One hundred fifty years of American beer, from the German immigrants of the 1840s, to the microbrewers of the 1980s.
Did you know?
- American brewing peaked in 1873, when there were 4131 breweries. By 1978, the industry’s low point, forty-one brewers operated eighty-nine plants. Today breweries number nearly 1500.
- In the early nineteenth century, Americans didn’t drink beer – they drank whiskey instead, more than seven gallons per adult a year. There were 14,000 commercial distilleries in the United States but only about two hundred small breweries.
- Millions of Americans still remember the Hamm beer jingle: “From the land of sky-blue waters.” The song’s catchy tom-tom rhythm was pounded out on a cardboard box that once held Star-Kist tuna.
- In recent years, beer drinkers have worn t-shirts decorated with a quote attributed to Ben Franklin: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Just one problem: Franklin didn’t say that. It’s a mangled version of another Franklin quote about the pleasures of wine. In a 1779 letter, he wrote that the rain that fell on vineyards and transformed vines into grapes for wine provided “a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”
The critics say:
William Grimes/New York Times:
“The rise of lager beer, and the great names associated with it – names like Busch, Pabst, Blatz, Schlitz and Miller – is the subject of Maureen Ogle’s effervescent, occasionally frothy “Ambitious Brew,” a fairly standard history with a provocative thesis attached. Ms. Ogle . . . takes the air out of a few myths . . . .”
Peter Rowe/San Diego Union-Tribune:
“It’s a treat to drink from Maureen Ogle’s superb schooner ‘Ambitious Brew’ . . . [W]hat she packs into this brisk, entertaining and insightful account is worthy of a toast and a round on the house.”
Bob Oswald/Chicago Sun-Times:
“Ogle beautifully weaves together [brewers’] tales, moving from one mini-bio to the next as the industry and the country grow. . . . [and her] storytelling ability keeps Ambitious Brew flowing.”
When a wave of German immigrants arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century, they re-created the pleasures of the biergartens they had left behind, and invented a new American-style lager beer. Fifty years later, beer was the nation’s most popular beverage — and brewing was the nation’s fifth-largest industry.
Anti-German sentiments aroused by World War I fed the flames of a well-established temperance movement (one activist even declared that “the worst of all our German enemies are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller”). Prohibition was the result.
Beer came back in 1933, but Americans’ taste for Budweiser and Schlitz did not. Per capita beer consumption remained stagnant for the next few decades, and only reached its pre-Prohibition high again in the 1970s. By the mid-seventies, only forty-four brewers remained.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a handful of homebrewers built small breweries and began making lagers and ales of a sort not seen in the United States since the mid-nineteenth century. Their passion and innovation fueled a new era in American beer history.
Today there are well over a thousand breweries and brewpubs in the United States and there has never been a better time to explore the pleasures of fine beer.