My introduction to beer started on a warm summer day in 1982 on a weathered green bench on the Avenue B side of Tompkins Square Park in New York City. The beer was Rolling Rock, a six-pack purchased with astonishing ease at the bodega on 12th Street, and swathed in small brown paper bags—the standard form of concealment for underage drinkers and veterans alike. I twisted off the cap, doffed my beer in my friend Frank’s direction, and promptly drained off half of the bottle. We looked at each other and laughed. Of course this was illegal—they would never let anybody our age have this much fun. After finishing the six-pack, we walked back up Avenue B to the basketball courts on 14th Street, reveling in the newfound power of Beer. When we got to the court, I was astonished when I couldn’t dunk the ball. The truth was that neither of us was sober enough to even make a layup.
It’s funny how that memory takes precedence over so many other “firsts” that happen when you’re young. The first kiss. First home run. First concert. Though I didn’t know it at the time, that first real drink of beer was my first step on a very long road to adulthood. The irony that my first giant step of individualism consisted of doing something my father did—and learned from his father before him—didn’t matter. There is a kind of magic in that first beer. There may be thousands—if not tens of thousands—of beers to remember over a lifetime, but that first beer sticks with you for a long time.
For me, it was a Rolling Rock—at the time, an inexpensive and mysterious selection from the bottom of the bodega’s cooler. For you, it may have been Budweiser, or Pabst Blue Ribbon, or maybe even an ice-cold can of Schaefer purloined from your dad’s garage fridge. This book is about celebrating the classic beers we encountered in our youth. Not gourmet “sipping” beers like a Belgian Witbier or a German doppelbock, but the classic all-American brews that our fathers and grandfathers drank, like Schaefer, Schlitz, Hamm’s, and Rheingold. In so few words, “the beers to have when you’re having more than one.”
What is it about these stalwart brands that capture our imagination in the way that today’s microbrews and other specialty beers do not? In some ways, it is about embracing a time in America when things were much simpler.
Though many of the hallmarks of early twentieth-century America (racism, war, lack of women’s rights, etc.) were so inexorably wrong, there was still much to celebrate in the “good old days.” It’s hard to believe, but there was actually a time when one income could support a family, when American automobiles were top-notch, and when you could get your first—and last—job with a good company and retire comfortably on your pension. Back then, you ate a steak without fear of cholesterol, went on vacation without a Blackberry, and sent your kids off to school without fear of abduction. Back then, you ordered a “cup of Joe” rather than a “tall half-caf mochaccino latte,” and you drank beer. Not lager, stout, or IPA. Just plain old beer.
Great American Beer celebrates the purity and simplicity of classic American brands and the way they continue to resonate today. This book is intended to be the ultimate guide to beer from the era when Milwaukee was the brewing capital of the world and the big names were Schaefer, Schlitz, Rheingold, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. The antithesis of the recent microbrewery revolution in America, this was a time when the major beer powerhouses took control of the brewing industry and, in the grand spirit of American industry, relentlessly quashed the small, independent producers that relied upon local support. This story is about the Americanization of beer, where homogenized brands—grown through a mixture of political clout, industrialization, and marketing might—became the best loved, and most heavily consumed beer brands in the world.
Great American Beer is also about the power of beer in our popular culture and how marketing turned beer—basically a commodity product with very little differentiation at the time—into powerful brands that had their own unique personalities and images. Even if an ounce of Miller Lite has never passed between your lips, I guarantee you know it’s the beer that “tastes great” and is “less filling.” As a true American beer lover, you also may be aware that Hamm’s hails from “the land of sky-blue waters” (wherever they may be) and be able to hum the Rheingold theme (“it’s my beer, it’s the dry beer . . .”).
Although the marketing battle for beer drinkers’ loyalty (and money) has probably been festering since the first brewery opened up in Manhattan (then New Amsterdam) in 1612, the heart of the battle did not begin until the late 1940s, when a curious confluence of events placed beer in the heart of American popular culture. Televisions were enormously expensive at the time—not everybody had them, but they could be found readily in the local tavern where, thanks to the dearth of quality shows, sports programming dominated the airwaves. Add the fact that “the boys” were mostly back from World War II and to be found in large quantities in the taverns, and you have the undeniably perfect setting for a beer commercial: a roomful of men watching baseball in front of a bar.
The 1947 Subway Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees was mostly seen in standing-room-only taverns. With regional beer sports sponsorships already firmly established, it was only natural for beer companies to saturate the airwaves with characters ranging from Carling’s “Black Label Mabel” to the venerable Hamm’s Bear, who enjoyed a sixteen-year run as the beer’s primary spokesanimal. Through the magnifying prism of television, our love affair with American beer deepened and became more complex as brands took on a fuller life, with an entire range of logos, jingles, characters, and slogans intertwined in our consciousness.
Of course, our love affair with American beer isn’t just about advertising. It is also about where we are from. Before the advent of mass marketing and refrigerated trucking, you simply drank the beers supplied from your local breweries. Yet, even though larger breweries have been able to effectively ship and sell beer across the country since the turn of the twentieth century, affection for one’s local brew continues to this day. When soliciting suggestions for what great American brands to include in this book, both friends and colleagues fiercely advocated for their local brews—often citing largely experience-based, anecdotal evidence of their superiority, rather than arguing on the merits of craftsmanship or flavor. Naturally, those from upstate New York insisted that Genesee Cream Ale be placed highest in the pantheon of Great American Beer, while friends from Wisconsin were no less forceful in their advocacy of Leinenkugel, insisting that “once the amber goodness of a Leine’s penetrates your lips for the first time, you will see clearly that no other beer compares.” For some New Yorkers, the fact that Pabst (made in Milwaukee) was sold in Shea Stadium back when the Jets still played there was reason enough to support it as the ultimate American brew.
Unfortunately, the passage of time, the rise of the megabrewers, and the globalization of the economy have made many beloved regional American beer brands things of the past. In their place have risen thousands of smaller specialty microbreweries, brew pubs, and enough imported beer choice and variety to enable someone to have a different beer every day for the next quarter century without fear of repetition. This is a wonderful thing for all beer drinkers, although I suspect that I will always more vividly remember pulling the ring tab on my first PBR than having my first Samuel Adams Winter Wheat Ale. However, the current resurgence of storied brands such as Rheingold and Schaefer—as trendy, upscale beers—reveals that the power of these American icons has not faded over time.
Whether it is a memory of your father sipping beer in his armchair, a television beer commercial, or a fondness for a local sports team’s brew of choice, there is something about these classic American beers that resonates within us. I hope this book evokes these memories and helps you appreciate every can you drink a little bit more.
The Birth of Great American Beers
Beer has been an integral part of the American landscape since the first Virginia colonists brewed their own corn ale in 1587—and for centuries before, as the Native Americans were known to brew a drink from maize, according to Christopher Columbus. A long-standing legend holds that the Mayflower only touched down on Plymouth Rock because the ship’s crew ran out of beer and needed to disembark to obtain the materials to brew more.
Beer was brewed in America continuously since Europeans first set foot on the continent, and the settlers came armed with thousands of years of collective brewing knowledge. The first American beers were ales and stouts—rich, hearty, and robust beers made with top fermenting yeasts at warmer temperatures, then aged for a short time. These were typically heavy British-style brown ales, bitters, and barley-wine, stouts, and wheat beers.
But prior to the mid-1800s, the industry was modest. In 1810, for example, total American beer production stood at a meager 180,000 barrels. It wasn’t until the Germans arrived in force throughout the last half of the nineteenth century (over 4 million of them), that the true golden age of American brewing got started and the typical “American-style” beer took hold: smooth and elegant lagers and pilsners.
These new beers were the result of a type of yeast brought from Bavaria: yeast that was active at the bottom of the beer fermenter and worked at much cooler temperatures. When aged in cool caves or cellars, the beer took on a decidedly different character—much cleaner and smoother—than the typical ales of the day. Prior to the mid-1800s, this live Bavarian yeast could not survive the long ocean voyage between the United States and Europe. However, maritime development meant new, fast, multi-sailed clipper ships, which brought enough live yeast—and lively Bavarian brewers with it—to ensure that this style of lager made a swift foothold in the States.
German brewers, supported by a built-in worker and customer base of their fellow expatriates, rapidly took the American beer industry by storm. The combination of their readily drinkable beer, a rapidly expanding European immigrant community with the taste for German lager, and industrious German master brewers transformed the American industry from a comparatively sleepy 750,000 barrels a year in 1850 to an astounding 6,600,000 barrels in 1870—and an estimated 40,000,000 barrels at the turn of the century. That trend was helped along by the fact that the rising immigrant population of America were factory workers prone to drinking before, during, and after their shifts—contributing to a per-capita beer consumption that rose from 6.4 gallons in 1865 to 16 gallons in 1900, and peaked at a (literally) staggering 20.6 gallons in 1910 (according to the U.S. Brewers Association’s Brewers Almanac).
The German Beer Barons pursued brewing with such a passion that they forever changed the cities their breweries were founded in—and, after a while, all of American culture. With single-minded purpose, they transformed a small cottage brewing industry into the industrial powerhouse it is today: a volume business whose product serves the masses. Despite the acuity of their craft and their initial intention to please their fellow German immigrants, the lager beer they produced was aimed at the broadest possible market—everyone. The product that began in the Bavarian countryside won over both the European immigrant population and well-established Americans alike and eventually became what we now call American Beer.
In the cities and towns where they planted roots, the Barons created more than beer. They employed thousands of workers and brought an industriousness that changed the other industries around them. The taverns and saloons they supplied, and often owned, stood as social nexuses in the local communities. The places where they settled (Milwaukee, New York, parts of Pennsylvania) became great beer towns and their ghosts linger on. Being a Beer Baron in the days before Prohibition was like being the President of the United States, Al Capone, and George Steinbrenner all rolled into one. Some of the greatest early stories from New York and Milwaukee give a feeling for the type of men the Barons were, and how they shaped the cities around them.
Milwaukee: Beer City, USA
To the aspiring Beer Baron’s eye, Milwaukee was a virtual dreamscape for the intrepid brewer: a welcoming harbor, plenty of ice and cool caves for storage (there was no refrigeration back then), and plenty of thirsty European immigrants. Although Milwaukee was a perfect spot for brewing, it didn’t seem to offer any truly unique advantages that couldn’t be found elsewhere on the Great Lakes. Yes, it had access to a wealth of wooden barrels, thanks to its proximity to the North Woods. It also had a large immigrant community, but so did Chicago. Its water was pristine, but no more so than other nearby industrial centers.
Oddly, Milwaukee’s main advantage was what it lacked: enough people to drink all the beer it produced. Milwaukee’s brewers quickly ran out of local drinkers, so they learned the crucial art of packaging, shipping, and marketing early. Their first target was Chicago, the city that drank enough Schlitz to “Make Milwaukee Famous.”
The other main advantage Milwaukee had was a variety of intrepid, adventurous German brewers who seemed to be armed with risk capital, business acumen, and a magic formula for lager beer. Two of those brewers were Charles and Jacob Best, from Mettenheim, Germany. Starting in 1844, the Best family, owners of a vinegar factory, turned the industrial harbor city of Milwaukee into what would become known as Beer City, USA. In 1844, Jacob Best opened a small brewery on Chestnut Street Hill, which eventually became the Pabst Brewing Company. A few years later, his brother Charles opened a small operation nearby, humbly calling it the Plank Road Brewery. It is now known as the Miller Brewing Company. Sibling rivalry is a wonderful thing.
Other great brewers in the Milwaukee tradition were Captain Frederick Pabst (who married into the Best family), Frederick Miller (who bought the Plank Road Brewery), and Joseph Schlitz. These men, and hundreds of others like them (albeit not as successful), fashioned Milwaukee into a beer paradise. The city was covered with pubs and beer gardens, where free hot lunches, entertainment, and plenty of political votes could be had for the price of a nickel beer. With the great Beer Barons at the hub of the ever-growing German community, Milwaukee wallowed in beer and the industry it wrought, creating both larger-than-life characters and beer bellies—humorously known as “Milwaukee Goiter.” Truly, Milwaukee was Beer City, USA.
New York: Ehret and the Colonel
The early days of New York brewing can be summed up by two great figures: George “The Crazy Dutchman” Ehret and “Colonel” Jacob Ruppert. In 1857, the twenty-two-year-old George Ehret immigrated to New York City, promptly found employment at a local brewery, and began his rapid climb to the top of American brewing. Fueled by enormous patience, persistence, and frugality, Ehret stashed away his salary (and the knowledge he acquired) from his supervisor position at A. Hupfel Brewery for eight years, until he had enough to start his own operation.
Ehret selected a rural site for his brewery, opposite a dangerous passage in the East River called Hell Gate. Hell Gate Brewery was established with one core principle in mind: to duplicate, as closely as possible, the famous Munich lagers of the day. Finding the local water supply unreliable, Ehret drilled a 700-foot artesian well to draw water for his brewery. The resulting “Franziskaner” beer proved to be an instant hit among New Yorkers. By 1867, the brewery was firmly established and had a wide distribution among New York’s numerous bars and taverns. Despite a near crippling setback when his brewery burned to the ground in 1870, Ehret managed to quickly rebuild and nearly doubled his sales every year until the end of the century. Ehret never believed in bottling, so his market was only ever local. However, it is estimated that, by 1900, Ehret was ranked fourth in the nation in terms of overall production—even though his sales were limited to New York City.
At roughly the same time of Ehret’s ascendancy, another young Bavarian, the ten-year-old Jacob Ruppert, was working for his father’s Turtle Bay Brewery and hatching plans for his own operation. When he turned twenty, he asked his father for permission to strike out on his own and, ironically, picked the same desolate spot for his fledgling operation as Ehret did: New York’s then-forested Upper East Side, known as Hell Gate.
Starting his operation out of a modest fifty-foot-square brick building, Ruppert sold 5,000 barrels of beer in his first year. A combination of quality beer and relentless salesmanship saw sales of Ruppert’s Extra Pale Ale and Knickerbocker Beer rise to 500,000 barrels a year by the mid 1890s, when his son, Young Jake, became general manager of the brewery. A deft politician and salesman, Young Jake was given the honorary title of Colonel by then-Governor Hill. The “Colonel” soon gained a reputation among New York’s elite crowd, and his success in New York society mirrored the rapid rise in his beer sales. The Colonel went on to buy the New York Yankees in 1914, built Yankee Stadium (known then, sarcastically, as the “House That Beer Built”), and personally selected the famous Yankee pinstripes for their uniforms. The team (including the later acquisition of one Babe Ruth from Boston) proved to be a sage investment, as Yankee Stadium sold more Ruppert beer than any other location in the country.
In 1935, a triumph greater than the purchase of Babe Ruth sealed Ruppert’s destiny as the greatest New York brewer. That was the year George Ehret’s heirs sold his brewery to Ruppert.
Across the Country . . .
While Milwaukee dominated the “Golden Age” of brewing, and New York (being New York) was always close to the media spotlight, other parts of the country were also part of the beer revolution. Pennsylvania has been synonymous with beer since its founder, William Penn, built the Pioneer Brew House as his home in Bucks County in 1683. The state also currently holds the distinction of having America’s oldest brewery, Yuengling, based in Pottsville and nestled among the Appalachian foothills in Schuylkill County. Philadelphia’s Ortlieb is equally distinguished in beer history: the brewery actually stands on the site of where the first lager beer was brewed in America by Bavarian brewmaster John Wagner on Saint John Street, near Poplar, in 1840.
In St. Louis, Adolphus Busch was busying himself with the creation of an international empire built on hops and malt. In Texas, Busch’s Lone Star Brewery was fighting for the spotlight with neighboring Pearl Brewing in San Antonio. In Colorado, Adolph Coors was trying to develop the “taste of the Rockies,” and further west, Maier and Olympia breweries were wetting the palates of Californians and Washingtonians. German lager beer spread like the flu across America, creating an industry that, with Prohibition, arguably had the biggest impact on domestic American society in the twentieth century. Here is the story of how American beer grew up.
The story of the birth of the great American beers is truly the story of the first microbrewery revolution. The Bavarian master brewers, armed with brewers yeast and secret family recipes, created small-batch beers for limited populations, distributed through a few outlets. With no refrigeration and no easy access to ice, the brewing season was limited, and beer could only travel a short distance before it turned stale. Before the great American beers of the twentieth century could truly emerge, they had to adapt and survive two of the most radical changes in the industry: the emergence of refrigeration and mass bottling, which changed the business environment from regional to national; and Prohibition, a law intended to destroy their business entirely.
The brewers that would eventually survive and create the great American beer brands that still exist today were perhaps better industrialists, politicians, and marketers than craftsmen. Beer was a business—and a serious one at that. With approximately 3,000 breweries in operation in 1867, brewers and industrialists had already developed a large infrastructure of suppliers, distribution outlets, and equipment manufacturers. When the Siebel Institute of Technology, the first accredited brewing school, opened in 1867 and The American Brewer, the industry’s first trade publication, debuted a year later, the business of beer was truly institutionalized.
With the second generation of Bavarian brewing masters coming into their own, well-financed and backed by a growing industry support system and knowledge base, brewing became a high-stakes game where quantity and distribution reach trumped craft expertise. By 1873, when a record 4,131 breweries were operating, Busch—the one Beer Baron who was trained as a salesman rather than a brewer—seized the future of beer by bottling and shipping it on a scale not seen before. The game changed forever.
It would only take a few years before Louis Pasteur’s Studies on Beer showed the industry how to control living yeast organisms and keep beer relatively fresh over long periods of time. Pasteur basically solved the beer problem by killing the living organisms inside beer with heat—simply bottling the beer and immersing the bottles in water hot enough to kill the yeast organisms. Unfortunately, the heating had the effect of “overcooking” the beer, and did not tend to improve flavor. Despite this, brewers now had the ability to package and ship their products across the country, ensuring that the beer tasted the same from origin to destination. Although draft beer, by its very nature, was fresher tasting, it could not compete on a business level. By 1880 the number of brewers had declined to just over 2,800, as the larger brands expanded across the country with packaged beer, slowly pushing mom and pop regional brewers out of business. By 1910, a thousand more regional breweries had succumbed to the trend, and the estimated number of breweries had shrunk to 1,500.
As the marketplace continued its merciless elimination of smaller operations, another disturbing trend was taking hold: Prohibition. Although national Prohibition did not happen until the 1919 Volstead Act took effect, “temperance” movements had been well underfoot for nearly a century. Nickel pints of lager flowing freely through America’s vast saloon infrastructure came with their own consequences: lots of public drunkenness, crime, and prostitution. As early as 1829, the American Temperance Society’s 100,000-strong member base was pushing for the abolition of what they saw as a morally bankrupt saloon culture. By 1833, with the German beer invasion just starting to take hold, membership in America’s various temperance societies had surpassed one million members. Initiatives on the state and local levels weren’t always successful, but Maine’s enactment of its 1846 prohibition law was a dark cloud on the horizon for brewers everywhere.
Various temperance experiments waxed and waned in the 1850s, seeing Vermont, Rhode Island, Michigan, Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, Indiana, Delaware, and Iowa all enact laws with various prohibition measures (many later repealed), but the beer industry got an early taste of what was to come. Luckily for brewers and beer drinkers alike, the newly created Internal Revenue Service’s enactment of a dollar per barrel beer tax—primarily for funding Civil War operations—gave state and local governments a convenient excuse to look the other way.
Although formal Prohibition was still years away, there was another, more powerful, trend taking hold in the brewing industry that would forever doom the small brewer: syndication. With beer, like any other manufacturing industry, the game is about scale. Larger brewers sought expansion through the acquisition of less cash-rich enterprises. Why spend thousands to build new manufacturing facilities and market new brands, when smaller breweries could be acquired and folded into an already successful business model? Such was the fate of many smaller brewers in the late 1800s.
With muscular brewing syndicates controlling large areas of distribution and enjoying large economies of scale in manufacturing, the price wars started. Fierce competition between these new regional super brewers kept prices low, which created more syndication. By 1916, almost every brewery region in the United States had consolidated; regional super brewers included Pittsburgh (with twenty-one breweries forming the Pittsburgh Brewing company and fifteen folded into the Independent Brewing Company), Boston (a syndicate of ten brewers), Baltimore (sixteen), and San Francisco (six).
Bill Number 6810, introduced by Representative Andrew Volstead, established the apparatus for enforcing Prohibition. Although it was subsequently vetoed by President Wilson, the veto was overturned, and the Volstead Act authorized the enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment. Prohibition officially began less than a year later, in 1920, and was the force that would shape American beer for the next century. One of the first major effects of the law was found in local drinking establishments.
In the early days, it seemed as though any brewer with a half-decent product could sell as many cases of beer as he could manufacture. Most brewers pushed their beer through networks of saloons, a marvelous distribution strategy—but one that proved for many brewers to be a fatal weakness. Prohibition, pushed through largely by the advocacy of the Anti-Saloon League, aggressively targeted taverns and beer gardens, which were known for their licentiousness. According to Peter McWilliams, author of Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Country,
Saloons were seen as hotbeds of corruption, contagion, and vice. These male-only (except for “dance-hall girls”) establishments were, to the pious, positive hell holes. Drinking, gambling, prostitution, tobacco smoking, tobacco chewing (and its natural by-product, spitting), dancing, card playing, and criminal activity of all kinds were all traced to the saloon. Saloons were irresistible temptations to the otherwise righteous and virtuous men of the community. Invited there for a social drink by the “recruiters of Satan,” the young men of the community found themselves hopelessly caught in a spider’s web of immorality, lust, and depravity. Alcohol (a.k.a. the devil) was the spider at its very center. The Anti-Saloon League was formed, “an army of the Lord to wipe away the curse of drink.”
The small “independently-operated” taverns could be closed on the local level and posed less of a legal burden on enforcement than going after the well-funded brewers themselves. While Prohibition managed to slash incidences of liver cirrhosis by 63 percent, it also had slashed the number of breweries by half by the time it ended in 1933. Only the strong, well-funded breweries that had amassed large fortunes survived.
Breweries with an excess of capital and some imagination survived the long drought. Some produced “near-beers,” low-alcohol “cereal” beverages, sodas, chocolate, or malt syrup during the Prohibition years. Near-beer was about as close to real beer as most people could get, and brands like Pablo (Pabst), Vivo (Miller), and Bevo (Anheuser-Busch) received a mildly enthusiastic response in the marketplace. Using their well-established political clout garnered from years of donations, some of the majors (most notably Pabst and Anheuser-Busch) managed to obtain special federal licenses granting them the ability to produce malt syrup—the base material for home brewing—ostensibly for “medicinal purposes.” This highly cynical legislative loophole not only helped fuel alcohol consumption—which was growing, not declining—in the States, but also enabled the major breweries to retain their brewmasters and key brewing personnel, giving them a decided advantage in the post-Prohibition years.
In the meantime, thousands of brewers were closing their doors. In 1930, with winds of change on the horizon, the industry teamed up to create the American Brewers Association to lobby for the brewers that would eventually survive. But with America’s taste for near-beer at an all-time low by 1932 (consumption was down 75 percent in volume over the last decade), it would take the repeal of Prohibition to rescue a dying industry.
The Cullen Act of 1933, which allowed states without specific prohibition laws to sell 3.2 percent beer (the beginning of the end of Prohibition, which was eventually abolished with the Twenty-First Amendment) was also a financial bonanza for the government, which realized a highly regressive tax of five dollars per barrel. Despite this onerous fact, the Act was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm by the vast majority of citizens. The “Noble Experiment” of Prohibition had proven to be a complete failure: not only did it not stop people from drinking (it actually increased it to levels not yet surpassed today), but gave birth to widespread government corruption and organized crime as we know it.
Not only did Prohibition knock out under-funded brewers, it also actually helped the major players gain skills they would have otherwise not naturally accumulated, leading to the hyper-consolidation of the business in post-temperance days. For example, although soda beverages were being bottled for years, the beer industry lagged far behind in terms of their ability to bottle and distribute product. Beer was traditionally kegged and shipped to taverns, a less expensive and thus more profitable enterprise. When Prohibition forced brewers to turn to the production of “malt beverages,” they began to closely emulate the models of soda producers’ bottling and distribution operations. The lessons of this experience weren’t lost after Prohibition ended. The statistics tell the story: while 85 percent of pre-Prohibition beer was kegged, nearly 85 percent of near-beer, beer, and soda sold after Prohibition was bottled.
Prohibition also taught brewers the canned goods industry. Suddenly forced to produce what were essentially foodstuffs (syrups and the like), the industry had to adapt to the methods of producing and packaging food products. Blatz adapted quickly and in 1925 was already earning $1.3 million on canned syrup products. By 1935, the American Can Company would forever change the beer landscape by introducing the beer can.
With bottling came packaging—another new art to be learned by the brewer. With a long history of well-established and loyal distribution channels, brewers never really had any need to differentiate their products. Beer was typically shipped in identical wooden kegs, and taverns pushed the products they were contractually obliged to carry. One of the caveats to the Twenty-First Amendment, however, made it illegal for brewers to own their own saloon networks. This forced the industry to rely upon a network of distributors, who sold directly to retailers. Now, with sales totally outside of their direct control, a brewery needed to shape its identity to earn retailer loyalty. Thus, packaging in the brewing industry was born.
A key advantage for the large breweries was that their large distribution networks depended on motorized trucking—a relatively new form of shipping, even in 1920. Without a proper supplier for the specific vehicles needed, companies like Anheuser-Busch began to actually manufacture their own trucks—enabling them to customize their shipping operations to exactly meet the needs of their vendors. Needless to say, it was only the largest and most well-capitalized companies who had the wherewithal to accomplish the building of their own delivery fleet.
There were only a few “shipping” beer companies prior to Prohibition (Blatz, Pabst, and Anheuser-Busch), and it is no surprise that these were the companies to be reckoned with after the drought ended. When the industry reawakened, breweries opened up to a radically altered landscape—one in which the major brewers had a serious competitive advantage. Although hundreds of local breweries reopened, they did so in an alien landscape where the rules of the game had been altered by a dozen years of both repression and innovation; the majority of small brewers ultimately died. In five short years, the number of active breweries declined by 10 percent.
As the U.S. population surged, beer consumption increased; in 1935 it was at levels approaching that of 1910—roughly 60 million barrels. However, with 30 million more people in the U.S. market, per-capita beer consumption was down significantly. For the major brewers of the day it didn’t matter; they grew the fastest and controlled the lion’s share of the business. In 1938, the leading manufacturers were Anheuser-Busch (2.1 million barrels); Pabst (1.64 million); Schlitz (1.62 million); New York’s Ruppert (1.4) and Ballantine (1.1) breweries; Schaefer (1); Hamm’s (.750); Pennsylvania’s Duquesne Brewing (.625); Falstaff (.622); and Liebman, the maker of Rheingold (.625).
This basic lineup would remain unchanged for a little while—and even prosper through World War II, as the war proved to be a panacea for most manufacturers. The long hangover of the Prohibition and Depression was thrown off and, even in the midst of world war, beer consumption grew at the staggering rate of 50 percent between 1940 and 1945. The war years were truly glory days for big brewing.
After the war, the industry entered a state of consolidation not seen since the late 1880s. Between the end of World War II and 1970, the number of breweries in America shrank from 468 to 154, an amazing tale of consolidation, acquisition, and attrition. In fact, it took only twenty-five years (a short breath in an industry with four centuries under its belt) for the top five brewers to go from having 19 percent market share to owning over 64 percent of the American market (a number that is over 85 percent today). A large amount of that growth and consolidation can be directly attributed to the creation of the beer can by the American Can Company in 1935.
The invention of the beer can was the final blow to small, regional brewers. This marvelous device, coupled with the mass availability of household refrigeration, enabled consumers to enjoy ice-cold and fresh beer straight from their kitchens. This modern convenience caused a sea change in an industry that, until as late as 1935, had relied on draught beer for 70 percent of its sales volume. By the end of the war, canned and bottled beer accounted for more than 64 percent of sales. By 1970, canned and bottled beer was more than 85 percent of total beer sales by volume, according to the U.S. Brewing Association.
Americans loved canned beer, and the industry continually strived to meet their needs. In 1935, Schlitz introduced the famous “cone-top” can—the beer can with the characteristics of a bottle. In 1954, Schlitz introduced the sixteen-ounce can, which continues to be an industry staple at convenience stores this very day. Coors, always an industry innovator, brought the aluminum can to market in 1959 and, in 1962, Pittsburgh Brewing marketed the first “tab top” can, making packaged beers easier to open. Only three years later, the “ring pull” can came on the market, and the novelty never really wore off; by 1969, canned beer was outselling bottled beer for the first time in history.
By 1970, the Great American Beers were firmly established in the national consciousness (and refrigerator). With help from television advertising, an ever-expanding national highway and rail system, and—most importantly—sports advertising, brands like Budweiser, Miller, Coors, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Schaefer, Stroh’s, Blatz, Schlitz, and Rheingold were household names. So, too, were the regional beers that were lucky enough to be enveloped under the major company’s brand portfolios or just good enough to survive on their own: Rolling Rock, Rainier, Leinenkugel, and Ballantine.
The following list represents only a subjective opinion of what comprises the fifty greatest American beer brands of the twentieth century and is, by its very nature, exclusionary. Why fifty, anyway? Well, fifty is a nice, round, American number, and when people ask for a list of something you are usually looking for the “top ten” or “top one hundred.” The size of this particular book and other publishing constraints made this list come out to fifty. There are some very good—indeed, historic and classic—beers not included in this list (my original “short list” topped out at about 120).
I have tried to identify the fifty brands that were either highly recognizable, made an impact on the beer industry, had a strong regional following, or were just plain, tasty American beers (or all of the above). That being said, the criteria for the list are pretty specific: the brand has to be American, in existence prior to 1975, and brewed on a fairly large scale. That means there are no microbrewery beers or specialty “craft” beers included in this list. If you are after that sort of information, then you are looking for a book by Michael Jackson (no, not the Gloved One), the preeminent authority on beer, and the author of the excellent books Ultimate Beer and Great Beer Guide (and many, many more).
The list of fifty is in two sections: “Pioneers of Beer,” focusing on the key mega brands that started mass brewing, and “The Great American Beers,” comprised of classic regional brands that, for the most part, are still around today. In almost every case, each brand has a long and storied history and a deep association with the city or town in which it is (or was) brewed, and weathered both the Great Depression and Prohibition to enter the era of modern brewing.
Also included is a bit of the history, to give a feeling for the rich background and accomplishments of some of these brands. I think some of the stories will be surprising to those of us who may ordinarily be inclined to give these brands no more than a cursory glance in the beer cooler as we pick out our six-packs of Stella Artois and Samuel Adams.
[Read more in the upcoming eBook version of Great American Beer from Random House, available soon]