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Monday, December 7, 2015

Renaissance of Craft Beer

Today’s beer list includes numerous types and styles such as saison, lambic, coffee, porter, dampf, kriek, stout, Irish, English, Scottish, or bitter; the list seems endless.  As a person who may have tried a beer or two before, I am excited about the infinite variations, styles, and flavors of beer produced today.  But choice wasn’t always an option for beer drinkers.  From 1920-1933, the United States banned the production, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages under the Eighteenth Amendment, known as Prohibition.  After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, beer production renewed, and you basically had one choice in beer, the American Lager.  This style of beer is light in color and taste, made primarily from barley, rice, hops, water and yeast.

But in the last few decades, there have been drastic changes in state and federal law, allowing for the brewing of up to 200 gallons of beer in the home, expanding our choices in beer.  Today the varieties of beer and their ingredients is almost limitless; if you want a beer made with sriracha sauce, you can have it.  These modern alternatives to the American Lager are not new, but are a reemergence of styles of beer produced by American breweries before Prohibition as depicted in the advertisement below from the “Beer” series of the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana.

Trade card, advertisement for Feigenspan's Breweries, Newark, N.J., ca. 1875-1900.
Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
Before Prohibition, due to limitations on refrigeration and transportation, most beer was produced by small local breweries and consumed immediately.  These small breweries numbered over a thousand throughout the United States, producing a variety of beer.  During the thirteen years of Prohibition, most of these local breweries went out of business and were either sold or merged with existing breweries and businesses.  The breweries that survived this period, endured by changing how or what they produced.  Some were re-purposed as storage warehouses, while others produced soda, ice cream, and other goods and services. 

Many breweries that remained in business during Prohibition marketed and sold their malt extract labeled as a healing tonic or sugar substitute, while the product’s intended purpose was to enable the customers to brew beer in the home.  Although it was illegal for breweries to make and sell beer, it was not illegal to sell the ingredients to consumers so they could illegally make beer at home.  Some even sold the extract in protest to Prohibition, as seen in this American Supply Company advertisement. Many legal cases were brought before the courts to prevent breweries from producing and selling malt, but most cases proved unsuccessful.

Advertisement for malt extract by American Products Co., Cincinnati, Ohio.
Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
In 1933 Congress repealed the Eighteenth Amendment and the surviving breweries immediately began production. Brewers realized that the newly legalization of alcohol was a sensitive subject for many Americans. In order to sway negative opinion surrounding alcohol production and its consumption, breweries began advertising to an underrepresented segment of the American population…women. The older styles and darker beers produced before Prohibition were not seen as palatable for female consumers.

World War II also played a role in the development of the American Lager. Due to increased demands on traditional and expensive grains needed the war effort, American breweries began supplementing Lager beer recipes with rice. These beers, augmented with rice, produced a lighter and softer tasting beer, were more marketable to women, cheaper to produce, and less taxing on grain needed for the war effort. This style of lager became the dominant recipe for most American beers for nearly fifty years. Even though American breweries created this American beer, Americans sacrificed many other beer choices in the process, like dopplebock, weizen, and biere de garde. 
Warshaw Collection of Business Americana,
Archives Center, NMAH

The American Lager remained king of American beers for nearly half a century until the passing of H.R. 1337 in 1979, which legalized the manufacture of beer in the home. Home brewers desiring something different sought out old styles and recipes of American and European of beer to brew. Soon after brewing these forgotten styles, they realized that not only could they brew something new, but that there was an American demand for these beer styles. In the process a new market was born, the micro/craft beer.

The micro and craft beer industry has thrived since. Between 1933 and 1979, there were less than 50 to 100 breweries in the United States. Today there are over 3,500 micro and craft breweries in the United States, and this number is growing. So if you are looking for an old ale, extra stout or even a pumpkin spiced beer, you need look no further than your local micro and craft brewery.

Joe Hursey, Reference Archivist, NMAH Archives Center
National Museum of American History

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