​The Rich History of Beer and Ale in America

Beer and ale are nearly as American as apple pie in the eyes of millions, and it’s not hard to see why. There are over 4,000 different breweries today in the business of crafting and manufacturing beer. They range from huge household names in the industry to tiny microbreweries familiar only to the locals. As Americans, we certainly drink our share of beer as well—about 28 gallons per person every single year.
Even so, the average American knows very little about the rich history of the beer and ale over time. When and how did beer become the beverage to drink when it’s time to celebrate? Who brewed the very first beer and how has it evolved over the centuries? Here we’ll take a closer look at the answers to these questions and many more.

The Origins of Beer

Beer isn’t just a classic American beverage. It’s been around in some way, shape, or form since the beginning of recorded history. In that way, it’s been a part of our story as human beings for as long as anyone can remember. Beer has also enjoyed a starring role in cultures across the globe.
The earliest records of people brewing beer date all back to ancient Babylon, Mesopotamia, and Egypt—civilizations that are thousands and thousands of years old. However, anthropological research suggests that humans began making grain alcohol close to the time they also gave up their nomadic lifestyle in favor of more permanent settlements.


As early humans learned more about agriculture, they supplemented the spoils of their hunting and gathering with cultivated cereals like wheat and barley. Eventually, they also learned to refine those grains into nourishing staples like bread and beer.
Safe, clean water as we know it today simply didn’t exist back then, so disease-causing organisms were a big problem. Beer or ale were safe to drink since alcohol helped to kill harmful germs and parasites. Beer also provided earlier people with lots of essential nourishment. For these reasons, beer was a staple on every table, and everyone drank it, from the very young to the very old.
Although no one really knows how beer was invented, anthropologists think it was probably an accidental discovery. Humans gathered and consumed grain long before they ever settled down, created societies, and discovered agriculture. It’s likely that the fermented grain introduced people to the delights of intoxication. Some experts even surmise that beer, and not bread, inspired early nomads to settle down and create humanity’s first complex societies.


Beginnings-of-beer-in-americaThe Beginnings of Beer in America

Native Americans brewed beer long before the arrival of the Europeans, but they didn’t use barley the way many other civilizations did. Their beers were usually based on corn. In fact, one early beer recipe called for maize, water, and birch sap.
The brewing of beer by non-native people in America dates back to 1587. Once Dutch immigrants arrived, they realized that the land and climate was just right for growing malt and hops. It was also perfect for the brewing process itself. However, Americans had to wait until 1632 to see the first American commercial brewery open its doors, the Dutch West India Company in Lower Manhattan.
By 1660, breweries were popping up everywhere. Maps of the New Amsterdam area alone showed a grand total of 26 taverns and breweries—proof positive that the American people quickly learned to love producing and selling beer almost as much as they loved drinking it.


The Vassar Family Takes Brewing to New Levels

The popularity of beer inspired many Americans to turn brewing into a career. However, James Vassar was the earliest brewer to achieve real, influential success in the industry. In 1797, he founded a Poughkeepsie brewery that eventually became very successful. After a few years of undoubted success, he ceded control of it to his sons, John and Matthew Vassar.
John Vassar met his death in an accident that also destroyed the Vassar family’s brewing plant. However, Matthew decided to soldier on, successfully rebuilding the brewery in 1811.


By the 1840s, his brewery churned out close to 15,000 barrels of beer and ale every year. By 1860, it boasted 50 hard-working employees and an annual output of 30,000 barrels, making it one of the largest and most noteworthy breweries in the United States at the time.
Today, you don’t necessarily hear the name “Vassar” and associated it with a booming beer business. However, you do associate it with the famous school of the same name. The two are definitely connected, as Matthew Vassar endowed the college in 1860 with some of the proceeds from his business.


Brewing Continues to Grow as an Industry

Large-containers-of-beerThe market for beer didn’t change very much between the early days of brewing and the Civil War, meaning brewing remained a local affair for the most part. At that time, beer wasn’t a product that traveled very well. Also, the bottling process was costly, which is exactly why beer was stored and served from wooden casks. Many famous Americans brewed their own as well, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
Several small-scale breweries of note emerged during the 1840s and 1850s, with varying degrees of success. However, beer didn’t become a universally popular beverage until after the Civil War. The reasons for that eventual shift include the following:
  • A fresh influx of new immigrants moved to America around that time, and many hailed from nations with a hearty beer culture, like Germany, Britain, and Ireland They greatly influenced America’s fledgling beer culture in the years to come.
  • Industrialization was also beginning to shape the American workplace. Miners, manufacturers, and factory workers drank beer frequently throughout the day.
  • In the years following the Civil War, workers’ wages were on the rise, so they had more money to spend on leisure activities.
Advances in both science and technology made it possible for brewers to produce larger quantities of beer and explore different styles. Louis Pasteur also introduced the world to pasteurization at this time, transforming many industries forever, including brewing companies. The average shelf life of a beer increased, making transportation and long-term storage feasible options.


American Beer and Prohibition

The increasingly insistent voices of prohibitionists inadvertently increased the demand for beer after the Civil War. By the late 1800s, they became one of the most powerful political groups in the country.
Beer-bottles-in-crateOn January 29, 1919, their efforts resulted in the ratification of the 18th Amendment. Along with the Volstead Act, that amendment finally made it illegal to produce or sell any beverage containing more than half of a percent of alcohol. Naturally, that was a dark development for both the spirit industry and the beer industry.
Breweries faced some tough decisions concerning their equipment, facilities, and products. They wondered if Prohibition meant the end to all alcoholic beverages in America or was it merely a temporary setback? The more pessimistic brewers immediately closed up shop and took a huge financial loss. Others decided to wait things out and produce alternative products.
Among the brewers that stayed in the game were big names like Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, Blatz, and Schlitz. They produced “near beer,” a malt beverage with a flavor and mouth feel similar to beer, but containing less than half a percent of alcohol, as dictated by the laws of the day. Naturally, the public didn’t exactly go nuts over the beverage, but it did allow iconic companies to stay open and make some profit.


Some brewers, like Anheuser-Busch, also obtained a special federal licenses to brew standard beer for “medicinal purposes.” Naturally, this gave them quite the competitive advantage! Some shippers and brewers also started making malt syrup, a product that, on paper, was merely a baking ingredient for cookies. In reality, it was often used to brew beer at home.
Determined brewers justified continued investment in emerging bottling techniques and equipment by expanding their product line even further. In addition to near beer, they produced additional products like root beer, ginger ale, and other soft drinks.


After Prohibition: The Beer Industry Returns


In April of 1933, Congress revised the Volstead Act in a way that gave brewers a little more freedom. They were now able to produce 3.2 percent beer—a good sign that things were moving in the right direction for the industry. Only eight months later, Congress officially repealed Prohibition altogether.
Nevertheless, the beer industry didn’t bounce back immediately. Prior to the Prohibition era, many breweries of all sizes also owned saloons and taverns that were quite lucrative. In order to prevent the excesses that led to Prohibition in the first place, the government now forbade this ownership of both businesses. This meant that brewers had to sell their beer to wholesalers instead. The wholesalers, in turn, distributed the products to retailers.
While this caused the end of many small breweries, the larger companies used the turn of events to their advantage and grew larger. There’s a reason why names like Anheuser-Busch and Pabst are still household names today! Not only did they become more profitable after the repeal, but they doubled their yearly production between 1935 and 1945.


The Modern Beer Industry

Breweries continued to navigate ups and downs in the American market through numerous challenges, including two world wars. After World War II, the total number of operational breweries fell significantly, making larger breweries even more profitable
By 1980, major firms like Blatz, Schlitz, and Pabst controlled 75% of the total beer market. Distribution methods had changed by then, with the majority of beer sold packaged in cans or bottles, as opposed to on tap in bars or saloons. The advent of home refrigeration raised the demand for bottled or canned beer even further, as you can imagine.


Entrepreneurs and enthusiasts started entering the industry as early as the 1970s, giving birth to the microbrewery movement. Instead of focusing primarily on price and advertising, microbreweries competed with bigger names by developing unique products with signature characteristics that distinguished their beers apart from the larger companies. Consumers enthusiastically embraced these new beers as part of their repertoire, eventually allowing microbreweries to account for about 5-7% of the total market. The rest, as they say, is history!