changes ::

In 1887, at Pabst’s Milwaukee brewery, chip casks were replaced with filters and by 1889, Pabst had abandoned kraeusening in favor of the new technology of gathering and re-injecting CO2. This eliminated one of the most serious causes of infection and gave this major brewer another advantage.

Denmark’s Emil Christian Hansen proved that certain yeasts, once identified and differentiated, were harmful in the fermentation process while others worked exactly as desired. In 1883, he introduced the first absolute pure culture. Schlitz adopted his methods in 1883, Pabst in 1887. Others waited, believing that the slight deficiencies resulting from the use of inferior types of yeast would escape notice.

Another development of this era was the publication of books on brewing and malting, and of trade publications in New York and Chicago. Published in English and German, they swiftly spread scientific and mechanical information throughout the brewing community.

:: Barley ::

North American beers are distinguished from their European ancestors by the use, in their brewing, of adjunct grains, especially corn and rice. This difference began at the beginning with corn already growing in North American fields and barley an ocean away. But even after barley was established in the colonies, there were factors that made it unattractive to farmers and brewers.

For farmers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, barley was the most unpleasant grain to raise, harvest and thresh, and the most undesirable to market. The spiny awns or “beard” that appeal to artists were literally a pain in the neck and throat to a farmer and his livestock. Naturally farmers tended to charge more for barley and to raise grain that was more easily produced and handled, and which gave them a better return with less trouble. Corn was one such grain.

The barley harvest, and hence its price, varied from year to year. Average dips and rises were in the two- to five-million bushel range, but a record 87 million bushels in 1895 was followed by only 69 million bushels in 1896. In 1899, 1900 and 1901, the fluctuation was from 73 million bushels to 58 million to 109 million.

The barley’s quality, which determined how much of the harvest could be malted, varied as well. A bad year in terms of quantity and quality placed real pressure on individual breweries and the industry as a whole.

The government played a role, too. In 1866, a 15-cent U.S. tariff on Canadian barley raised U.S. brewers’ costs substantially by increasing the price of Canadian imports and allowing the U.S. farmer to demand a higher price as well. The tariffs continued. In 1900, the United States Brewers Association noted, “Under the operations of an import duty designed to protect the American barley grower, the importation of foreign (Canadian) malt has ceased altogether.” In Senate hearings, brewers cited the lack of the superior Canadian malt and the subsequent reliance on inferior American malt as making the use of corn and rice necessary.

:: Corn ::

For nineteenth century brewers, the use of corn was first suggested by the success of the manufacture of starch and sugar from corn between 1860 and 1870. In those years, several brewers, more or less clandestinely, tried cornmeal as a malt adjunct, but stopped when financial returns and taste failed to match expectations. However, in 1874, a satisfactory method was devised and in 1881, it was detailed by J. Siebel in The Western Brewer, a leading trade publication.

It might be helpful to look at the experience of one brewer in particular to show how corn made its way into American beer. Thomas Cochran describes this, as well as suggesting another reason for the lightening of American beer, in his business history The Pabst Brewing Company. Due partly to the hot summer climate of most of the United States, and to the desire to drink rapidly, most Americans wanted a lighter, drier beer than was made in Europe or than had first been made in this country. While the desire for lightness in body, therefore, was a reasonable outgrowth of American conditions, the parallel demand for lightness in color, luster and clarity was based on aesthetic considerations that had no influence on the taste of the beer.

Cochran writes, “There were two possible ways of achieving lighter color and lighter body: (1) more careful malting and (2) the use of other grains besides barley.” Pabst began using small amounts of rice in 1874. In 1878, they turned to corn. The amounts of each varied, but by 1893, Pabst’s standard beer began with one part cornmeal to two parts malt.

Cochran adds, “There were still some lovers of fine beer who preferred the old-style German product, and for these, several thousand barrels of pure malt beers, amounting to about a tenth of the total production, were brewed. The cost of materials for these brands due to the larger percentage of malt, and the use of more imported hops, ran as high as 80 to 100 percent more than for the standard product… Yet the great majority of Americans preferred this latter, cheaper type.”

In 1899, in testimony before a Senate committee investigating adulteration of food products, a New York City brewmaster testified that he used only malt in 75 percent of his beers, but that he made another beer with the addition of corn grits. The committee chairman asked, “You have some customers that prefer that?” The brewer replied, “Well, I use it to meet competition. Some customers want a lighter beer because I can and do give it to them cheaper. The cost of production is less.”

Later he testified that all-malt beer was a superior product but the chill haze (i.e., enzymatic proteins in solution that appear as a haze or cloud when the beer is chilled) convinced some consumers otherwise. “The ordinary beer drinker or any person not conversant with the reason of that cloudiness may reject the beer for the reason that it does not look right; it does not appeal to the eye.” The addition of corn to the mash provided more starch for the excess enzymes from the malt to work on and thus decreased the amount of proteins in the finished beer, solving the chill haze problem cheaply and effectively.

Cost and aesthetics were working for lighter lagers and against all-malt beers and ales.

Ale had other problems as well. In 1866, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service allowed brewers a 10% allowance for loss in shipment. This more than covered the 7% average for lager beer wastage, but fell short of the typical 15% loss sustained when shipping ale in barrels. Bottled ale had its drawbacks, too. It was naturally conditioned and required more careful pouring, and there was a certain amount of waste. This added to its expense and worked against its popularity.

:: Hops ::

New York State’s hop industry began in 1808 and got a lift from English crop failures in 1822. Then another boost came from the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 which moved the hops swiftly and cheaply to market. By 1880, New York was the king of the U.S. hop industry and perfectly located for major eastern ale breweries, whose highly hopped ales required more hops than the lighter beers of the lager breweries.

But blight and mold sometimes destroyed the crop completely and New York began to lose its edge. Gradually the hops of the western growers, especially those in California and Oregon, gained in popularity. Western growing conditions were superior and “tended to curb the inroads of downy mildew.” As hop production shifted west, and in years of crop failure, the ale brewers faced additional shipping charges on the hops they depended upon.

Unable to ask a higher price for their ale, they were forced to lower the amount of hops they used. Agriculture and economics had combined to create milder, less bitter beers. (Exactly the same thing happened in England in 1882; crop failures drove prices up and hopping rates down.)

:: Glass ::

The mass production of glassware was one of the reasons drinkers could see, and thus care about, clarity and color in beer. The first hinged molds for glassware, allowing for greater production and lower cost, were used between 1825 and 1828. In 1880, glassware was being made in large quantities and in 1890, the use of glassware boomed when machines came into use for mass production. Another advantage to lighter and clearer beers.

:: Soft Drinks ::

One more influence was the competition from soft drinks. The first bottled soda water was offered for sale in 1835 and by the late 1840’s, Boston and New York had bottling plants. By 1879, there were 579 bottling plants in major cities all over America, the same major cities that held 90% of the brewers’ customers. If brewers wished to compete against these light, refreshing beverages, they needed to lighten their beers.

:: Factories and City Life ::

As more and more work took place in factories, workers could no longer drink hard liquor, cider or the more highly alcoholic ales during the day and hold their jobs. But a glass or two of lager beer would not impair their efficiency, so beer came to be the drink of the city man. The spread of central heating and the increasingly sedentary character of city life might have reinforced these factors leading to a demand for lighter beverages.

:: Economics ::

Early in the nineteenth century, beer was consumed mainly by the working population, and as early as 1857, the sensitivity of beer and ale sales to the level of employment and real wages was clear. From 1865 to 1895, during a long decline in the wholesale prices of practically all commodities, the best brewers could do was struggle to maintain existing prices. In 1867 and 1874, in the face of unusually high prices for malt and hops, the brewers attempted to increase the price of beer, but failed on both occasions.

In 1873, America had a record number of brewers — 4,131. But a financial panic that year hit the brewing industry hard, and the number of breweries dropped by more than 1,000 in just two years.

Unions for brewery workers first appeared in 1879, calling for shorter hours and higher wages. In New York in 1884 and Milwaukee in 1886, there were strikes and boycotts. In 1914, the U.S. Brewers Association Yearbook noted, “The question of continually mounting wages, and more or less accompanying reduction in hours, is rapidly assuming proportions that must challenge the serious attention not only of those who pay but also of those who receive them.”

:: Taxes ::

Introduced in 1862 as a measure to help pay for the Civil War, excise taxes on beer placed more pressure on the brewers’ finances. In 1898, the tax on a barrel of beer doubled to defray the costs of the Spanish-American War. The drinking public resisted price increases per glass, and sales declined by almost a million barrels in 1899.

The Western Brewer commented at the time, “The beer the brewer makes costs him a dollar a barrel more to produce and he sells fewer barrels. The supposition that he could shift the burden of the added tax upon the dealer and the dealer in turn shift it upon the customer proved to be erroneous.”

The Canadian experience with taxes also influenced the type of beer brewed. The first excise duty was imposed in 1859, and increased in 1862. But in 1868, it was shifted from beer to malt. The change — from taxing the beer to taxing the materials used to brew the beer — effectively reduced the tax on beers that used less malt, i.e., lager beer and light ale, while increasing the cost of beers that used more malt, i.e., stronger ales, porters and stouts.

All of these factors — more costly materials, higher labor costs, higher taxes — droves costs higher while the asking price of a barrel of beer remained steady or actually went down in the face of increased competition. What was left to give way but the money spent on ingredients? More cheaply produced beers, primarily lighter lagers, carried the day.

:: The Shippers ::

Market expansion created advantages for the brewers who were large enough to attempt it. It reduced the brewer’s dependence on a single market, an important factor when local Prohibition began having an effect. It increased revenue and thus purchasing power for materials and new technology.

Pabst began continuous large-scale shipping from Milwaukee to Chicago and other out-of-town markets in 1852. In 1854, a hot summer exhausted Chicago beer supplies during the seasonal shut-down of brewing, increasing the demand for Milwaukee beer. The completion of the railway to Milwaukee in 1855 cut costs and sped delivery. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 ruined many uninsured breweries in that city and again helped Milwaukee brewers raise their sales in 1872.

In the following years, Pabst, Schlitz and Blatz of Milwaukee, Christian Moerlein of Cincinnati and Anheuser-Busch and William J. Lemp of St. Louis competed actively for the national market.

Why were they the first to ship their beers by rail? Because their predecessors didn’t have railroads. Prior to the Civil War, the railroads were a mismatched patchwork of different owners and different rail widths. Trains would pull into a town, be forced to unload, then load onto the next line, and depart after a long wait and a great deal of costly manual labor.

Then came the Civil War with the need to move large amounts of men and material with life and death at stake. In 1862, President Lincoln called for a standard rail width. At the same time, the war ended the supremacy of the Mississippi River as a trade route and shifted the United States trade axis from north-south to east-west, opening up western markets to the brewers. By 1875, there were five great rail lines in America. Freight cars grew larger, holding eight tons during the war, fifteen to twenty tons after.

Furthermore, Louis Pasteur’s studies, begun in 1857 and universally accepted in 1870, enabled brewers to pasteurize bottled beer. Pasteurization was critical to the development of American bottling and the growth of the major shippers. (Ale had been bottled for centuries, but the old bottled ale was either still and heavy, or a live beverage prepared for immediate consumption only.) To keep the bottled beer cool on its rail journey, and to hold each dealer’s beer until he was ready for it, brewers had to build and supply icehouses. St. Louis’ Lemp maintained branch offices from San Francisco to Atlanta.

By 1872, Anheuser-Busch was shipping as far west as Texas. In 1878, they claimed to have the largest bottling works in the entire brewing industry and they made a major investment in rail cars. By 1888, they had 850. They built icehouses and storage depots throughout the Midwest, West and Southwest. They used a Western Union telegraph wire to communicate directly with agents, eliminating delays that could have cost the company thousands of dollars.

Referring to its higher profit margin and prestige, Adolphus Busch described bottled beer as “the cream of our business.” Locally it conferred status and in small, dusty Western towns it had a tremendous quality advantage. A shipper could trail its competitors in local sales and still be putting breweries out of business in Arizona. If a small Midwestern town voted to go “dry,” it was death for the local brewery but only one market in a hundred for a shipper.

:: Agriculture ::

Just as machinery allowed for large-scale brewing and the transport of great volumes of beer, so machinery made possible the harvesting of sufficient barley to feed this enterprise. Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, invented in 1831, also needed the Civil War to impress its importance upon the nation. With one man in three gone to fight the war, and an army to feed, farmers turned to mechanization with extraordinary consequences. Grain production increased so much that the United States was actually exporting grain during the war. By 1875, the reaper had made American and Canadian agriculture the most efficient in the world, and able to supply the growing brewing industry with as much grain as it required.

:: Consolidation ::

As the large grew and the small perished, fewer brewers were dictating the style and taste of American beer. As early as 1870, Pabst had employed the tactic of buying and closing a competitor. Anheuser-Busch owned the Lone Star Brewery in Texas and bought its main competitor to close it and gain its trade. British syndicates entered the market, buying and consolidating breweries in many American cities. By 1899, it was “an insane craze” according to The Western Brewer.

Some local breweries purchased more and more saloons in their cities and towns to control sales at the retail level and block the shippers. But Prohibition ended the effectiveness of that tactic.

:: Toward Prohibition ::

The temperance movement originated in the 1830s, ebbed and flowed with social conditions. The brewers often referred to beer as the true temperance beverage (milder than whiskey, cider or wine), and as often as they resorted to this description, they were subtly pressured to brew a beer more closely fitting it.

In 1879, author Frederick Salem wrote, “every year something is contributed to the solution of the problem in brewing — to produce a mild beer that… shall contain even less alcohol, and remain bright and refreshing.”

In 1896, as Prohibition activities intensified, U.S. Brewers Association president Leo Ebert said, “In our efforts to produce an absolutely healthful beverage we have availed ourselves of all mechanical improvements and the results of scientific research, and we have now succeeded in manufacturing a drink quite as wholesome as, but far more effervescent than, the beers of old. The percentage of alcohol in American beers is growing less from year to year, and this fact ought to exempt our product entirely from any of the restrictions now applied to intoxicants.”

By brewing lighter beers, brewers also sought to escape taxation, citing the examples of European countries where the sentiment for temperance was most advanced and direct encouragement, in the form of lower taxes, was given to the sale of light beers.

:: The Saloon ::

The rise of the saloon, an enormous social phenomenon, remade beer into a commodity, a tool for making vast sums of money. Reduced to the role of a gold flood that swept money away from the lower classes downstream to wealthy brewers, beer as a beverage lost its importance.

In The Great Illusion, Herbert Asbury claimed, “… probably no class in America has ever been more greedy for profits than the old time brewers… their sole aim had been to saturate the country with beer. To this end, they brazenly corrupted politicians, and encouraged and financed the opening of additional saloons wherever possible… During the sixty years from 1850 to 1910, the per capita consumption of beer increased by at least 1,000 percent.”

From 1887 to 1900, Pabst invested more than $2 million in saloons, and family letters cite Schlitz as doing the same. By 1907, Pabst had almost 400 saloons in Milwaukee. Schlitz and Miller built secure positions in their home markets in the same way. In St. Louis, brewers owned 65% of the saloons. In New York City, George Ehret’s Hellgate Brewery owned between 800 and 1,000 saloons.

By 1910, brewers owned or substantially controlled 70 to 85% of all of the saloons in the United States. Beer was at least four fifths of a saloon’s business. To compete, saloons were forced to stay open on Sunday and after hours (paying off the police in the process), permit gambling, sell liquor to habitual drunkards, salt the free lunch, and even co-exist with houses of prostitution. An 1876 Philadelphia study found that of the city’s 8,037 saloons, 3,782 had ties to “houses of ill fame.”

In addition to servicing the saloons’ clientele, women were portrayed as trophies in the saloon’s artwork. Women at home received drunken husbands, empty pay envelopes, beatings and venereal disease. With no social welfare system to act as a net, unable to improve their situation, unable even to vote, women formed a willing army for the coming movement to Prohibition.

:: World War I and Anti-German Sentiment ::

In 1918, John Strange, a dry leader, said, “We have German enemies across the water. We have German enemies in this country, too. And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller. They are the worst Germans who inflicted themselves upon a long-suffering people.” This kind of thinking was common and widespread.

It not only hastened Prohibition by creating ill feeling toward the predominately German brewers, it also forced many brewers out of business solely out of concern for their children’s place in the community, and their future.

:: Prohibition in Canada ::

At the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Canada experienced the changing tides of Prohibition as well. In 1878, the Scott Local Option Act began creating a patchwork quilt of dry towns and counties. Nationwide and provincial referendums for Prohibition were defeated in 1898 and 1902, but wartime measures were in effect from 1916 through 1919. Afterward, local option prevailed. Ontario had provincial Prohibition until 1927, but brewers were allowed to brew beer for export from 1920 onwards.

:: Prohibition in the United States ::

Before Prohibition, there were 1,100 breweries in operation. By acquiring a permit to operate as a non-alcoholic cereal beverage plant, a brewery could remain open in spite of Prohibition. On September 27, 1923, three years into Prohibition, there were 500 cereal beverage plants in operation in the United States. Three could have fulfilled the nation’s need for cereal beverages.

Making a cereal beverage involved making real beer and then removing the alcohol. Breweries intending to subvert the law could either 1) remove the alcohol from the finished beer but forward the alcohol with the beer to be reunited at the speakeasy, 2) skip the removal of alcohol and ship full strength beer under the cover of darkness, or 3) brew the beer to full strength and arrange to have it “stolen” before its alcohol could be removed. Beer which had been de-alcoholized and then “spiked” tasted as you would imagine. Full strength beers smuggled out of the brewery suffered from a lack of lagering time, as brewers sought to get their product out of the building as quickly as possible.

Across the border, Canadian wartime Prohibition expired on January 1, 1920. The next day in Canada, there was a sudden and dramatic increase in requests for motorboat licenses. As Canadian breweries returned to production, beer was legally and openly sold by the Canadians to “exporters” who dutifully paid export taxes, stated their destination as Europe, the Bahamas or a distant Caribbean island and cast off for distant shores. (In later years, a Canadian customs official recalled one man in a rowboat who cleared for Havana three times in one day.)

In fact, the exporters’ voyages were short ones. They smuggled the beer into the United States, or back into Canada, by boat, car, rail, airplane, on foot or horseback. When the rivers froze, they drove cars across the ice or sent beer in sailboats equipped with runners. In the summer, they dragged it across the river bottoms on sleds, sometimes directly under passing patrol boats.

With 29 breweries in Ontario alone, big markets like Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo and Cleveland were very convenient and very wet. A reporter in Buffalo observed U.S. officials helping a smuggler unload his boat in the middle of a summer afternoon. In 1928, at the peak of the traffic, America drank more than half of the alcoholic beverages made in Canada, including three million imperial gallons of beer. Overall, U.S. Prohibition and Customs agents confiscated only three to five percent of the beer cleared from Canada. Because the Canadian government collected taxes on the beer, our nation’s prohibition on alcoholic beverages made millions for both Canadian brewers and Canada.

:: E.P. Taylor ::

At the same time, there was more going on in Canada than satisfying America’s thirst. In 1930, Edward P. Taylor founded what would become Canadian Breweries Limited (CBL). His sole aim was to consolidate and control as large a portion of the Canadian brewing industry as possible. To this end, he bought and closed small and medium-sized breweries. In 1945 he said, “we have reduced the number of brands from several hundred to only nine today.” Vanishing were hundreds of beers of character, hundreds of choices for the beer drinker. And the growth of CBL forced Molson and Labatt to respond to the threat by taking the same measures to grow.

In 1933, Taylor entered the American market by gaining control of what would become Carling Brewing. In 1955, he testified to his belief that eventually America’s then 300 breweries would be reduced to 10 or 12. It would be difficult to overestimate the effects of Taylor’s acts and example. (The history of CBL was documented in “Canadian Ales — Nearly Just a Memory” by Nicholas Hazen in The New Brewer, September/October 1985.)

:: Repeal ::

Even after repeal of Prohibition in 1933, American brewers felt its negative effects. Brewers had lost 13 years of apprenticeship and the knowledge of their older employees. It was not easy to start up again and brew a quality product. Those who survived had done so by diversifying into related product areas, such as baking, dairy processing or soft-drink manufacturing. This enabled them to preserve their capital and real estate, keep abreast of new developments in food and beverage processing, and, very importantly, to keep the next generation in the family business and train them in management.

Smaller or less dedicated brewers could not weather the 13-year storm. They could not afford the new equipment developed by the world’s brewing and soft-drink industries during Prohibition. Bottling machinery, used increasingly by soft-drink manufacturers, had made enormous advances since 1920, rendering pre-Prohibition machinery obsolete. The complete acceptance of the automobile made it necessary for breweries of any size to invest in whole fleets of delivery trucks.

One of the conditions of Repeal was the extinction of the saloon and the “tied-house” system in America. No longer able to own their outlets, smaller brewers could not keep out the larger, shipping brewers. In new trucks traveling over new, paved roads, the larger brewers easily expanded their markets. Beer cans were introduced in 1935, offering tremendous advantages in shipping and home storage.

Society was changing. People were finding more reasons to stay home, and advertisers were finding more ways to reach them. In 1920, there was one radio station in the United States. In 1925, there were 571. Radio gave people home entertainment, and after Repeal, it gave those brewers who could afford to sponsor a program a far-reaching vehicle for advertising regional and national brands.

The total of 700 brewers in 1934 dropped to less than 500 by 1943. Small brewers faced other pressures as well. The Depression had cut the consumer’s purchasing power. The competing soft-drink industry had grown from a value of $135 million in 1919 to $175 million in 1931, and almost $750 million by 1947. In 1940, the excise tax was increased from $5 to $6 per barrel. Its effect on small brewers was predictably unfavorable.

:: World War II ::

The war in Europe closed off the supply of imported hops. Domestically, supplies of malt were rationed in 1943 because malt was needed to make alcohol for munitions. There was a nationwide corn shortage. Many brewers were forced to make “temporary” alterations in their formulas, using wheat, unmalted barley, soybeans and sorghum. Grain prices rose. Rationing quotas increased. A ceiling on the price of beer increased the pressure on brewers.

But beer sales climbed, from 53 million barrels in 1940 to 81 million barrels in 1945. Brewers made more with less; obviously there had to be a change for the light. Brewers also noticed the increasing number of women drinking beer, and cutting beer with water. In response, some brewers began “lady-izing” beer, making it less fattening, less bitter, more sweet. Schlitz advertised, “Just the kiss of the hops.”

Edwin Anderson, president of Detroit’s Goebel Brewing Company, warned, “Already inferior beer has hurt our industry. Too many brewers, lured by the big public demand for beer resulting from boom-time buying power, have let brewing standards go by the board in a mad race for volume. Beer cannot be watered indefinitely without the public catching on.”

In 1934, brewers had used an average of 47.6 pounds of grain per barrel, 80% of which (38.1 pounds) was malt. In 1940, they averaged 47.2 pounds of grain, 76% (35.7 pounds) malt. In 1945, 40.7 pounds, 62% (25.4 pounds) malt. The amount and percentage rose after grain supplies were restored following the war, but soon began trending downward again.

Hops have followed the same pattern, e.g., 37 million pounds used in 1937 to make 58 million barrels of beer; the same amount used in 1974 to make 145 million barrels of beer.

:: Conclusion ::

Obviously, American and Canadian beers did not evolve to suit public taste. They evolved to survive. Changes in technology, economy, agriculture, history and society — and business decisions made by brewers — all fueled the trend toward lighter beers.

* * *

Since this article appeared in 1988, home brewing and craft brewing have boomed; hundreds of new breweries have opened all over the United States. Mass-produced lagers continue to lighten, but choices have multiplied, and the growing family of American beers has taken a dramatic turn for the better. Today is a good time to drink beer; long may it remain so.

© 2012 by Kihm Winship


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